At our house, cake season stretches from February through April, from Rosie’s birthday through Sadie’s (with Joey’s in between). It parallels dirty-piles-of-icy snow season, which is fortunate, because the cake helps.
I’m not particularly good at making birthday cakes, but I love to do it anyway. I like frostings with not much sugar, so often one cake slides and swerves off the other, and no matter whether I do a crumb coat or not, there are always crumbs. I also am no good with the piping bag, even through I’ve been shown how to do roses over and over. But I think a lot of making birthday cakes is just having the moxie to make the thing, actually pile one on top of the other, stick some candles in it and maybe even sing at the same time as you carry it across the kitchen. Any one can do it.
This year for Rosie, there was a nice plain-Jane vanilla cake with sprinkles, which she said was her favorite cake she’s ever had. Sadie’s 12th is coming up later this week, and she hasn’t decided on her cake flavor yet, although she’s going through a brown butter thing so I’m sure that will be involved. But for Joey’s birthday I made a little cake, and it was so great to have just enough cake for the four of us. We were on our way out of the house to go to Montreal, and I wanted to surprise him with a cake at a rest stop along the way (which I did, as you can see above. You can’t see the snow that was falling out of the sky, but it was). I didn’t want to have lots of cake left over, because I knew it would just end up sitting in the car and getting thrown away. So I did a little hack on a recipe which I think could really be done on any recipe for layer cake when you only want to feed four people.
Of course I have no pictures because I was making a big mess and trying to make a secret cake and pack the whole family and a puppy into the van, but I’ll describe it anyway.
I started with a spice cake recipe I’ve used before–the Buttermilk Spice Cake recipe from Moosewood Desserts. I mess with it–up the spice and lower the sugar–but it makes a really nice spicy cake. I halved that recipe, and I baked it in a 9×6-inch pyrex pan. I cooled it, turned it out on the counter, and I used a 4.5-inch tart ring to cut two circles side by side in the cake. If you don’t have a tart ring, you could use a straight sided glass container or bowl, but something close to 4.5 inches is the measurement you’re looking for, because you can get 2 of those circles out of the rectangle. Once you have your two circles, cut each through the equator with a knife, so you have 4 separate circles of cake. There will be edges that you’ve cut away, and you can eat those to make sure you cake is delicious.
I had a few pears on the counter that were one step away from the compost, so I chopped them up and cooked them into a jam with some sugar and a vanilla bean. Then I added a splash of bourbon, a squeeze of lemon, and let it cool.
My frosting was 1 stick of softened butter whipped up with 1 package of cream cheese, all with just enough powdered sugar to stiffen it up, and a hefty splash of maple syrup at the end. (Taste as you go, taste as you go! Too many frostings are made without tasting and that’s why people scrape them off and leave them on the side of their plate.)
To assemble the little cake, I started with one round, then piled pears on top. Then there was the second round, and frosting over that. One more round, and then another layer of pears. And then there was the final cake layer, and I covered the whole thing with a thin layer of frosting (a very messy and crumby experience, because you’re frosting exposed cake because you cut your rounds. Be patient.) Then the cake went in the fridge while I did the pile of dishes that seemed incommensurate with the size of my cake. Then there was a final layer of frosting, and a layer of sliced almonds because this cake was not winning any beauty contests.
The end result was a nice hefty slice for each of us, plus a little wedge that I was able to force onto our airbnb host when we got to Montreal. Just enough cake, without being mini or cute or anything undignified.
And while we’re taking cake, this weekend I made Ottolenghi’s Clementine Almond Cake from Jerusalem (with the chocolate icing, of course), and Joey said it was his favorite cake ever. It’s dense and pudding-y and orange through and through, and nice to make. I found it needed an additional 25 minutes in the oven, but that seems to be standard with Ottolenghi’s books because he must be testing in some very powerful crazy British restaurant oven. Good cake though. Good cake.
Hope it’s cake season where you are too.
To combat the sliding layers problem, I always slide about 6 toothpicks through the layers before coating the outside with frosting. Everyone is on the lookout for them when eating their slice because if you are the lucky recipient of a toothpick you get years of good luck equal to the birthday boy/girls age.
Love the idea of mini-cakes too!
I’m taking it, Betsy! Any thing that both holds cake layers together AND gives good luck sounds good to me.
Margit Van Schaick says
Love your creativity in using the pears to make a spreadable yummy layer in your multi-stacked cake. In Hungary, we often have ten or more layers, spread with jam and frostings of various flavors. It kind of guarantees a moist cake. Never lasts long enough to dry out, ever.
Susie Collins says
The Buttermilk Spice Cake sounds so good, but unfortunately I can’t find the recipe. I searched the Moosewood Dessert recipe book and their blog. Is there anyway you could email me the recipe? (If you have time ~ thank you!)
Sure, sure- I’ll leave it here in case others might want it! This is on page 88 of Moosewood Restaurants Book of Desserts, which is a really wonderful book. Here’s roughly the cake I made, which is half the original recipe with a few tweaks:
1 1/2 cups cake flour
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon cloves
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 T butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
1 egg, lightly beaten
3/4 cup plus 1 T buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla
Whisk together the dry ingredients. Then cream the butter and sugar, and beat in the egg, buttermilk, and vanilla until fairly smooth. Stir the dry into the wet and beat well. Pour into a greased 9×6-inch pan, and bake in a 350° oven until a toothpick comes out clean, 30 to 40 minutes.
Hi Alana, your blog inspires me to make birthday cakes. Thanks a lot for posting 🙂
And that’s just about the best thing I could imagine. 🙂
I love the Moosewood dessert book! Nearly all the recipes have an interesting twist or combination of ingredients…
It’s true- I turn to it a lot! It’s still one of the best general dessert books I’ve got on my shelf.
I’ve been keeping up with you both on Insta, but haven’t had a chance to get current here until just this second. I’ve missed the beauty and joy of your words.
“…and a layer of sliced almonds because this cake was not winning any beauty contests.”
Our birthday season is similar to yours, small cakes, brilliant.
(Also, how cool is it to say “my new book/my first book” now?!)
Always so happy to have you here, Julie 🙂
And yes, yes! Now I stumble and pause and I say “I write bookS” Feels very strange. (but also very cool)
Ha! I had to smile reading this post, as I can very much relate to everything you said – I tend to avoid making birthday cakes, for pretty much the same reasons – layers slide, etc. Thanks for encouraging me to try again! 😉
You need a “very love” button because I very love this post.
oh this looks perfect! my daughters birthday is the day after mine and I always end up skipping my cake or freezing most of it because I insist we each have our own cake (not as diva as it sounds because I make both of them anyways;), this might be the perfect solution- a mini cake with no leftovers!