Saturday, March 08, 2008

Cake Drama (with a recipe for a large birthday cake)

If you’re just looking for a recipe for a birthday cake that will feed a large family, feel free to skip to the bottom of this post. If you like a little side of neuroses with your recipes, read on:

Birthday cakes traumatize me. I’m not entirely sure where the root of this problem came from, and I can’t recall a particularly bothersome birthday that would have had an effect on the way I view cakes, but for some reason, I get hinky when birthday cakes are around.

Part of it, I think, is that I utterly despise store-bought birthday cakes. They’re just so depressing. Overly sweet, with very little actual flavor (other than sugar – which isn’t a flavor), and the decorations always seem so sterile and, well, store-bought. And of course I’m not a big fan of box cake mixes either, though my sister Carolina knocked my socks off with a Tres Leches cake that started with a mix.

Now that I think about it, I don’t remember cakes being a big part of the whole birthday thing when I was a child. I mean, I’m sure there were cakes at times, especially on those birthdays in which I had a little party, but for the most part, since our family was so small at the time, I would bet most birthdays were spent eating divine desserts at The Flamingo Room or Sweet Indulgences, two long-closed local dessert parlors.

I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, if that’s how I’m coming off here. I had an unconventional childhood, for which I’m sincerely grateful as a matter of fact, and the birthday “cake” that has stuck with me over the years is the banana bread with cream cheese icing that mom brought to school for my seventh birthday. Slightly non-traditional, sure, but at the time I was attending a most non-traditional school and the whole thing just worked for me, if you know what I mean.

But see, then I went and grew up and had kids of my own. And my family is MUCH larger than it used to be, so it was clearly time to create some traditions that would fit for this time in our lives. When The Big Boy turned one, I didn’t intent to have a party really, but a few other family members stressed the relative importance of a first birthday to me, and so I acquiesced and I was glad that I did. Because honestly, there are few things cuter than a one year-old stuffing his face with cake, even though the cake that year was one that my in-laws purchased from a store. I can hardly complain though, since the poor kid would have most likely done without a cake entirely if it weren’t for them.

The Big Boy’s second birthday followed only a few short weeks after an awful tragedy for our family, and we weren’t in any mood to have a party. Or a cake. Instead, we packed up our little fella and his then-five-year-old Uncle Jack and took them to the new Atlanta Aquarium. Even last year, when The Big Boy turned three, he still didn’t have much of an awareness of birthdays, so I didn’t make much of a big deal out of the whole thing. I flipped through a couple of cookbooks, found an adequate recipe for chocolate cake and chocolate frosting and quickly made two of them (it takes a lot of cake to feed our family) and took the cakes and a piñata to Big Mama’s house for an impromptu low-key little celebration.

But this year was much different. And the cake trauma began about two months before The Big Boy’s actual (fourth) birthday. He paid enormously close attention to a few of his cousins’ recent birthday parties, and he started hounding me back in December about what he might want on his birthday cake. I might not have minded, because I think he’s awful cute when he gets obsessed with something, but like I mentioned, birthday cakes traumatize me. And I knew this would be a big year anyway, since The Big Boy was a Leap Day baby and this was going to be his first TRUE birthday. Ack, the pressure.

There were a number of issues with this cake, not even counting the unexplainable trauma facet. First, of course, is my aversion to store-bought cakes, which meant I was obviously going to have to make this cake myself. And, where I would have been perfectly happy to make icing from scratch, The Big Boy wanted complicated decorative elements on his cake as well and, er, I’m a BIG sucker for this kid and I wanted to indulge him.

But the biggest problem had a lot to do with two major factors that were at war with each other: the size of my family and my obsessive-compulsive insistence on perfect math. See, if I were going to decorate this cake with the dinosaur of my son’s dreams, and if this cake were going to be big enough to feed my excessively-large family, then I was going to need both a very large cake pan and a calculator to resize the recipe accordingly. And I don’t have much experience with cake-making, so it was going to be absurdly difficult for me to tell the merits of a recipe just by reading it. Not to mention, since I’m not a big fan of cake-eating, I didn’t want to spend a lot of time and energy on test runs.

So I did what I do best, I panicked for about six weeks while not actually doing anything, and then, the week before The Big Boy’s birthday, I pulled down fifteen cookbooks and ended up having to put my head between my knees to avoid an anxiety attack. Nearly all of the recipes that looked trustworthy (read: came from reputable cookbooks, like Betty Crocker, and seemed innocuously-enough flavored for children) were for round cake pans or, worse yet, didn’t even specify what size pan would be needed. See, I walked into this knowing I would need to super-size whatever cake recipe I was using, but I assumed I would be able to go by square-inchage. You know what I'm talking about, a recipe for a 9x13 pan would yield 117 square inches, but the pan my mother-in-law was lending me was a 12x18 pan (perfect size for my family) and would yield 216 square inches. Now, the 12x18 pan was only 16 square inches too large for a simple doubled recipe, so I would need to discard approximately 7% of the batter before pouring into the pan, or I could run with the reasonable assumption that an extra 7% of batter wouldn’t cause me any major problems with the baking of this enormously traumatic cake. No problem, right?

Well, heck yeah, there was a problem. I wasn’t expecting the curveball thrown to me by the recipes for round cake pans. I had finally found what looked to be the perfect cake recipe and it needed a 9-inch round cake pan and there I was, holding a 12x18 rectangular pan, thinking my math skills were ALL THAT. I looked up in abject horror from my cookbook and virtually hollered at The Carnivore, “How do you figure out the square inchage of a circle? Is that where all that pie-r-squared stuff comes into play?”

The Carnivore looked back at me with a look of priceless astonishment on his face. “Uh-oh,” he exclaimed, and I swear I heard an exclamation point in his voice, “They always said we were going to need to know how to do that later in life.”

Now, I took countless math courses in college, and with the exception of that blasted integral calculus class that nearly killed me, I made A’s in everything. But this was kicking my butt. And yeah, I know I could have gotten online and made short shrift of the whole thing, but I was having a most difficult time admitting my high-school geometry teacher was right.

So, really, the whole point of this Cake Trauma-Drama post is to save other big families from having to face this same sort of life-altering moment when you must come to the horrifying realization that you should have paid better attention in ninth grade. I mean, really, who’d have thought? And besides, big families have enough stress as it is...

After a little bit of internet searching (that resulted in finding a recipe that was actually designed for a 12x18 cake pan), two days of cake baking, an extra unplanned trip to the grocery store for more butter, three batches of butter cream (hence the extra unplanned grocery store trip), and a surprise batch of chocolate frosting, I present to you the following recipe for a two-layer very large (about 60 servings) cake with chocolate frosting between the layers, vanilla butter cream icing for the top and the sides, and an extra batch of butter cream with which to do some decorating.

Before you look at the recipes though, there are, of course, some caveats. First, I used organic flour, organic sugar that was less refined than normal sugar, organic confectioners sugar, free-range eggs, organic butter, and so on. When I made the cake, which was supposed to be a one-layer cake that would be adequately-sized, we realized that it looked entirely too short and stubby. This could have been because of the organic ingredients, or it could have been the recipe itself; we have no way of knowing, because I have no intention of making this cake with conventional ingredients. Thus, we ended up making the last-minute decision to bake a second layer. And, probably the most important caveat of all: my sister-in-law and my mother-in-law, who both have mucho experience with cake decorating, voted me off the island after they heard my plans for the dinosaur, and thus they decorated the cake for me. So I give zero advice on cake decorating, and I hope it remains that way forever because all that stuff they did to it looked much too intricate and annoying to me.

12x18 SHEET CAKE (from Barefoot Contessa, yields one layer)
  • 18 Tbs unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 3 cups sugar
  • 6 eggs, room temperature
  • 8 oz sour cream, room temperature
  • 1 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • zest of one lemon
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup cornstarch (interestingly, I found a non-genetically-modified version in Publix)
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  1. With an electric mixer, using the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes.
  2. On medium speed, add the eggs, one or two at a time; then add the sour cream, vanilla and lemon zest.
  3. Sift together the flour, cornstarch, salt and baking soda.
  4. With the mixer on low speed, slowly add the flour mixture to the butter mixture. Do not overmix. Finish mixing by hand.
  5. Pour batter into a highly-buttered and well-floured 12x18 sheet cake pan (this butter and flouring step is crucial to be sure the cake will turn out of the pan without sticking).
  6. Bake at 350 degrees for 20-30 minutes, until a toothpick or blade of a knife comes out clean.
  7. Cool cake in the pan for 5-15 minutes, until top is room temperature to the touch, but not yet fully cooled. Loosen edges of cake with a knife and place a cake board (or piece of plywood) over the top. Turn over, pat bottom of pan all over, pray mightily, and lift the cake pan off. If all went well, the cake should be sitting on the cake board now. If pieces of cake are still stuck in pan, pull them out and lay them like puzzle-pieces on the cake where they should be, and remember that icing can cover a multitude of sins.


CHOCOLATE FROSTING (from Barefoot Contessa, makes enough to cover one layer of the cake)

  • 24 oz semisweet chocolate chips
  • 1 1/2 cups heavy cream
  • 2 Tbs light corn syrup (I used brown rice syrup instead and was tickled to death with it)
  • 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • 4 Tbs unsalted butter, room temperature
  1. In a double boiler (or the microwave), heat the chocolate chips and cream, stirring occasionally, until chips are completely melted.
  2. Remove from heat and add the corn syrup and vanilla.
  3. In an electric mixer, whisk the chocolate mixture and the butter on medium speed until thickened, 2 or 3 minutes.


VANILLA BUTTERCREAM FROSTING (from Gale Gand, one batch will cover one layer of 12x18 cake; two batches will cover sides and top of two-layer 12x18 cake)

  • 3 cups confectioners sugar
  • 1 cup butter, room temperature
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 to 5 Tbs heavy cream
  1. In an electric mixer, whisk the sugar and butter on low speed until blended. This takes about 5 minutes and is a bit nerve-wracking. My advice is to walk away. If you stand and watch, honest to goodness, you will be sure it is never going to look like frosting.
  2. Increase speed to medium and beat for another minute or two.
  3. Add vanilla and 2 Tbs cream; beat on medium speed for one minute.
  4. Add cream by the tablespoonful until desired consistency is reached. A thinner consistency is needed for frosting purposes. If making a third batch for decorative purposes, a slightly thicker consistency will be needed.



  • The cake recipe is for one layer. Make two separate batches for a two-layer cake, which I think is necessary for a beautiful birthday cake.
  • I used one batch of the chocolate frosting between the two layers. Alternatively, you could use one batch of the buttercream between layers as well., but where is the fun in that?
  • If making a two-layer cake, it will take two batches of the buttercream frosting to cover the sides and top of the cake. One batch would suffice to frost the top of a single layer cake. I would not try to mix more than one batch of buttercream at a time. It's just too stressful on the mixer, the chef, and any other people within shouting distance.
  • It took an additional (third) batch of buttercream to do the decorations shown in the picture above. My sister-in-law mixed small amounts with food coloring in individual bowls and used a pastry bag with all sorts of complicated torture implements to "star" the dinosaur. Good luck with all that.


Maia said...

Thanks for the great recipe - we'll try it next month for our next birthday. We've been making three or four smaller cakes but the big cake idea sounds great.


Nobody said...

I have to tell you, I LOVED and RELATED to this post...both for its truth, and its humor. Awhile ago my eldest darling daughter got married, and she decided I should make her wedding cake. I think she may have actually said the words "piece of cake". I, like you, went through all the stages of cake panic. In the end, I did in fact end up doing a couple of test runs in smaller batches. You can understand why. Weddings are for producing ulcers, not just a few weeks of indigestion. The result was glorious, and a few family members may have committed a sin by worshiping my cake, or me for baking it. But I didn't care. They would have to take care of that problem on their own. I was just glad to have survived the wedding.

Sarah Beam said...

Oh, dear. A wedding cake? I can't stop shuddering. What a decorating nightmare.

God holds nothing against nobody for cake worship. Just so long as we don't kneel to the cake pedastal in the great church of cake.

Nobody said...

Just you wait. Now you have a daughter, and all sorts of insanity will ensue. You think when they are tiny and precious, there is nothing you will not do for them. Then they get bigger, and more prickly, and you think "I'll be darned if I do that for you." Then they get grown up and engaged, and somehow you're back to that precious baby thing again. I just do not know how it happens.

Stephanie in AR said...

After reading your posts about your cooking learning to decorate would be a lot easier than you thing & you would do a good job too. Buy a beginner's kit and tell yourself you are teaching Big Boy how to use it. It will be fun and he can decorate his own next year too. (messy but memory making)

Please, pretty please would you post the recipe for your sister's cake. I tried the make-from-a-box version (not sold any more) and really loved it so a homemade one would be even better.

Anonymous said...

Hey there, just a tip at this late date:

Sq. inches of common pan sizes are in the Joy of Cooking, in my older copy (1972ish) it is on page 666 I believe. I remember because I always have a 'devil' of a time of it until I look it up.

Also the Wilton site has approx. pan capacities per layer along with oven temps and pan sizes.

Keep on baking!


Rachel Page said...

I love that this uses hardly any dishes. LOVE THIS RECIPE!

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