Baking a Birthday Cake

I’m not a baker, so things were likely to go awry when the non-baker decided to bake a birthday cake for the baker’s birthday. To make matters more interesting, Jason’s response to my question “what kind of cake would you like,” was a funny “the Queen’s 90th birthday cake.” Ha! But he seriously wanted a three tier purple and orange cake and that is what he got.

From the get-go, I doomed my effort to the panic of a last-minute frenzy by getting a very late start. I didn’t appreciate how much time it takes to bake and decorate a cake. Cooking shows make it look like it can be done in minutes, maybe an hour or so, but certainly no longer than two. But there I was, birthday afternoon, with dinner reservations looming and a growing pile of buttery dishes in the sink.

There were ample opportunities to seek the wise counsel of the birthday boy baker. He suggested early on that I make small cakes. I ignored him. Having stretched a recipe to include a larger-than-called-for cake pan, my cake tiers were thin. The cake itself turned out well. The crumb is tender, but dense and rich. I had to halve them horizontally to add a filling and so, with a smile and lots of patience, Jason jumped in to demonstrate how to cut a cake round into layers using a long serrated knife and a cake decorating stand. He really is a master at this stuff!

With the cakes halved, we brushed the cut sides with Grand Marnier and spread apricot jam or fig butter on alternating base layers of each cake round. Then came a layer of frosting followed by the top layer of cake. Frosting is magic! We increased the amount to give a bit of height to the thin layers. What I didn’t expect is just how difficult it is to get the hang of applying frosting to the outside edges of round cakes using an offset spatula.

We made the frosting and decorated the cake in just under two hours. To make our dinner reservations on time, we quickly showered while the frosting was whipping away.  It felt like we were competing on The Great British Bake-Off, and our reward was a night out at Bon Marché. We were both pleasantly smiling and having fun, but I secretly think we were both doubting our ability to finish on time and get to the restaurant.

My advice to the first time cake baker: start a day ahead and listen to your husband. If you can follow a recipe, you can bake a delicious cake. But unless you’ve done this a hundred times, the chemistry, the textures and temperatures, the timing of it all – none of this is necessarily intuitive. Not to the novice. Be patient and take your time.

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A Queen’s Birthday Cake
The Whiteout Cake from Baked Bakery
Yield: 1 (10-inch; 8-inch; 6-inch) thin layer cake or 1 (8-inch) cake

For the white cake layers

2 1/2 cups of cake flour
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup vegetable shortening
1 3/4 cups sugar
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
1 large egg
1 1/2 cups ice cold water
3 large egg whites, at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

For the white chocolate frosting (this recipes was increased by 1/2 to ensure proper cake frosting coverage)

9 ounces white chocolate, coarsely chopped
2 1/4 cups sugar
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 1/4 cups milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 1/4 cups (4 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, soft but cool, cut into small pieces
1 1/2 teaspoon pure orange extract
food coloring (optional)

Make the White Cake Layers

Preheat the over the 325 degrees F. Butter cake pans, line the bottoms with parchment paper, and butter the parchment. Dust with flour, and knock out the excess flour.

Sift the flours, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together in a large bowl. Set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and shortening on medium speed until creamy, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the sugar and vanilla and beat on medium speed until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Scrape down the bowl, add the egg, and beat until just combined. Turn the mixer to low. Add the flour mixture, alternating with the ice water, in three separate additions, beginning and ending with the flour mixture. Scrape down the bowl, then mix on low speed for a few more seconds.

In a medium bowl, whisk the egg whites and cream of tartar until soft peaks form. Do not overbeat. Gently fold the egg whites into the batter.

Divide the batter among the prepared pans and smooth the tops. Bake for 30 to 45 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through the baking time, until a toothpick inserted in the centre of the cake comes out clean (smaller cake pans will require less time [cupcakes will take about 20-25 minutes]). Transfer the cakes to a wire rack and let cool for 20 minutes. Invert the cakes onto the rack, remove the pans, and let cool completely. Remove the parchment.

Making the White Chocolate Frosting

Using either a double boiler or a microwave oven, melt the white chocolate and set it aside to cool, but not too cool that it solidifies.

In a medium heavy-bottom saucepan, whisk the sugar and flour together. Add the milk and cream to cook over medium heat, whisking occasionally, until the mixture comes to a boil and has thickened, about 20 minutes.

Transfer the mixture to the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat on medium high speed until cool. Reduce the speed to low and add the butter; mix until thoroughly incorporated. Increase the speed to medium-high and beat until the frosting is light and fluffy.

Add the orange and vanilla extract and white chocolate and continue mixing until combined. If the frosting is too soft, put the bowl in the refrigerator to chill slightly, then beat again until it is the proper consistency. If the frosting is too firm, set the bowl over a pot of simmering water and beat with a wooden spoon until it is the proper consistency.

Crumb Coating the Cake

Refrigerate the frosting for a few minutes, if necessary (but no more), until it can hold its shape.

Sprinkle the cake stand with a little sugar. Place the 10 inch cake layer on the stand and using a serrated knife, cut the cake through the middle, horizontally, making two equally thick layers. Spread a thin layer of apricot preserves or fig butter on the bottom, then add about 3/4 cup of the frosting, spreading it over the cake layer evenly. Add the top layer and evenly spread about 1 1/4 cups of the frosting on top. Transfer the layer to a large plate and refrigerate for at least 15 minutes.

Repeat the crumb coat frosting step for the next two cake layers.

Assembling the Cake

Divide the remaining frosting among three bowls in proportion with the cakes. The bowl with the least amount of frosting will be colored light orange (or whatever color you desire). Do the same with the other two bowls of frosting (light purple and a little darker purple in our case).

Transfer the largest layer of the cake back to the cake decorating stand. Frost the bottom cake layer with the frosting from the fullest bowl. Add the frosting to the top of the cake first and, using an off-set spatula, move the cake decorating stand as needed, frost the top of the cake pushing the frosting over the sides. Next, positioning the spatula at 90 degrees next to the cake sides, turn the stand and frost the sides of the cake until all sides are covered. Transfer the layer to a display cake plate/stand and refrigerate.

Repeat the above steps for the next two layers. Transferring the finished layers to the bottom tier of the cake. Clean-up any flaws with more frosting as needed. Garnish with sprinkles, nonpareils, ribbon, or anything your heart desires. Refrigerate for 15 minutes to firm up the finished cake.

This cake will keep beautifully in a cake saver at room temperature (cool and humidity free) for up to 3 days. If your room is not cool, place in a cake saver and refrigerate for up to 3 days. Remove the cake from the refrigerator and let sit at room temperature for at least 2 hours before serving.

Making Whoopie …Pies that is!

There always seems to be some trend shaking up the pastry world. A few years ago cupcakes were all the rage leading to a number of bakeries that specialize in these one-person cakes. A few bakeries even specialize in miniature cupcakes. You can’t throw a stick these days without hitting one of the thousands of purveyors of the little snack turned must have desert thanks in no small part to Sex in the City and its feature of Magnolia Bakery in New York. And every food blogger on earth has championed an endless array of variations on a theme. We love cupcakes, but we’re ready to move on.

After vacationing in Paris this spring where we noshed on the most exquisite macaron, we kept thinking the macaron’s time had come. The French macaron now seems to be popping up everywhere in San Francisco, from Miette Patisserie to La Boulangerie to Patisserie Philippe and Paulette Macarons.  We happily jumped on the bandwagon dedicating a blog post to these wonderful creations.

And now we’re starting to think the next trend in San Francisco might just be the Whoopie pie. The Whoopie pie originates from Pennsylvania Amish country. According to Wikipedia, the Whoopie pies were made by Amish woman and included in men’s lunch boxes. When the fellows found the pies they exclaimed, “Whoopie!” And who wouldn’t shout “Whoopie” if they found one of these huge pastries in their lunch pail? The pies are actually two soft, cake-like, cookies smooshed together with a big dollop of frosting in the middle. Yum!

Jason made a batch of Whoopie pies a couple of weeks ago for our second wedding anniversary. They were supposed to be dessert for a party that unfortunately fell through. There was way too much going on that weekend; Steve’s law school reunion, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, work, etc. But Jason made the pies anyway with the hopes that Steve would take them into his office. After one bite, Steve decided they were too good to share with his fellow co-workers. (Don’t worry team MLA, baked goods are coming your way.) So now we have them in our deep freeze, ready for Steve’s lunch pail on the days he’s been particularly nice to Jason.

This recipe comes from Martha Stewart’s website. It’s an original creation of Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito of Baked bakery in Brooklyn, NY. Jason altered the recipe substituting half the all-purpose flour with kamut flour and half the oil for melted butter to give the pies a nice buttery taste. If you don’t have kamut flour, feel free to stick to the original recipe. Instead of the cream cheese frosting Jason made a nice caramel frosting he found on epicurious and rolled the finished pies in toasted pecans.

The next time we’re in New York we’ll have to make a trip over to Brooklyn to try Matt and Renato’s original Whoopie pie. Until then, we’ll just keep dipping into our freezer until these treats are gone. And if anyone is wondering what to get us for Christmas, a copy of Baked’s cookbook would be a nice pick!

Pumpkin Whoopie Pies with Caramel Frosting

Makes 12 whoopie pies

  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2  cups Kamut flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon ground ginger
  • 1 tablespoon ground cloves
  • 2 cups firmly packed dark-brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup melted butter
  • 3 cups pumpkin puree, chilled
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract


  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
  • 2 large egg yolks
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1 cup powdered sugar, sifted
  • 1 cup coarsely chopped toasted pecans


Make the cookies: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or a nonstick baking mat; set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk together flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, and cloves; set aside. In another large bowl, whisk together brown sugar, oil, and melted butter until well combined. Add pumpkin puree and whisk until combined. Add eggs and vanilla and whisk until well combined. Sprinkle flour mixture over pumpkin mixture and whisk until fully incorporated.

Using a small ice cream scoop with a release mechanism, drop heaping tablespoons of dough onto prepared baking sheets, about 1 inch apart. Transfer to oven and bake until cookies are just starting to crack on top and a toothpick inserted into the center of each cookie comes out clean, about 15 minutes. Let cool completely on pan.

For frosting:
Stir sugar and 1/4 cup water in medium saucepan over medium-low heat until sugar dissolves. Increase heat to medium-high; boil until syrup turns deep amber, swirling pan and brushing down sides with wet pastry brush, 6 to 7 minutes. Remove from heat; add cream (mixture will bubble up). Stir over low heat until caramel bits dissolve. Whisk egg yolks in medium bowl. Very gradually whisk hot caramel into yolks. Cool to room temperature.

Using electric mixer, beat butter and salt in large bowl until smooth. Beat in caramel. Add powdered sugar and beat until smooth. Let stand at room temperature until thick enough to spread, about 1 hour.

Assemble the whoopie pies: Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside. Transfer filling to a disposable pastry bag and snip the end. When cookies have cooled completely, pipe a large dollop of filling on the flat side of half of the cookies. Sandwich with remaining cookies, pressing down slightly so that the filling spreads to the edge of the cookies. Place pecans on plate. Roll edges of cakes in nuts.

Transfer to prepared baking sheet and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate cookies at least 30 minutes before enjoying.