My friend, Ryan, whom I befriended almost 20 years ago when we performed together in Forever Plaid, has just received his graduate degree from Hunter in Teaching English as a Second Language! In honor of his straight-A record and amazing academic dedication, his good friends (and super-talented couple) Valerie Wright and Mark Lotito threw him a party tonight.
I was assigned dessert (actually, I lobbied for it) and when I asked Ryan what he wanted, he excitedly said "Strawberry Shortcake!"
Um... not in the book, I'm afraid. Cream puffs? Yellow cake with chocolate frosting? Chocolate cupcakes with meringue frosting? Fruit pie?
To which he said, "Strawberry Rhubarb pie!"
Um... Rhubarb Pie's in the book, but not with strawberries. How about Buttermilk Shortcakes with Rhubarb and Berries?
"How about just the yellow cake with chocolate frosting...?"
So it sort of felt like I was making the booby prize cake. But I'm just too stubborn about making my way through this book to cook something extra-bookular.
I should add that yellow cake seems like a big waste of time and ingredients to me. Why make a yellow cake when you can make a chocolate one? (That's the party line in my family. All chocolate, all the time.)
But that's what he wants. (Sort of.) And it's in the book, which means I'm going to have to make it eventually, anyway. OK, I give in. Yellow cake and chocolate frosting it is.
Isn't it always that your biggest successes come when you least expect them?
Yellow Butter Cake (p. 428)
I can't remember ever baking a cake from scratch. I've made cakes from mixes, and I've made banana breads and such, but a layer cake from scratch? I don't think so....
The only tricky thing preparing for this was finding cake flour. I found pastry flour readily, which seemed like it might be close. But alas, there's a distinction between the two. (Don't ask me what it is.)
I did find a classic substitution to use to imitate cake flour: to make 1 cup of cake flour, take 1 cup all purpose flour and remove 2 tablespoons, replace them with 2T of cornstarch. But I didn't want to chance it, so I kept looking until I found the real thing (at Gristede's, of all places). Here's a tip: don't look for it in a bag. It usually comes in a box.
Cake flour is quite fine, and Martha asks you to sift it, as well. So you have a very large, powdery quotient in this batter. (FYI, there's mini-lesson in the margins about sifting. She says that recipes are worded very specifically, so if it says 3 cups of sifted flour, that means sift, then measure. And if it says 3 cups of flour, sifted, that means measure, then sift. Who knew?)
I didn't dare bring a sub-par cake to this party, so I followed all the directions very carefully. Everything that was supposed to be room-temperature was actually room temperature. All the flour was measured by spooning it into the measuring cups (not ham-handedly scooping and scraping it level in one fell swoop). Martha says that baking is scientific, and if you follow the rules exactly, it comes out well. I'd have to agree.
I followed every direction, even the really anal one of alternating the gradual additions of the buttermilk and the flour mixture to the mixer.
The cakes cooked in exactly the amount of time Martha thought they would (40 minutes), and they came out of their pans perfectly. I have to admit, they smelled pretty incredible. I sliced off the tops to level them, but I was being very conservative with the slicing, because I didn't want to waste any more cake than I had to! (I tasted the thin layer of cake I cut off... pretty great, but I didn't want to get too cocky. I still had to frost this bad boy....
Easy Chocolate Buttercream (p. 432)
Would you believe, there are four sticks of butter in the frosting for this one cake? Plus more than five cups of confectioner's sugar? So naughty...
Confession: Martha suggests using Dutch-process cocoa powder, and I couldn't find it so I used regular cocoa powder. (Horrors!) I understand that the main difference between the two is that one is acid and the other is alkaline. So substituting usually involves adding or subtracting baking powder to the recipe, to maintain the right balance for rising. But seeing as that isn't an issue here, I just used the equivalent amount, and unless there's a huge flavor differential, I don't think it suffered any.
This buttercream is easy, as its name would indicate. Not only does it come together quickly and well, but also it's easy to work with, at least according to my limited experience.
The first thing that gets frosted is the middle of the layer cake. Then the top loaf gets "installed," and then you apply the "crumb coat," which is a thin layer of frosting to seal in the crumbs and cover the top and the sides. I had to spend some time filling out the middle, because I guess I didn't trim my cakes very evenly.... Once the crumb coat is done, it goes in the refrigerator for 20 minutes, I'm guessing, to set.
But as I was applying the final "coat," I was a little challenged. Every once in a while, the crumb coat would lift off, revealing cake. I wanted to get a nice smooth finish, but it was difficult to manage the edge where the top met the side. For smoothness, the tip with putting the spatula in hot water definitely helped, but I realized that unless you're piping it into shapes or flowers or you're using fondant, you're going to get a somewhat textured finish when you frost a cake, and that's that.
So here's what the finished cake looked like. I was a little disappointed, I guess, because I had just had a glamorous Cupcake Cafe birthday cake, decorated to the gills, and this looked, well, plain. (I realized, too late, that I should have put a big "A+" on the top....)
Getting the cake to Brooklyn on the subway unscathed was a little harrowing, but thankfully, I had bought these cardboard cake rounds, and I put the cake in a box, which FNBF (he's back!) tied up very masterfully and created a special makeshift cake carrier for the occasion with a couple of Macy's bags. And it arrived safely!
Cut to dessert... I can't tell you the feedback I got on this cake. Everyone was oohing and aahing, and some of that is definitely just the requisite oohs and aahs when you contribute something to a pot luck party. But this definitely went beyond requisite. I heard "better than Magnolia," "this is the best cake I've ever had," etc. And frankly, it was pretty good. For yellow cake.
Until we eat again....
Here's the Man of Honor, eating the first slice.
And this is Valerie, the hostess, with her slice. I wanted to show the cake in cross-section. :-)
PS I remade the Braised Broccoli Rabe recipe from my birthday dinner, and I'm so embarrassed to say, on my birthday, what with all the activity, I completely missed the last direction of the recipe: to shpritz with lemon juice. (No, Martha doesn't say "shpritz.") I made some comment in my entry that it could have used some lemon juice, and it turns out, Martha feels the same way! :-) It was even better the second time around.