Icing on the cake
Story BY Kim Domick
Photos by ED KELLER
Most of us associate holidays with their own special desserts. While Thanksgiving brings to mind the sweet earthy flavors of pie, Christmas time invokes sugar plum fairies, iced cut-out sugar cookies, plum puddings, citron and dried fruits, and most especially sparkling sugar-dusted, frosting-filled layer cakes, which celebrate the season in the grandest of style. In a recent Sunday New York Times Magazine section called The Ethicist, a tongue-in-cheek advice columnist, Judge John Hodgman, is asked if it is proper to bring a cake to a pie social. He responds cake is for babies, and pie is for real men, and no one should ever take a silly cake to a pie party. Well, he is right in part. Pie is salt of the earth, and cake is for the young and young at heart. Cake is for birthdays, and celebrations, and parties, and events that charm even the curmudgeonly of souls into reliving the simple joys of childhood and the bright carefree memories of happy sparkling days of wonder.
There were days, (before the availability of pre-package cake mixes and easy access to refined sugar and spices) cakes were reserved for only the most special of occasions, and being gifted a cake was quite an honor.
Cake itself dates back to ancient times, and were sweetened with honey, cooked in a frying type pan over a fire and had a bread/biscuit texture. Food historians cite the early Egyptians as being the first to master baking skills. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the word cake to the 17th Century derivation of the Norse word kaka. These cakes were often filled with dried fruits and nuts and the layers were flat and resembled what we now think of as a Dobos Tort or an Opera Cake.
Round cakes filled with icing were first baked in the mid-17th Century in Europe. Bakers used round “cake hoops” that sat on flat baking sheets. It was not until then that cakes as we know them today were being prepared using refined flours and baking powders. Some of the earliest written recipes can be found in Mrs. Porter’s New Southern Cookery Book from 1871, which contained a recipe for a White Mountain Cake with frosted meringue, and the layer cake recipe in the 1872 Appledore Cookbook, by Maria Parloa.
Home bakers continued to make cakes from scratch until the 1920s, when the first pre-packaged cake mixes were introduced. These mixes were improved upon throughout the decades, and by the 1950s, half the of the cakes baked in the U.S. each year were from mixes. It was not until the Julia Child era of the 1960’s home cooks again embraced scratch baking. (I know many grandmothers, and great-grandmothers who never touched a box mix in the first place.)
Today there are many cookbooks that focus on doctoring up box mixes and the common trick is to add an additional egg, and replace the water with sour cream or buttermilk. As great as a scratch baked cake is, box mixes can make a wonderful cake, and as long as you opt for chocolate, yellow and vanilla flavors and avoid the artificial flavored ones like lemon. Bakers can ice them with real homemade frosting and ganache, and call it your own. Once a person whips up buttercream, you will never look at a supermarket cake with sugared shortening frosting the same way. It’s a snap and will make you never touch canned frosting again.
There is just something special about a perfectly sliced and plated wedge of cake that allows its crumb layer and buttercream filling textures to dazzle young and old alike. A slice of perfect cake can stand on its own, and needs no ala mode, or crème anglaise to garnish it for the eater. It speaks for itself. It’s a piece of cake, it takes the cake, it’s the icing on the cake, it’s a cake walk, and you can have it and eat it, too. Pinterest is filled with other cake idioms and sayings such as, “If eating cake is wrong, I don’t want to be right,” “No day is so bad that it can’t be fixed with cake,” “I always carry a knife in my purse just in case there is cake,” “It’s cake o’clock,” and “It’s been an emotional day, even the cake is in tiers.” But, Dean Koontz spoke a mouthful when he said, “Where there is cake there is hope…and, there is always cake.” Of course, our dear Julia Child said, “A party without cake is really just a meeting” (or perhaps just a “social” with pie) and “Romance is the icing, but love is the cake.” I couldn’t agree more. When the holidays are upon us, there is nothing that brings together the love of family than sharing meals together especially those that end with the love of cake. Because life is so short, you should always eat the cake.
Grandma’s Chocolate Cake
2 ½ cups flour
½ tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. salt. (sift dry ingredients together)
1 ¼ cup buttermilk
1 tsp. vanilla
1 tbsp. unsalted butter-softened
1 ½ cup sugar
2 large eggs
4oz. melted unsweetened chocolate.
1 jar of seedless raspberry jam, chocolate buttercream frosting and or chocolate ganache-recipes at right.
Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees, and butter and flour three 9-inch round cake pans.
In a large bowl, or standing mixer, cream the butter until it is light and fluffy. Gradually add the sugar and beat until well blended. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the dry ingredients alternating with the buttermilk until the mixture is well combined. Beat in the melted chocolate and vanilla. Spoon the batter into the three cake pans, and smooth the tops with an off-set spatula. Bake for 30-35 minutes or until a toothpick come out clean.
Cool in pans on a wire rack for 10 minutes before removing cakes. Cool completely before icing with chocolate buttercream frosting between the layers, and sides, or alternatively spread buttercream between the layers and top with chocolate ganache. (I like to spread a thin layer of seedless raspberry jam on each cake layer before icing with chocolate buttercream)
You can top the cake with sugar dusted fresh cranberries for a festive touch.
Chocolate Buttercream Frosting
6 tbsp. softened unsalted butter
2 2/3 cups powdered sugar
½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/3 cup milk
½ tsp. vanilla.
Beat softened butter in a medium sized bowl with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Gradually add the powdered sugar and cocoa until well combined. Slowly add the milk until you get your desired consistency. Add the vanilla and beat on medium speed until the frosting is fluffy and spreadable.
Easy Luscious Chocolate Ganache
1 cup best quality dark chocolate chips
2/3 cup heavy cream
2 pinches salt.
Melt the chocolate chips in a glass bowl in the microwave (start with 10 second intervals and stir between bursts as the chocolate begins to melt. Once the chips begin to melt, stir well, and do not overcook, as the chips will burn and the chocolate will seize and become unusable), or, melt the chips in a glass or metal bowl set over a pot of boiling water, or in a standard double boiler. Once the chips are smooth, and completely melted, stir in the cream and salt. Stir well until all the cream is combined. This mixture will be slightly soft and easily spreadable. Spread over cake or cake layers with an off-set spatula. Mixture will set once it cools, but will still be slightly soft and will harden when refrigerated.
Wonderful White Layer Cake
1 cup unsalted butter-at room temperature
1 ½ cup sugar
3 ½ cups cake flour
1 tsp. salt
4 tsp. baking powder
2 tsp. vanilla
6 large egg whites-at room temperature
1 ½ cup whole milk-at room temperature
2 cups of toasted coconut flakes
cream cheese frosting-recipe below
Grease and flour three 9-inch round cake pans, and pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.
Sift dry ingredients together and set aside. Whisk the egg whites and milk together and set aside.
In a large mixing bowl or standing mixer, cream the butter and sugar together until mixture is light and fluffy. Add half of the dry ingredients and beat until just combined. Add half of egg-milk mixture, and mix until just combined. Repeat with remaining dry and wet, and beat in vanilla. Do not over mix. Pour into prepared pans and smooth with spatula. Bake for 30-35 minutes or until a toothpick come out clean. Cool 10 minutes on a wire rack before un-molding. Cool completely before icing with cream cheese frosting. Press toasted coconut on sides and sprinkle on top.
Cream Cheese Frosting
8 oz. package of softened cream cheese
2-4 oz. sticks of softened unsalted butter
4 cups of powdered sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
A pinch of salt.
In a large bowl, beat together the butter with an electric mixer until it is light and creamy. Add the cream cheese and beat until the mixture is well incorporated.
Add the powdered sugar a little at a time while beating at low speed, until mixture is smooth and creamy. Beat in the vanilla. If making ahead of time, chill the icing until ready to use, then whip again to make it easier to spread.
Note: This recipe will ice a standard two-layer cake with frosting in the middle and on all sides and top. If you like a thicker layer of frosting in the middle, or are icing a three-layer cake, you may want to make 1 ½ times this recipe.
Luscious Lemon Cake with Apricot Filling and Cream Cheese Frosting
1 ½ sticks of unsalted butter-at room temperature
1 ½ cups sugar
4 large eggs-at room temperature
2 ½ cups cake flour
½ tsp. salt
2 ½ tsp. baking powder
zest of two lemons
juice of one lemon
1 1/3 cup milk
2 tbsp. vegetable oil.
Jar of apricot jam
2 cups of sliced almonds and cream cheese frosting-recipe at left.
Sift dry ingredients together gradually add the sugar, and mix until it light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time and beat after each addition. Add the flour mixture half at a time, alternating with the milk mixture. Beat until just mixed. Beat in the lemon juice, and pour the batter into the prepared pans. Smooth with a spatula. Bake for 30-35 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool in the pans for 10 minutes before inverting. Cool completely before spreading a layer of apricot jam between the layers and spreading a thin layer of cream cheese frosting on top. Then completely ice with cream cheese frosting. Press sliced almonds on sides of cake.