I have always eaten copious amounts of cake during the month of February. As a child, I may have been on a permanent sugar high for 28-29 days in a row. February kicks off with my mother’s and brother’s birthdays two days apart, which equaled cake for a week, with all of the leftovers. Valentine’s Day usually brought some sort of confection: cupcakes, chocolates, or a combination of both. One week later, my birthday resulted in two cakes, one to be eaten with my family and one for my usually themed party. Classmates’ and friends’ birthdays brought more cake into my belly. I would consume it right until last day of the month, at my friend Catie’s birthday, who was born on leap year.
Some say that cakes are served at special occasions because they represent the pinnacle of culinary talent, and only the best should be served during a celebration. Traditionally, cakes were made from ingredients that were expensive and difficult to obtain, (such as sugar and spices) and could only be afforded once or twice a year. They have long been associated with ceremonial occasions such as weddings and birthdays, and have become an integral component of these rituals. To this day, my mother insists that you eat cake and blow out candles on your birthday.
With my big day quickly approaching, I have received multiple phone calls from my parents asking what kind of cake I want. It got me thinking about the cakes that I have eaten and made over the years, and which I enjoyed the most.
There was the Nickelodeon green slime cake that my friend Alison had at one of her birthdays: whipped cream sandwiched between yellow cake, topped with vanilla pudding dyed green with food coloring. October meant a Dairy Queen ice cream cake at Erin’s party, a favorite of mine, with the chocolate cookie crumbs and gel icing. In high school, Eleni would get a strawberry white chocolate cake from M.V. Gourmet Café & Bakery in Oak Bluffs, topped with glistening strawberries and white chocolate stalagmites, a tradition that still exists today.
Over the years I have eaten my fair share of Black Dog Bakery creations, including their trademark “Triple Chocolate Mousse” majesty of white, milk, and dark chocolate mousse, whipped cream and chocolate ganache. Or the “Black-Out” Cake: dense chocolate cake with fudge and chocolate frosting, topped with chocolate cake cubes and powdered sugar. And, of course, their moist, dense traditional birthday cakes enveloped by rich buttercream.
Many birthday meals have ended with confections from Cakes by Liz. Past favorites include white cake with hazelnut crunch filling and a raspberry frangipane tart. Last year I remember drooling over Leslie Hewson’s pineapple upside down cake at a co-worker’s birthday. I have heard great things about the custom made cakes from Scottish Bakehouse — I’m excited to try their pumpkin cake with caramel cream cheese frosting and their pineapple cake with coconut frosting.
Bake your cake and eat it too
I love the challenge of baking a cake, and I’m not talking about with help from Duncan Hines or Betty Crocker. Here is a peek into the process of mastering the art of cake making (or at least my adventures along the way):
In culinary school, we were asked to make a buche de noel, the classic French rolled cake decorated to resemble a Yule log. I remember it taking forever, baking the chocolate genoise sponge cake, melting the chocolate with hot cream for the ganache, whipping the coffee Swiss buttercream, making and assembling the meringue mushrooms, and decorating the cake. But it was so much fun to make, reminiscent of arts and crafts as a youngster.
This Christmas, I decided to try and conquer a cake that I have wanted to make for 20 years. I flipped to the back of my parents’ dog-eared, stained copy of “Mrs. Field’s Cookie Book.” There it was — the chocolate macadamia cream satin cake — what I’d considered the most magical of desserts as a child. The labor-intensive recipe took all day to make and was a disappointment to me, after spending years of fawning over the glossy photo, but at least my parents liked it.
The thing with making a cake is it’s not just one or two steps. You usually have to bake the cake, let it cool, make the filling and frosting, assemble, then frost and decorate it, and sometimes, refrigerate it for multiple hours.
In one of my articles from last year, Liz Kane of Cakes by Liz gave great advice to home cooks looking to make the perfect cake. She said, “don’t try to make a cake and ice it all in the same day. Putting it in the freezer for a couple of days adds moisture.” Then you frost it.
Unfortunately, I have yet to take Ms. Kane’s advice. I spend the whole day slaving in the kitchen over a recipe I swear said took one hour to make, but doesn’t account for letting the cake cool or refrigerating the filling for two hours.
This happened to me again, two weeks ago. My mother is obsessed with mascarpone cheese, so for her birthday I decided to make her a chocolate mascarpone tart with pistachios in olive oil, a recipe from “The A.O.C. Cookbook.” The four-page recipe should have been an indicator that I needed more than the time that I allocated, but it didn’t look too difficult.
Another tip: read the recipe and ingredients carefully before you make it. I didn’t account for how long it would take to roll out the dough, form it in the tart pan, bake, and cool it. Or the amount of time it took to unwrap and chop bars of chocolate and shell almost a cup of pistachios.
The tart was a bit weepy; it should have had a few more hours to set in the refrigerator, but I was at the birthday candles’ beck and call. It ended up being a new and interesting dessert that my mother said she enjoyed, and that’s what mattered.
So for you amateur cake makers, learn from my mistakes. Make sure to read and re-read the recipe and make the cake the day before. If it is a disaster, at least you’ll have time to run to one of our great Island bakeries for some reinforcements.
Layer cake tips
Cakes tend to dome when you bake them, so after they have cooled, make them level by cutting off the tops with a serrated knife. This will prevent a lopsided cake. When the cakes have been leveled, and the cut side of the bottom cake is topped with filling, invert the cakes on top of each other — so that the cut sides are facing each other — and brush off any loose crumbs. Next is a thin coat of icing called a crumb coat. Use an offset spatula to apply a small amount of icing all over the cake, to lock in the crumbs. Freeze the cake until the icing is set and then frost with remaining icing. This will leave you with a smooth surface.