This past weekend was my wife's birthday. Typically in the past, our birthdays had consisted of getting a babysitter and heading out on our own for an evening, but this year I wanted to do something different and get some local friends together for something of an afternoon birthday party. My problem was, I made the decision very late, and as is common with people and their busy schedules, few people were free. No worries. Instead of having a party Saturday we'd just jump in the car and head to Maine for some lobster. I had a brisket and a pork loin I was going to smoke for the party so I'd just do up the pork on Sunday and put the brisket in the freezer for next weekend (our youngest's first birthday). And of course, she still gets a cake. You gotta' have cake.
PART ONE ... TEH BURFDAY CAKE
Here's the thing. My wife makes the best-tasting cake you have ever eaten. Even if you haven't eaten it yet, it is. She is the Michael Phelps of cake. She routinely puts days of planning and work into them, and they taste like it. So I had to make a good show of it, and make her something that at least attempts to duplicate what she does. I decided to make a buttermilk chocolate cake with chocolate filling and caramel macchiato frosting. My wife loves caramel macchiatos, or caramel and coffee drinks in general. The few times we go to Starbucks she orders one, but mostly she just makes them at home.
I've picked up a few "secrets" watching my wife make cakes, not all of which I am at liberty to disclose. There are two that I know I can disclose without getting into trouble:
First, forget nonstick pans. Use properly (lightly) greased and floured aluminum pans. Second, after you grease the pan, line the bottom with a piece of baking parchment. Lightly grease the parchment, and then flour. This all but guarantees the entire "bottom" of the cake will separate from the pan when turned out. In this case I was using 8" round pans.
I started at about 9:30 pm Friday night, first setting out butter to soften for the frosting. While it was softening I went about baking the cake layers, which went off without a hitch. I planned on three layers, but baked four.
With the first two layers baking away and the second batch of batter waiting to go in the oven, I started the frosting. I used this basic buttercream recipe as a base for both the filling and the icing.
By the time all four layers were out of the oven and cooling, the base frosting was done. I believed I had got it right, but as the weekend would show I ended up just slightly on the soft side - I didn't use enough sugar. The recipe calls for two lbs of powdered sugar in all, mixing one in outright and then adding "1/2 cup at a time" until getting the consistency you want. I weighed one half cup of sugar on our kitchen scale at 2.4 oz, so I figured around seven half-cup additions would be right. After seven additions, I had a wonderfully sweet frosting that seemed to be thick enough. Shortly after midnight I divided up the frosting - one third for the chocolate filling, two thirds for the icing.
At this point I entered the "I have no earthly idea what I'm doing" phase. Even though I had a bottom-up chocolate buttercream recipe. I'd just add what I felt I had to to the basic stuff. My first thought was to melt some Ghirardelli semi-sweet chocolate and stir it in, so I did - about two ounces. Got a light brown color, a faint chocolate taste.
I was wary about adding more molten chocolate to a heat-sensitive, butter- and shortening-based mixture, so I then added a tablespoon of unsweetened cocoa powder. Not chocolaty enough. Another tablespoon. Nope. One more. Okay, it's kinda' close enough in taste - not where I want it to be, but it will have to do. But it's too light. It needs to darken.
Then, I was visited by the Good Idea Fairy. "Hey. Your wife has a big box of coloring gel for frosting. You should add some black, or brown or something to darken it. Then it will look and taste like chocolate!" Yeah. You can imagine how that turned out. First just a little dab of black. Stir it in aaaannnnnnnd oh no no no nononono NO. Gray chocolate. Try to counter with a big dab of brown.
Poop. Really. It looks like whipped poop. Food coloring FAIL. Panic. Melt about two more ounces of chocolate and mix it in with another tablespoon of cocoa powder. Fortunately, the frosting holds up to the new heat source, and looks okay afterward. So I guess, from all the above, I can say 4 oz. melted semi-sweet chocolate and 4 tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder added to about 1 lb of basic buttercream recipe makes a good chocolate frosting. Looking back, I should have just made a whipped ganache.
The caramel macchiato icing had it's own issues. Try as I might, I could not find any recipes for this. Of course I found caramel frosting, and coffee. But I already had my frosting. So I guess I was winging it. It turned out pretty darned good. I ended up using about 1/4 c Hershey's caramel topping, two or three tablespoons of instant coffee, and a dash of vanilla (BTW, we use Sonoma Syrup Co.'s Nr. 4 Vanilla Extract - it rocks! My wife found it at T. J. Maxx.). Microwaved it for about 15 seconds, blended it, and then mixed it in to the remaining 2 lbs of frosting. It tasted fine - coffee flavor was dominant, with a light caramel accent, just how she likes her drinks. I ended up over-working this batch and had to put it in the fridge to re-set before I used it. That was fine. By now I needed time to tidy up the kitchen some and trim, fill and stack the cake layers.
At about 1:30 am I trimmed the domes off the cake layers and started filling and stacking. No big problems here, and after a few minutes I was ready to start frosting.
The first layer went on pretty easily. Having the right tools (a turntable and a frosting knife) makes a big difference, and I didn't really care if any crumbs of cake pulled off and showed. The second coat was more trouble. The frosting had set well in the fridge, but since coming out it was getting soft again, and as I mentioned above it was just a touch too soft to begin with. So it was not laying down as smoothly as I would have liked, there were some crumbs mixed in and showing, but in the end I got a reasonable second coat. By then it was 2:15 am, and I called it a night.
When the kids woke me up (at the crack of 6:30) I used the remaining chocolate frosting to decorate the top and base of the cake with little "flowery-star-design-thingies" and took some of the leftover caramel macchiato frosting and blended in some burgundy gel to write "Happy Birthday Mumma" and draw a little heart on the cake. FTW!
The cake was a little rough, but still looked good. Even the "whipped poop" looked alright contrasted with the icing. And it tasted awesome. My wife said so.
The hard part is definitely in the decorating, especially in managing consistency, taste and figuring out the right confection for the job. For example, the chocolate buttercream turned out really good; in fact, it tasted sorta' like a whipped ganache. While I now have a good chocolate frosting scratch recipe, I would have had a much easier time just making the ganache. I'll also be sure to achieve the right consistency with the frosting. This is something that you can really only get right by doing.
Next time, I think I'll switch confections, too. I'll fill with caramel macchiato (and make it a bit more intense) and frost with chocolate. But not too soon. I'll need the right special occasion and motivation. It's a lot of work - about seven hours altogether went into it - and, really and truly, my wife is the cake expert.
Next: Long-Ass Road to Lobstah!