Friday, July 20, 2007

More Birthday Cake

Although my running buddy John won't be celebrating his birthday for another week, we need to celebrate it after Sunday's long run at the lake because Brendan will be away for John's birthday. Since I'm solidly booked all day Saturday, between a race in NYC and the arrival of a certain highly anticipated series-concluding tome (not to mention the possibility of our second screening of Hairspray), I made John's cake today. We blessedly have gotten lucky with a low-humidity, cool bit of weather, which certainly will help with cake preservation and definitely made it not a chore to turn on the oven this morning.

This cake looks a lot like the one I made for Brendan, but it's not the same. After years of seeing it on the packaging, I finally have made the Deluxe Devil's Food Cake from the Softasilk cake-flour box. It's a pretty straightforward buttermilk chocolate cake made with Dutch-process cocoa powder. The frosting is also a pretty basic powdered-sugar butter cream. I can only hope and assume that it will hold up better than the white chocolate-cream cheese frosting of Brendan's cake.

One nifty touch to this recipe is a bit of almond extract in both the cake and in the frosting. I can't recall having seen that in a devil's food cake before. Because I used colorless vanilla extract, the frosting held onto its pale white shade.

Deluxe Devil's Food Cake

2 cups sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
1 teaspoon clear vanilla extract
3/4 teaspoon almond extract
2 large eggs
2-1/2 cups cake flour
1 cup Dutch-process cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2-1/4 cups buttermilk

1-1/4 cup (2-1/2 sticks) butter, softened
2 teaspoons clear vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract
8-9 tablespoons milk
7-1/2 cups (2 lb.) powdered sugar

Heat oven to 350F. Prepare three round 9-in. cake pans (grease, parchment, grease, flour).

Beat sugar, 1 cup butter, vanilla, and almond extract in a large bowl with electric mixer on medium speed until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs, one at a time. Mix cake flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt; beat into creamed mixture alternately with buttermilk. After all wet and dry ingredients are combined, beat 1 minute longer. Pour into prepared pans.

Bake for 26 to 30 minutes, or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool 10 minutes; remove from pans to wire racks. Cool completely.

For frosting: Beat butter, vanilla, and almond extract in a large bowl of an electric mixer until creamy. Gradually alternately add milk and powdered sugar, scraping bowl as needed. Beat on high speed, adding milk by the tablespoon until frosting has a spreadable consistency. Frost one layer; top with second layer, then frost that layer; finally, top with third layer. Frost top and sides of cake.

This cake is a perfect candidate for a crumb coat. After the three layers have been built into a devil's food tower, coat the sides with a very thin, light layer of frosting to trap crumbs. After the crumb coat is on the cake, frost the sides and top.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Upper East Side Bakery Tour

On Saturday, after a completely insane 10K in Central Park, I met up with a bunch of friends to do a bakery tour of the Upper East Side of Manhattan. We ended up visiting seven bakeries on our itinerary (and we did a lot of walking, which really helps in rationalizing the whole venture).

Here's the rundown of where we visited and what I ate:

1. Two Little Red Hens (1652 Second Ave. between 85th and 86th). Of all the bakeries we visited, I think Two Little Red Hens is my favorite. TLRH has a broad selection of baked goods: muffins, scones, pies, cakes, cupcakes, cookies. From TLRH, I bought a chocolate crinkle cookie for Karen and, for me, a tri-berry scone and a slice of "fruits of the summer" pie (berries, rhubarb, cherries). The scone was a bit cakey texture-wise, which was disappointing, but it was full of blueberries, strawberries, and a raspberry or two. The pie was tasty, definitely a good purchase. I rarely make pie (pie-crust phobia), and it's rare to find a bakery that sells it by the slice. TLRH has many things I'd like to taste, but because it was so warm on Saturday, I didn't want to schlep around something that was going to become goopy before I could eat it. At TLRH, we were treated to warm nuggets of red velvet cake (leftover batter? a kitchen mishap?), but something about the texture made me skeptical of the origin of the cake. It seemed not homemade to me.

2. Rive Gauche (336 E. 86th St.). This French bakery has breads and pastries. Defying any sense of rationality, I bought two biscotti (from a French bakery). The low-fat dried fruit biscotti are divine, soft and thin and chewy, not hard and tooth-achingly crunchy.

3. The Choux Factory (865 1st Ave.). While everyone else bought something here, I took a pass. I love Choux Factory cream puffs, but I didn't want to overload too soon. Since my last visit here, they've changed up the menu. I will be going back soon for a mango cream puff. These little treats looked lovely, with small slices of fresh mango jutting out of the puff, lying under a small mound of whipped cream.

4. Orwasher's Handmade Bread (308 E. 78th St.). Orwasher's features breads, all sorts of breads. I left with a loaf of challah and a loaf of cinnamon-walnut swirl. Very nice. They also have a few pastries and cookies. Although they list cherry strudel as among the items they make, I didn't see any in the case last Saturday. Cherry strudel is something I would definitely have gone for.

5. Crumbs (1371 Third Ave. at 78th St.). Crumbs trafficks in cupcakes, a few miniature, but mostly gigantic, behemoth cupcakes. Visually alluring and enormously tempting, but uneven in execution. A few weeks ago, I had a piƱa colada cupcake at Crumbs, and it was really fun, goofy and tasty of coconut and pineapple. On Saturday, I got a Key Lime cupcake. Near as I could tell, it was a yellow cupcake with a squirt of cream filling and green-tinted icing. No lime flavor at all. I did enjoy the frosted black-and-white cookie, however. My one regret from Saturday was not buying an Oreo brownie at Crumbs. They looked insane, big fudgy things with a white icing stained with Oreo pieces.

6. Payard Patisserie (1032 Lexington Ave. between 73rd and 74th St.). Payard is certainly the most elegant bakery we visited on Saturday. The assortment of pastries and chocolates is very high end and very tasty. Although I'm usually game for a macaroon or two, I opted to splurge on a flourless chocolate cookie. Rich and fudgy, full of nuts, it was a great lunchtime treat on Monday.

7. Buttercup Bake Shop (973 Second Ave. between 51st and 52nd St.). Buttercup is a longtime fave. Their main business is cupcakes, but I'm not one to overlook their layer cakes, which have a truly homemade feel and a rich slather of icing. Because I'm likely to buy something I'm unlikely to make myself, I tend to go for a slab of Buttercup's coconut cake, which is divine. I also got a Lady Baltimore cupcake and a chocolate cupcake. I was thrilled to see my niece Melissa eat a cupcake the same way I do: First, remove the paper wrapper. Second, break the cupcake stem off the top and consume the sad frosting-free portion as a penance. Third, slowly relish the frosting-coated top of the cupcake. Yum.

We surely missed a bunch of places on our tour, and we'll have to make up for that at some point. In the meantime, I think we need to get to the Upper West Side, Chelsea, and Greenwich Village for bakery walks.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Birthday Cake, Part II

In June, my colleague Rodney asked if I ever took commissions for cakes and, if so, would I be interested in making a birthday cake for his wife. He gave me her description of her ideal birthday cake, and Lora Brody's buttermilk chocolate cake (the one I'd recently made for my buddy Brendan) from Chocolate American Style was a perfect fit.

We had a nice bit of cool weather in early July, but then things turned -- right when I needed to be making this cake. Rodney needed the cake for July 10, and we were in the midst of a spell of brutal heat and humidity. I made the cake batter and portioned it for three layers. After the layers were baked off, I wrapped them and set them in the freezer for a day. The next evening, I made the white chocolate cream cheese frosting. In the late-day 90°F temps, the frosting wasn't even in the neighborhood of setting up to be spreadable. I popped it in the fridge, then went off to buy a nice box, a cardboard cake circle, and some doilies. I figured I'd assemble the whole thing the next morning.

The next day -- July 10 -- I took the cake layers out of the freezer before I went running, and I checked the frosting, which had thickened somewhat. I figured I was good to go. However, it didn't take more than 5 minutes out of the fridge for the frosting to become unworkable. I frosted between the layers, stacked them, then took off for work with the semi-assembled cake, the remainder of the frosting, and a small offset spatula. I put everything in the fridge there and let it sit for an entire day. Rodney needed the cake done by 5:30, so at 4:30, I zipped out to the kitchen and did a quick crumb coat, put the cake back in the fridge for a bit, then at 4:45, finished frosting it. I boxed it up and tucked it back in the fridge. (I very stupidly forgot to take a picture of it, but it looked fantastic.)

Before Rodney left the office for the day, I reminded him to keep the AC on full blast in the car and to put the cake in the fridge when he got home ASAP.

I have to admit that I thought this one was a lost cause, but it had a magically happy ending. Whew. By all accounts, Rodney's wife very much enjoyed the cake. As for me, I love this cake and this recipe, and I think that from now on, I'll save it for cooler weather.

Peanut Butter Cup Cake

I've been using the library to review baking books that I haven't felt the urge to purchase, and one recent visitor has been Good Housekeeping's Ultimate Desserts. It's a compendium of recipes, with a little bit of everything: cakes, cookies, puddings, frozen desserts. I tried a Peanut Butter Cup Cake from the book and thought it was a pretty good pound cake. The only misgiving was the so-called "rich" chocolate glaze, which is prepared with milk chocolate. I've got nothing against most milk chocolate (barring that abomination that Hershey makes), but somehow, a milk-chocolate glaze didn't feel rich enough for this cake. I'd make this cake again (possibly even would tinker and swap some ground peanuts for a portion of the flour, to boost the peanut flavor). And I'd definitely use a dark-chocolate glaze.

Rum Raisin Pound Cake

Given that I had a cup of rum-soaked raisins that I forgot to put in the train-wreck of a carrot cake from The Sweet Spot, I figured I could find a good pound cake recipe for them. I Googled "rum raisin pound cake" and got a few hits, including one recipe from a 1995 issue of Bon Appetit. No real magic there, no deep searching through the cookbook library, but the recipe worked. Although Bon Appetit's recipe doesn't call for the raisins to be soaked in rum first, I think that the rum bath boosted the cake's flavor. I think it probably could have used a slightly larger glaze recipe, too. All in all, a good recipe.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

The Sweet Spot

Courtesy of the public library, I’ve spent the past few weeks perusing and trying a couple of recipes from The Sweet Spot by Pichet Ong. I don’t know a lot about Asian-themed desserts, so it has been kind of fun to look over the recipes and have my curiosity piqued over some of the flavor combinations.

The first recipe that caught my eye was the three-layer Carrot Cake with Lime-Cream Cheese Frosting, which has dark-rum-soaked raisins sprinkled over the filling between the layers.

I made the cake last weekend, and it was pretty much a disaster. The recipe calls for the batter to be baked as one layer, then split into three sections. Unfortunately, despite the fact that I used my biggest, deepest 10-in. springform pan, the batter overflowed the pan in the oven. I was further disappointed when I sliced the cake into layers. My sense was that the cake was very moist, but more on the greasy side -- the worst attribute of carrot cake. (The cake uses a half-pound of butter and a half cup of cooking oil as the fat.)

What had revved me up about the recipe was the lime-cream cheese filling/frosting. That recipe turned out to be even more of a disaster than the cake itself. The frosting includes cream cheese and a bit of sugar and salt; that stuff is beaten together. Then lime zest and lime juice are added. Finally, nearly 2 cups of sour cream is folded in. Then the frosting/filling chills to set up before the cake is assembled. The frosting/filling I made never set up. It’s got a pretty nice glaze consistency, but in no way can it be considered firm enough to use as a frosting/filling. I now have a plastic container full of this goo in the fridge, and I’m trying to decide what sort of pound cake or Bundt cake would be best-suited to this glaze.

I ended up making a regular cream cheese frosting and adding the lime zest to it, and lime juice in place of vanilla. However, I was so angry while assembling the cake that I forgot to sprinkle the rum-soaked raisins over the frosting/filling between the layers. I now have a cup of dark-rum-soaked raisins in the fridge, and I’m trying to decide what sort of anything would be a good destination for these beauties.

In the meantime, I had a huge success from this book, so it’s not all bad news. Condensed Milk Pound Cake sounded unusual and intriguing. This pound cake has a minimal amount of sugar, but some of the sweetening comes from adding sweetened condensed milk to the batter. Plus, the cake batter is prepared in a food processor. I knew that would be good in terms of pulverizing the half-cup of sugar, reducing the chance of a coarse, grainy batter. Still, I had some misgivings about whether to try this cake; the photo in the book shows a cake that has baked extremely brown (looking borderline burned). As the photo above shows, my cake turned out a beautiful tan, with a creamy, tight, fine-crumbed interior. This pound cake is fantastic: not too sweet, not terribly dense. Really a nifty recipe.

Before I return this book, I am planning to make Chocolate-Mango Cheesecake Parfait with Chocolate Macadamia Cookie Crumbs. There are also some great-sounding cookie recipes, too.