November 12, 2011

Birthday Cake (Yellow Cake with Lemon Curd)

In yet another example of my getting carried away, I recently volunteered to make a sixtieth birthday cake for forty. Ok, I admit, I really just wanted an excuse to break out my twelve inch cake round. Yellow cake with lemon curd was requested. I know, an unchocolate birthday cake. Don't worry, I snuck in some chocolate in the decoration.

I went back and forth but ultimately decided that three layers was the way to go. I had settled on a buttermilk yellow cake recipe, and every other time I've made a buttermilk yellow cake, the cakes barely rose. Of course, this time, they rose like gangbusters. Madison has had the same problem. It's still a mystery.

The recipes below are all for a nine inch, two layer cake. Each twelve incher is one 9 inch layer cake recipe. If you're counting, that means there were 12 eggs in the cake itself, let alone the curd.

I love curd as a filling for cake. Especially on a three layer cake, it seems important to me to fill with something different than what you frost with; otherwise, each piece just has way too much frosting. Lemon curd is especially nice. This one is a very basic recipe from the New York Times Dessert Cookbook. I made it about two thirds of the way through following the recipe exactly, before I started to panic that the curd wouldn't set thick enough to hold up the weight of so much cake. I decided to fall back on some trusty cornstarch. I dissolved about two teaspoons in water and threw it in. I don't think this was at all necessary, but it gave me piece of mind. My curd would not collapse under the weight of two towering twelve inch rounds!! Note: It is a good idea to make the curd a day in advance of cake assembly, to make sure it has plenty of time to chill and set up in the fridge.

Assembling this cake is definitely the fun part. With such large layers, stacking is exhilarating. It always involves just a few seconds of this might not happen, this might be a disaster, and then it happens, and it is not a disaster, and I feel extremely accomplished. Decorating, on the other hand, does not leave me feeling extremely accomplished. It leaves me feeling, well, inept. Usually, I cover for this by avoiding anything to do with pastry bags, decorating tips, and sugar flowers, and make my cakes look pretty by sprinkling on gobs of store bought sprinkles. This time I turned to my roommate, who we'll call Burke (A British American revolution sympathizer, in case you were wondering), who happens to have had a former career at an illustrious bakery in Boston. And check out that chocolate writing! Perfect!

My original plan was to frost with a lemon glaze, but when I realized how big the cake would be, I decided to go for something a little more showy. This was my chance to final master the seven-minute icing. Well, I think I made progress. The first time (and before this, the only time) that I tried to make a seven-minute icing, it never properly transformed from whipped egg whites into marshmallowy goodness. It didn't taste particularly good, and it looked even more disgusting. This time, I was determined. I whipped those eggs for way longer than seven minutes, and transform they did! Into gooey, sweet goodness. I made one fatal miscalculation, however. Following the advice of Martha Stewart, I had (while making the lemon curd the day before) put the egg whites into an ice cube tray to freeze separately for future use (not realizing future use would be the next day). The problem is that it turns out that my ice cube trays hold slightly less than a full egg white per container. My seven minute icing didn't have quite enough egg white in it, and it never properly set. Over the course of the evening, more and more of the frosting slid slowly down the sides of the cake. No one seemed to notice. But the next day, when I went to eat my cake leftovers that I had been sent home with, the frosting had fallen off completely.

But before the slow frosting slide, the cake survived the five mile ride in the trunk of my car. I don't think I've ever been honked at for slow driving so many times in my life! It survived the trip from the car to the kitchen counter. It survived being removed from the box my roommate had carefully fit around it. And none of these moments was quite so scary as the one in which I realized that it would be my responsibility to cut the cake. I've made wedding cake before, but at the critical juncture of eating time, have always gratefully passed it off the caterer, always a seasoned cake-cutting expert. So, in case you can't tell from the picture below, this is an area in which I need practice. I cut pieces that looked more like tall cake towers than slices of cake. I guess I need another occasion, so I can make another cake this big, and get another chance to get it right.

- Franklin

Delicious No-Fail Yellow Cake
Total Time (for one batch, triple for cake described above): 1.5 hours
Sweetness Factor: 7; Indulgence Factor: 7; Difficulty Factor: 4; Chance I'll Make it Again: 10.
Recipe over here at Smitten Kitchen.

Seven Minute Icing
Total time: 30 minutes.
Sweetness Factor: 10; Indulgence Factor: 8; Difficulty Factor: 8; Chance I'll Make it Again: 10
Again, recipe at Smitten Kitchen. Thanks Deb!

Lemon Curd
Total time: 5 - 24 hours (1 hour active).
Sweetness Factor: 3; Indulgence Factor: 7; Difficulty Factor: 7; Chance I'll Make it Again: 9
Adapted from the New York Times Dessert Cookbook

8 large eggs yolks
1/2 cup lemon juice
grated zest of two lemons
1/4 cup sugar
1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter

In a double boiler (or if you're me, last week, before your roommates got you an AWESOME for real double boiler, in a ceramic bowl perched on top of a saucepan), combine egg yolks, lemon juice, and zest. Whisk in the sugar. Whisk, over simmering water, until it starts to thicken.

At this point, and you're a "it won't thicken" panicker like me, add some cornstarch dissolved in water. If you have a bit more faith, skip this step. Once it starts to thicken, remove from heat, add the butter, cut into tablespoon or so size tabs, one piece at a time. Once butter has completed melt and is thoroughly whisked in, place the bowl in an ice bath and let cool. Once it is room temperature, cover, and refrigerate until you are ready to use it. At least five hours.