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.

Le Dîner à San Francisco 2011

Imagine one of those rare, warm, still, clear evenings on the Music Concourse, between the De Young Museum and the Academy of Sciences,in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. With beautiful museums flanking, a centerpiece of fountains and dozens of beautifully sculpted trees providing cover, the sunken Concourse is beautiful in the warm, autumn night. Now imagine a thousand white-clad, champagne-swilling, food-obsessed Bay Area revelers waiving white napkins, toasting friends and munching on thousands of different picnic nibbles in the waining, pink dusky light. Cafe music ushers in the darkness of night and thousands of candles (mostly flameless) dapple the scene with romantic low light as flying paper lanterns rise up over the crowd into the night sky. People dance or take a stroll, illuminated by ambient light. Throughout the evening, corks pop, glasses clink and picnickers laugh and eat.


Is this heaven? Ah, no. This is Le Diner a San Francisco, the City’s first effort at reproducing the famous Parisian Le Diner en Blanc. A sort of by-invitation-only flash mob, with a little costume party thrown in along with a good bit of decorative arts and fashion fetish to make it all fun, this is an event that will undoubtedly be harder to score entry to in the years to come. Dressed in white linen and cotton, the crowd enjoyed a remarkably comfortable night out of doors. The pop-up picnic organizers did a great job.

Bien manger et de bons amis!

We owe a debt of gratitude to Kris Corzine for inviting us to join her and friend Val, and for supplying much of the setup, including the flowers and table linens, a delicious Aperitif Ratafia plum liquor from the Perigord, foie de canard from the Dordogne (bought and brought from La Boutique de Badaud in Sarlat, France) and lentil salad a la KC. We supplied the crudité, anchovy-stuffed olives from Spain, charcuterie from Boccalone and a “tilted” four layer coconut rum cake. We all brought bottles of bubbly and still white wine to wash it all down.

A semi white array of crudite and more.

After three short hours of feasting, the party ends and everyone gathers up their stuff, leaving no trace and ghostly white parties slip into the dark of the park as they make their way home. It may not have been an evening picnic in heaven, but this year’s Le Diner a San Francisco was a smashing, heavenly success!

Coconut Rum Cake

Prepare the coconut rum pastry cream the night before. If you try to throw the whole thing together in a day, and you’re pressed for time, you’ll end up with a “tilted” cake, or worse. The cake and frosting recipes are from Martha Stewart (with minor adjustments) and the pastry cream is Jason’s, inspired by a combination of Martha’s and Ayse Dizioglu of Polka Dot Cake Studio in N.Y.C. via I like you, by Amy Sedaris (a must for entertaining).

“Tilting” Coconut Rum Cake

Layer Cake Recipe

3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature, plus more for pans
2 cups sifted cake flour, not self-rising, plus more for pans
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup superfine sugar
4 large egg yolks, lightly beaten
2/3 cup sour cream
1 teaspoon pure coconut extract
1 tablespoon dark rum
1 cup unsweetened coconut
Coconut cream filling
7 ounces (about 2 cups) sweetened angel-flake coconut
Seven Minute Frosting

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Arrange two racks in the center of the oven. Line the bottom of three 6-by-2-inch (or two 8-by-2-inch) buttered round cake pans with parchment paper. Dust the bottom and the sides of the cake pans with flour, and tap out any excess. Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt, and set the bowl aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter on medium-low speed until fluffy, 1 to 2 minutes. Gradually add sugar, and keep beating until the mixture is fluffy and light in color, about 3 minutes. Gradually drizzle in egg yolks, beating on medium-low speed between each addition until the batter is no longer slick. Beat until the mixture is fluffy again, about another 3 minutes.

Alternate adding flour mixture and sour cream to the batter, a little of each at a time, starting and ending with the flour mixture. Beat in vanilla. Divide the batter between the prepared cake pans. Bake until a cake tester inserted into the center of each cake comes out clean, 30 to 40 minutes, rotating the pans in the oven, if needed, for even browning. Transfer cake pans to wire racks to cool, about 15 minutes. Remove cakes from pans, and let cool completely on racks, tops up.

In a small saute pan over medium heat add the unsweetened coconut and toast until lightly browned 4-5 minutes. Toss and stir the coconut to avoid burning.

To assemble, remove parchment paper from the bottoms of cakes. Split each layer in half horizontally with a serrated knife. Set aside the prettiest dome; it will be used for the final layer. Place another domed layer, dome side down, on the serving platter. Sprinkle 2 to 3 tablespoons of toasted coconut over the cake. Spread a generous 1/2 cup coconut-rum pastry cream over coconut flakes. Repeat sprinkling and spreading process on the remaining layers until all but the reserved domed layer are used. Top cake with the reserved domed layer. Transfer cake to the refrigerator to firm for 1 hour. Remove from the refrigerator, and frost the outside of cake with seven-minute frosting. Sprinkle remaining coconut flakes all over cake while frosting is soft; do not refrigerate. Cake can be left out at room temperature for several days.

Coconut Rum Pastry Cream

6 large egg yolks
3/4 cup sugar
6 tablespoons cornstarch
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups milk
1 can full fat coconut milk
1 tsp coconut extract
1 tablespoon dark rum

Place egg yolks in a large bowl; whisk to combine; set bowl aside.

Combine sugar, cornstarch, and salt in a saucepan. Gradually whisk in milk. Cook, stirring, over medium heat until mixture thickens and comes to a boil, 10 to 12 minutes. Remove from heat.

Whisk 1/2 cup hot milk mixture into the reserved egg yolks to temper. Slowly pour warm yolks into the saucepan, stirring constantly. Cook slowly, stirring, over medium-low heat, until mixture begins to bubble, 5 to 6 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in coconut extract and rum.

Transfer filling to a medium mixing bowl. Cover with plastic wrap, pressing the plastic against the pastry cream to prevent a film. Chill until firm, overnight, or at least 8 hours.

Seven Minute Frosting Recipe

3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
3 large egg whites, room temperature

In a small, heavy saucepan, combine 3/4 cup sugar, corn syrup, and 2 tablespoons water. Heat over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until sugar has dissolved. Rub a bit between your fingers to make sure there is no graininess. Raise heat to bring to a boil. Do not stir anymore. Boil, washing down sides of pan with a pastry brush dipped in cold water from time to time to prevent the sugar from crystallizing, until a candy thermometer registers 230 degrees about 5 minutes. (Depending on the humidity, this can take anywhere from 4 to 10 minutes.)

Meanwhile, in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whisk egg whites on medium speed until soft peaks form, about 2 1/2 minutes. Gradually add remaining 2 tablespoons sugar. Remove the syrup from the heat when the temperature reaches 230 degrees (it will keep rising as pan is removed from heat). Pour the syrup in a steady stream down the side of the bowl (to avoid splattering) containing the egg-white mixture, with the mixer on medium-low speed.

Beat frosting on medium speed until cool, 5 to 10 minutes. The frosting should be thick and shiny. Use immediately.