All-Star Cakes: A Birthday Retrospective

It's not a birthday without cake. Since it was my (and Aaron's!) birthday this week, I'm devoting this post to some of my favorite cakes. Put on your party hat--it's time to celebrate!

The Basics: Yellow Cake with Mocha Frosting

This was Aaron's favorite type of cake for years, and we spent a long time looking for the best possible incarnation of this classic cake. As it turns out, sometimes it takes a classic recipe to make a classic cake; our favorite version of yellow cake comes from Rose Levy Berenbaum's The Cake Bible, originally published in 1988 (the same year Aaron was born!). 

Of course, it's not a birthday cake without frosting. Aaron LOVES the combination of chocolate and coffee, so we inevitably temper the richness of the butter cake with a bittersweet mocha frosting. We usually follow the general procedure outlined here (melting chocolate, whipping together butter and powdered sugar, adding in the melted chocolate) and then add espresso to taste. 

Floral FTW: Chocolate Lavender Cake with Earl Grey Buttercream

I made this cake for my friend Jen's birthday, and it represents a couple of firsts for me. It was the first "naked" cake I ever made, the first chocolate-lavender cake, and also the first time that I ever made a German buttercream. Two out of three of those decisions were excellent. 

I made the cake using this recipe, and I must say that the chocolate-lavender cake turned out fabulously. Lavender is a flavor I've begun to use more and more, in everything from margaritas to caramels (full disclosure: Aaron is the caramel-maker in the house) to baked goods. You have to be careful with it, as too much can quickly turn soapy--as we discovered when we tried to freestyle some lavender caramel brownies and had to toss the whole pan--but the reward is worth the risk. This recipe essentially has you make a lavender tea to use as the main liquid for the cake, so your end result is beautifully moist and subtly scented with lavender.

That said, the frosting recipe for this cake nearly had me tearing my hair out. If you make this cake (and you should!), I highly recommend you use a different frosting recipe, such as this one. The main problem that I had with the original frosting recipe was that it was extremely temperature sensitive. It's possible that I didn't cook my custard enough, but when I went to beat the mascarpone into the custard mixture, I just ended up with custard flying everywhere. Although I was eventually able to salvage the recipe, it never firmed up enough to stick to the sides of the cake--hence the "naked" cake! 

Butter Makes it Better: Brown-Butter Chocolate Chip Cake with Bourbon Caramel Frosting

This is the cake that Aaron and I chose to make to celebrate our 11-year anniversary of our first date, and it beautifully represents how far Aaron and I have come in our culinary adventures together. While the base of this cake is essentially a typical yellow cake, the trick of making and then solidifying the brown butter adds a nutty complexity that complements the chocolate chips beautifully.

The frosting for this cake, although mildly complicated--you have to make the caramel first, then feed it into a swiss buttercream--has a fantastic texture that you just can't get from a typical American buttercream (butter+powdered sugar, like the chocolate frosting recipe above). Swiss buttercreams are infinitely lighter, which is important when you are dealing with a six-layer cake  like this one. Plus, swiss buttercreams are made with egg whites, so you can make your cake and eat your protein too!

This cake helped us learn a few important tips. First, that layer cakes are much simpler if you use cakes of smaller diameters. In this case, we used three six-inch cake pans, which were then each cut in half. A recipe for two nine-inch cakes works perfectly with three six-inch cake pans, and that will probably be our method of making cakes from now on. Second, we learned that one must be very careful when dealing with so many layers. Although the cake ended up looking very pretty, it does have a slight leaning-tower-of-Pisa vibe to it. 

Better than Cake? Smitten Kitchen's Hazelnut Macaroon Torte

I made this recipe three years ago, and I kid you not, it came up in conversation last week. That is how deliciously memorable this "cake" is. I use quotes because the base of this cake contains no flour: hazelnuts, egg whites, and sugar are the main players here. Each of these layers are then coated in a dark chocolate ganache and lightly sweetened whipped cream--no butter involved.

Despite the lack of butter, or maybe because of it, this cake remains one of my all-time favorites. It's the cake to make for your friend who doesn't like things terribly sweet, or just when you are craving the hazelnut and chocolate combination that Nutella made famous, but are feeling more ambitious than eating it straight off the spoon (which is also a perfectly legitimate dessert choice). Its light and airy character would make it a great dessert for Thanksgiving, when your stomach is already stretched to the brim, or as an afternoon snack the following day with a cup of tea. In short, I love it, and I think you will too.

I have to end this post by thanking our friend, Kari, for making us these beautiful birthday cupcakes (I mean, seriously, look at that piping job!)! Check out her blog, Kari Bakes, for more baking ideas!