Happy birthday to me: Chocolate butter cake with neoclassic buttercream

25 Mar

Wednesday was my birthday, and it should come as no surprise to all of you that I spent it–yep–baking! Or, more accurately, decorating, since the whole process was so time-consuming I had to spread it out over two days. I realize that some might find it sad or strange that I baked and decorated my own birthday cake…but what those people don’t realize is that for me, the baking and decorating is even more fun than the eating! And these days, as you know, I take any and every opportunity to practice my baking.

Of course, I wanted this cake to be extra-good, so I decided to go with a really tried-and-true recipe…and what better place to find one than in Rose Levy Beranbaum’s The Cake Bible? I discovered this book a few weeks ago thanks to a reader’s suggestion, and after reading many of Beranbaum’s facts about cake chemistry and tips for successful baking, I was dying to try one of her recipes.

As I’ve said before, I’m a serious chocoholic, so it was a no-brainer that I’d pick a chocolate cake recipe. But, as it turned out, that wasn’t so simple: the book lists at least a dozen chocolatey recipes. After some hesitation, I chose the “perfect all-American chocolate butter cake” because it was basic and because Beranbaum writes that it goes nicely with buttercream, which I was also eager to make. After my last post, I really wanted to try making a buttercream that involves heating and dissolving sugar rather than simply mixing it into butter, and Beranbaum’s “classic buttercream” recipe fit the bill. But since I don’t own a candy thermometer, I chose to make her “neoclassic buttercream” instead. (I was actually all set to just cross my fingers and make the classic buttercream without the thermometer, but when I saw that Beranbaum claims her neoclassic recipe “yields identical results,” I breathed a sigh of relief and got out the corn syrup.)

I’m pleased to say that I found the recipe for both the cake and the buttercream on this page of the Community Food Co-op, so I don’t need to recopy the recipes here.

Mixing the first few ingredients was simple–water, cocoa, eggs, vanilla. But then it came time to blend the butter and some of the cocoa into the big bowl of dry ingredients. It sounds easy, but it took a lot of elbow grease and beater-scraping! Both my arm and my hand mixer got a tough workout. Without the eggs, the batter was very dry and kept lumping up without absorbing all the flour. It was practically like bread dough–I had to fight the urge to stick my hands in and beat it into shape myself.

Things got a lot easier after I added the eggs. I ended up with a nice, smooth batter.

Here’s something I know about myself: I’m a really slow worker. I mean, really slow. It took me forever just to get the batter to this stage. I tend to do a lot of things slowly, but I’m slowest when I’m doing something I’m not very good at, or something I’ve never tried before. Half of it is perfectionism, half of it is the belief that the slower and more carefully I work, the fewer mistakes I’ll make. While that may be true, it makes for some long projects! But it’s something I’ve mostly accepted about myself. Right now, I’m just grateful I have enough time on my hands to learn to bake at my slow and steady pace.

Nervously, I filled my cake pan and stuck it in the oven. Beranbaum claims that each half of the batter should fill a cake pan about half-full, but mine seemed significantly less than that. My first layer was just slightly less than half-full, but even that left me with barely enough batter to make a decent second layer. Strange….

Oh, and it might be worth mentioning that I own only one cake pan, so I can only bake one layer at a time. This was a conscious decision: at this point, I don’t think I’m a confident enough baker to throw two layers into the oven and trust that they’ll bake evenly. Plus, I’m kind of cheap. But maybe I’ll change my mind when I know what I’m doing and get sick of baking one layer at a time.

Both layers came out looking pretty good, though much more domed than I was hoping.

I set about leveling them to make them nice and flat for stacking. A while ago, a helpful reader commented that a good way to level cakes is to pull a string of dental floss across the edges of a cake pan, slicing the top of evenly. But since these layers were far too low for that method, I had to eyeball it using a knife. Fortunately, I have a very long serrated knife that worked really well for this purpose. It came out a little uneven, but it was definitely good enough.

After lopping off the top of each layer, I ended up with two big slices of cake that served no purpose. But I broke them up, stuffed them in a baggie, and froze them, and I’m considering using them to make cake balls someday…so stay tuned for that!

Before I’d realized that leveling the layers would give me extra cake to taste, I decided to save a little batter and bake a small cupcake to serve as a taste test. One reason I prefer baking cupcakes instead of cakes is that they’re much more conducive to sampling right out of the oven; with a cake, you can’t know if it tastes good until you’re serving it. So I baked a mini-cupcake to taste.

It tasted a lot like Beranbaum describes–light, but fudgy. It was the slightest bit dry for my taste, but I’m someone who prefers cake super-moist. For a light and airy cake, it was excellent–plenty chocolatey, and that was the goal!

With my cake layers baked, sliced, and ready to go, I was still barely halfway through the full cake-making process. It was finally time to make the buttercream. I was super-excited!

Dissolving the sugar into the corn syrup was a fascinating process. I realized I’d never used corn syrup before, and it’s got a really interesting consistency. Warming it up and mixing it with a ton of sugar made it into a strange, almost solid mass in the saucepan. Then, when it came to a boil, it got incredibly sticky.

Meanwhile, I had to beat the yolks until they were “light in color.” I really had no idea what this meant–how light was light enough?–so I searched some images on Google to get a sense of what I was supposed to achieve. After a while I decided they were light enough. In hindsight, though, I wonder if my final buttercream would have been significantly lighter if I’d beaten the yolks more…what do you think?

Mixing the corn syrup and sugar mix into the yolks was another trial. The syrup was straddling the line between liquid and solid, so when I poured it, the stream would trail off into a thin, threadlike strand that would stick to things–most obnoxiously, my beater. More than once, the strand got stuck on the spinning beaters and spun around and around until I broke it off by hand, leaving this odd-looking effect:

Even worse, when I poured a little syrup into the bowl and tried to mix it with the yolks, the whole mess clumped up on my beaters and climbed higher and higher until it was almost touching the body of my hand mixer. I couldn’t help but dream of how much easier it would no doubt be if I owned a stand mixer. Ah, that’s the dream.

Things got much easier after adding the butter. I finally ended up with a thick, buttery mix that was very smooth and spreadable.

I couldn’t get over how much nicer the texture was compared to quick-and-easy buttercreams involving powdered sugar, as well as how much less sickly-sweet it was. But at this point, I also realized how much extra work goes into making this version instead.

I also have to admit that the flavor of this buttercream was a little odd. It tasted almost plasticky, which I later realized was the taste of egg yolks. (But, as I soon learned, adding flavor in the form of liqueurs or chocolate basically fixes that problem.) I’m also not sure how I feel about using raw egg yolks in buttercream–doesn’t that seem a little unsafe? I suspect there are alternative ingredients out there. Despite all this, I’m adding this recipe to my list of favorites, because the texture truly is far superior to powdered sugar buttercreams.

I wanted to fill my cake with chocolate buttercream, so I melted some Ghirardelli and added it to the mix. Then I spread it on!

Finally, the cake was ready to be frosted on the outside. And it was looking pretty good, if you ask me!

At this point, I quit for the day. The next day, I got up early–very uncharacteristic of me, especially on my birthday!–to make a batch of plain buttercream to cover the cake. The process went a bit more smoothly this time, since I knew what I was doing.

I had a small moment of panic when I realized that, in its final form, the buttercream was very yellow–not even close to white. I assumed that this would throw off my plans of coloring the buttercream. But thank goodness I decided to test a small sample, because it worked just fine! I was able to achieve the lovely light blue I’d been picturing.

I also decided that my plain-Jane buttercream needed a little more flavor…so, naturally, I pulled out the bourbon. A few tablespoons later, the buttercream was tasting fantastic! And as we all know, whiskey and chocolate is a flavor combination made in heaven.

At last, I gathered all my frosting tools and got to work.

Finally, with the baking done, I could focus on what I do best: decorating!

The process took most of the day, and while I did snap photos of my work as I went, I won’t bore you with photos of the whole process (but feel free to ask to see them, if you’d like). A few hours later, the cake looked like this:




Because I was decorating my own cake, I didn’t want to follow a standard birthday theme–isn’t there something a little weird about writing “happy birthday” to yourself? So I just made it pretty. I like pretty things. Especially birds. It wasn’t until later that I realized this was my–drumroll please–“bird-day” cake. Yeah, go ahead, groan! But you have to admit it’s surprisingly fitting….

And when the time finally came to sit down with my family and eat it, I was happy with my results. Even though it wasn’t as moist as I would have liked, it was pretty marvelous when paired with the buttercream. My family loved it and dubbed me the official family birthday cake maker from now on. The rest of my birthday celebration didn’t disappoint, either: I got beautiful new jars to store my flour and sugar, as well as the loveliest apron I think I’ve ever seen.

Ultimately, I’d say my time and effort paid off. I ended up with a tasty cake that made me very happy and very proud. It was the perfect birthday gift to myself!

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27 Responses to “Happy birthday to me: Chocolate butter cake with neoclassic buttercream”

  1. Melissa Elkins March 25, 2011 at 4:21 pm #

    Fantastic job on your b’day cake! I’ve made her buttercream numerous times, and you do need to whip the yolks a lot longer than you would think when using a hand mixer (vs. a stand mixer) – they do eventually get paler, even if you’re using really fresh eggs. I personally don’t worry too much about the raw egg yolks – when you add the scalding hot sugar it basically cooks the yolks as it mixes – don’t know if that is scientific fact, but it sounds good to me. Happy baking!

    • leighbakes March 25, 2011 at 4:27 pm #

      That’s very helpful on both counts, thanks so much! I’ll definitely try beating my yolks longer next time. And yeah, I tend not to worry too much about raw eggs…I’ve been known to eat raw brownie batter rather than baking it. ;)

  2. Wine and Food Musings March 25, 2011 at 4:39 pm #

    Wow! What a great cake! I love to cook but I will openly admit that I am not good at baking at all but perhaps your blog will inspire me to at least start small and work my way up to something like your cake. :-) I have to agree with you on the raw egg in recipes. I get really nervous when I am making something (usually some French recipe) when it requires to add raw egg yolk to a sauce or something AFTER it’s taken off the heat. It just doesn’t seem right though I do suppose that our families generations ago would do this all the time. Do you think we’re being wimps these days about things?

    • leighbakes March 25, 2011 at 5:21 pm #

      That’s a really great question… I think it’s definitely true that we now question and over-analyze a lot of the basic wisdom our ancestors took for granted. At the same time, we’re now equipped with the knowledge and technology to more accurately assess risk with these types of things. And just because people used to do it doesn’t mean it’s a good idea (like when smoking was so prevalent decades ago)! I absolutely see both sides of the argument there.

      And thanks for your kind words! You should absolutely try your hand at baking…heck, I’m a beginner, too, but I’m having fun! And even when the results aren’t what you expected, they’re usually still pretty tasty. ;)

  3. lifewith4cats March 25, 2011 at 6:31 pm #

    A beautiful springtime cake. Happy late Birthday to you! Again I passed a pleasant time looking at your colorful pictures and getting inspired. yummmy.

    I see that you are an expert at cutting and serving the slices. That could be a class all in itself. I have no idea how you managed to do this without squishing and fingerprinting the cake. All your edges look as fine as if a Japanese Master Chef cut it.

    • leighbakes March 25, 2011 at 8:17 pm #

      Thank you! Haha, I too was pleasantly surprised by how neatly I could cut it. It was something about the frosting…it cut like butter. ;) I also have a fabulous Cutco knife that doubles as a spatula. And now you know all my trade secrets.

  4. prettyhungrygirl March 26, 2011 at 12:06 pm #

    I find leveling cakes to be very difficult, no matter what method I use. Even my long serrated knife tends to pull at the cake where it is slightly gooey on the inside and causes it to ball up. (I’m like you, I’d rather my cakes be moist… but it seems they have to be rather dry if you want to be able to level them cleanly.)
    Lovely decorating job by the way. And I’m admiring how smooth you got that buttercream. You’re a pro!

    • leighbakes March 26, 2011 at 1:57 pm #

      That’s interesting…I’ll have to be extra careful, then, when I’m leveling a moist cake. Thanks for the heads-up!

  5. Sue March 26, 2011 at 3:01 pm #

    What a beautiful cake! Happy Birthday!

  6. briarrose March 26, 2011 at 4:28 pm #

    I hope you had a lovely birthday. Beautiful job on this cake.

    • leighbakes March 26, 2011 at 7:21 pm #

      Thank you! I did have a lovely birthday. :)

  7. Kristen March 27, 2011 at 7:53 am #

    You are such a talented cake decorator! It is beautiful and I’m sure it tasted great as well. I bookmarked the link and plan on trying that recipe :)

    • leighbakes March 27, 2011 at 12:37 pm #

      Thanks very much! It did turn out tasty…definitely try it!

  8. cupcakes March 28, 2011 at 3:31 pm #

    What youre saying is completely true. I know that everybody must say the same thing, but I just think that you put it in a way that everyone can understand. I also love the images you put in here. They fit so well with what youre trying to say. Im sure youll reach so many people with what youve got to say.

  9. Amy March 29, 2011 at 10:10 am #

    Wow, what a beautiful cake! The birdie is so CUTE!!! I’ve never tried decorating a cake before…maybe you could do a post that gives tips on that? I’d love to know the basics :)

    • Amy March 29, 2011 at 10:11 am #

      Oh, and Happy Birthday!!!

      • leighbakes April 3, 2011 at 10:15 pm #

        That’s a neat idea…maybe I’ll give it a shot! And you’ll have to let me know how I do.

        Thanks for the birthday wishes!

  10. stacielk April 8, 2011 at 3:58 pm #

    Wow, I’m impressed with your cake decorating skills. It looks beautiful! I’ve been experimenting with different cake recipes to find the ‘perfect’ one. I like moist but I like more dense cakes. I find a lot of scratch cakes turn out a bit drier than I would like. I was told to add a T or 2 of mayo into the batter. I tried that with one of my recipes and it did seem to moisten it up a bit. Happy baking!

    • leighbakes May 8, 2011 at 10:06 pm #

      Thank you for the compliment, and sorry to be so late in replying! It’s interesting that you’ve noticed a pattern of dryness in cakes made from scratch; it never even occurred to me that that might be the case. I’ll definitely need to look for ways to make mine moister!

  11. Dare Right May 4, 2011 at 4:40 pm #

    I just love, love, love your cake decorating skills! You did such a lovely job!

    Also, I wanted to let you know that I have an award for you over at my blog, I hope you like it!
    http://goinggoalward.wordpress.com/2011/05/03/versatile-blogger-award/

    • leighbakes May 8, 2011 at 10:11 pm #

      Oh my goodness, this completely made my day! I’m so pleasantly surprised that someone out there thought to give me a blogging award–thanks so much! I truly appreciate it. I’ve taken a look at your blog, too, and I mean it when I say I instantly liked it. I’ve subscribed. :)

      • Dare Right May 27, 2011 at 7:43 pm #

        You’re very welcome! I’m so glad to hear that you’re glad about the award! ^^ And thank you so much for subscribing! :)

  12. Kitty June 10, 2011 at 5:34 pm #

    This is a lovely cake.
    I was looking for the chocolate neoclassic buttercream and yours looks great. I will use your method plus some coffee.
    Thank you

  13. Kat July 29, 2011 at 12:40 pm #

    Hi Leigh!

    Where have you gone?

    Is this going to be your last post?

    I have just started my blog http://www.lifeofacupcakebaker.com and was wondering if you’d like to swap ideas. I the opposite problem to you, I can bake (very well) but I can only decorate as well as youtube can teach me!! lol

    Would love to see more from you

    xx Kat xx

  14. cdmcake September 19, 2011 at 6:43 pm #

    I just came to your blog from discuss cooking.com and had to tell you how much I love the bird on branch cake. So cheery and springlike! Isn’t it time to post an autumn cake?

  15. Tash @ The Velvet Moon Baker January 7, 2013 at 3:46 am #

    Hey I’ve nominated you for a Liebster Award :D Check my blog for the questions to answer http://thevelvetmoonbaker.blogspot.ie/2013/01/the-liebster-award.html

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