What’s a birthday celebration without a really great cake? When you are basking in the attention of family and friends on your special day it seems appropriate to indulge in a little sweet treat of sorts, doesn’t it? I have fond memories of childhood birthday parties; my friends would arrive, we would play a few games (remember “pin the tail on the donkey?”), I would open the gifts, and then the cake would be served. It was always topped with candles and served with ice cream. My Mother was a fabulous baker but that was the era of the cake mix cake, and Mom succumbed to all those interesting flavors. Along with chocolate and vanilla, cakes could be fruit or spice flavored or full of colorful sprinkles.
As I grew older I developed a liking for birthday cake from a local bakery. If you grew up in Winnipeg you either loved or hated Jeannes’s Bakery* birthday cakes. The distinctive feature of the Jeanne’s cake is the shortbread crust beneath the cake. I was never fond of that part, but I loved the cake. So of course I was looking forward to my special cake arriving on my birthday back in March of 1966. It had been a record-breaking cold winter and come March everyone was hoping for some relief from the sustained subzero weather. The evening before my birthday, wet, heavy snow began to fall. By morning on the 4th of March it was evident that a major blizzard had arrived. In the midst of seventy-five mile per hour winds, thirteen inches of snow fell. People who made it to work that morning were stranded, the transit buses shut down mid-morning, and emergency personnel went out on snowmobiles to bring essential services employees in to their workplaces. Although I was thrilled that there would be no school that day, I soon realized that there would also be no Jeanne’s cake. I tried not to seem too ungrateful when Mom got out the cake mix.
As the years went by, my birthday cake choices evolved again and my favorite cake was a creation my mother called Rum Cake. I realize now the Rum Cake was actually a version of a Southern Lane Cake, a basic yellow cake layered with a filling of dried fruit, coconut, pecans and rum. It is usually covered with fluffy boiled frosting, but Mom thought that was too sweet, so she substituted whipped cream. I loved that cake and I made it on many occasions over the years.
When my children were small, my sister took on the challenge of making their birthday cakes. They were usually theme cakes, big and colorful and made with love. Those cakes are featured in all the birthday party photos, the proud baker waiting for her niece or nephews to dig in and enjoy. For several years after I discovered a book called “The Penny Whistle Party Planner”, there came a succession of “theme” parties. There was the ballerina party and the bicycle parade party, the treasure hunt party and the Olympics party. I could go on and on. Needless to say, I have baked many birthday cakes. It is very rewarding to present a special cake to someone you care for. Whether it’s a decadent and indulgent treat or an old favorite, it just makes the day so much more special.
These days the birthday requests are pretty consistent. My husband and older son prefer anything lemon-flavored. I have even made a lemon tart in lieu of a cake. My younger son favors chocolate cake, particularly the classic French Reine de Saba. It is a simple single layer chocolate torte enriched with ground almonds. The recipe can be found in Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”. And this past week, when I asked my daughter what kind of cake she would like for her birthday the answer was, ” A plain vanilla cake with fancy frosting and lots of color.” I think what I presented fulfilled her request and made everybody smile. Be forewarned: if you plan to do frosting swirls, ruffles, or any other fancy design, make a lot of buttercream. The recipes I used are from my favorite cake baking book by Rose Beranbaum. Here they are:
All-Occasion Downy Yellow Butter Cake (from “The Cake Bible” by Rose Levy Beranbaum)
6 large egg yolks
1 cup of milk
2 1/4 teaspoons vanilla
3 cups sifted cake flour
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons softened butter
Preheat the oven to 350F and grease and flour 2 9 inch cake pans. In a medium bowl lightly combine the yolks, 1/4 cup milk, and the vanilla.
In a large mixing bowl combine the dry ingredients and mix on low speed for 30 seconds to blend. Add the butter and remaining 3/4 cup milk. Mix on low speed until the dry ingredients are moistened. Increase to medium speed (high speed if using a hand mixer) and beat for 1 1/2 minutes to aerate and develop the cake’s structure. Scrape down the sides. Gradually add the egg mixture in 3 batches, beating for 20 seconds after each addition to incorporate the ingredients and strengthen the structure. Scrape down the sides. Pour the batter into the prepared pans and smooth the surface with a spatula. Bake 25 to 35 minutes or until a tester inserted near the center comes out clean. Let the cakes cool in the pans 10 minutes, then turn out onto a rack to cool completely.
2 cups (1 pound) unsalted butter, softened but cool (65F)
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
5 large egg whites
1/2 plus 1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
Have ready a heatproof glass measure near the range. In a small heavy saucepan heat 3/4 cup of sugar and the 1/4 cup water, stirring constantly, until the sugar dissolves and the mixture is bubbling. Stop stirring and reduce the heat to low. (If using an electric range remove from the heat).
In a mixing bowl beat the egg whites until foamy, add the cream of tartar, and beat until soft peaks form when the beater is raised. Gradually beat in the remaining 1/4 cup of sugar until stiff peaks form. Increase the heat and boil the syrup until a thermometer registers 248F to 250F. Immediately transfer the syrup to the glass measure to stop the cooking.
If using a hand-held mixer beat the syrup into the whites in a steady stream. Don’t allow the syrup to fall on the beaters or they will spin it onto the sides of the bowl. If using a stand mixer, pour a small amount of syrup over the whites with the mixer off. Immediately beat at high speed for 5 seconds. Stop the mixer and add a larger amount of syrup. Beat at high speed for 5 seconds. Continue with the remaining syrup. For the last addition, use a rubber scraper to remove the syrup clinging to the glass measure. Lower the speed to medium and continue beating up to 2 minutes or until cool. If not completely cool, continue beating on lowest speed.
Beat in the butter at medium speed 1 tablespoon at a time. At first the mixture will seem thinner but will thicken beautifully by the time all the butter is added. If at any time the mixture looks slightly curdled, increase the speed slightly and beat until smooth before continuing to add more butter. For this recipe to succeed correct butter temperature is essential. If you suspect that the butter was too warm and the buttercream starts thinning out and curdling, refrigerate the mixture until it is 65F to 70F and feels cool to touch. Buttercream can be stored 2 days at room temperature, 10 days refrigerated, 8 months frozen. Allow to come to room temperature before rebeating or it will break down irretrievably.
*Jeanne’s Bakery has been in business upwards of seventy years. They have one bakery and still supply many local supermarkets with their famous cakes. There is a section on their website devoted to nostalgic cake stories.