Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Cake? Again?

Indeed so.

You are perfectly reasonable to wonder, dear reader, at the abundance of cake posts that have oozed out of here of late. I remind you, however, that in the anapestic household, there are three February birthdays, and I inform you (unless I already said so, in which case, I am reminding you about this, also, and it's awfully good of you not to complain) that my daughter A., who will be seventeen (yikes) this Friday will be having not only her family birthday dinner but also her birthday party chez nous, so that in addition to the annual having-to-eat-politely-with-the-ex thing, I will also be making two cakes. A. wants one for the dinner (Friday) and another for the party (Saturday), and I suppose that turning seventeen is sufficiently big a deal to merit two cakes. A. said that I only had to make one myself, but she knew that the chances of me taking her up on that offer were minuscule.

(And, yes, those of you who are reading carefully will note that I have agreed to have a party for a bunch of seventeen-year-olds this coming Saturday evening. I take comfort in the knowledge that there is probably still time to join the French foreign legion to get out of hosting this party [and, of course, to brush up on my French; plus, you gotta figure that those foreign legion guys eat pretty well; after all, Miss, this is France, and a dinner here is never second best]. Actually, it's not that fearsome a prospect. I am expected to provide light snacks, copious amounts of pizza, beverages, and the birthday cake. A. assures me, and I believe her, that none of her friends drink. Instead, she says, a lot of them will probably spend much of the party making out, but when I made further inquiries, A. told me that I need not worry because if we don't have enough couches, her friends will work with whatever's available. Imagine my relief.)

So, okay, there's a lot of cake coming out of the anapestic ovens. There is still, in fact, some Heart of Darkness cake left from my last post and from last weekend. It turns out that when I said that there isn't enough darkness or cake to go around, I lied. At least about the cake. The frosting is very rich indeed, and it is almost impossible to eat more than about a one-inch slice of the cake at a time. Given the nine-inch diameter and an elementary knowledge of geometry, this means that it provides about thirty servings. Fortunately, it keeps very well, and the flavors evolve in happy ways over time. If you decide to make it, however, I think you should use a real buttercream to match the richness of the frosting to the richness of the cake. With a decent chocolate (or other) buttercream, it would probably only serve twelve to fifteen, depending upon the value of π on the day you serve it.


A. couldn't decide what sort of cake she wanted, but she felt that there had been enough chocolate cake for a while, so I decided on a lemon-flavored yellow cake, filled with lemon curd and frosted with raspberry buttercream. That's the cake for Friday, anyway. I'll figure out Saturday's cake Friday night, but it will likely be something similar, but perhaps in a different shape. The only hard-and-fast requirement that A. has is that there need to be seventeen candles on each cake, so I can pretty much make anything except cupcakes. A. is very fond of pound cake, so I may make one in a bundt pan and give it a simple icing and put candles in it. Fortunately, I still have two days to obsess over my choice.

The cake I made isn't particularly yellow, nor is the lemon flavor particularly strong, but as there will be at least two layers of lemon curd, I am not especially worried about the latter. The former is an issue only in that when your cake is nearly white, folding the egg whites into it becomes a bit of a challenge because it's not easy to tell what's egg white and what's cake batter, especially in the evening, and especially if one of the bulbs in your overhead fixture has blown and you haven't gotten around to replacing it. Two out of three ain't bad, right?. So you run the risk of underfolding, and leaving chunks of unfolded egg white in the batter, or overfolding, and deflating the cake somewhat. I think I did okay with the folding, but I will note that there do appear to be some small holes, which you can probably see in the picture. They will not cause any problems, ultimately. And they may be due to my resistance to using cake flour.

In the past, I have used cake flour with very good results, and many of the cake recipes that I base my recipes on call for cake flour, but it's a bit of a nuisance to keep a lot of different kinds of flour on hand, especially when all purpose flour works as well for many cakes. I would still use it, though, if I could ever hope to remember whether I had any in the pantry. Sadly, I long ago learned that my memory is unreliable on this point, so that when I think I'm out of cake flour, I buy a box only to find that I already have plenty on hand. And when I'm sure that I have plenty on hand, I have none. So at any given time that I want to make a cake, I always have either no cake flour or five boxes of it. That's just no way to live.

And, let's face it, so many people think that the only way to make a cake is to either swing by the bakery or use a prepackaged mix that if you bake a cake from scratch and don't mess it up horribly, everyone is going to think you're a miracle worker. Or that you have a really good bakery in your neighborhood. Or perhaps both.

(What is the deal with cake mixes, anyway? Cakes are just not that hard to make, particularly if you follow the preparation method that Rose Levy Beranbaum writes about in The Cake Bible. I am not an especially fast baker [I am a lot faster at stovetop cooking], but I didn't leave work until almost six this evening, and I had to go pick up A. from the ex' house, schlep all the way to Costco in traffic, watch while A. stopped to go through every single woman's jean in the clothing area, buy snacks for her party, come home, go with V. and A. to Sol Azteca for a delicious birthday dinner [after the socks-for-Christmas debacle, V. is pulling out all the stops for my birthday; he also got me a book about the films of Pedro Almodovar and the DVDs of four of his earlier works as well as a couple of other books], come home, start my laundry, prepare my pans, prepare my batter, and get everything in the oven with plenty of time to spare before the beginning of this evening's episode of Project Runway. [Bye, Nick. I'll miss you.] You just don't need a cake mix, and no matter how you doctor them, they aren't going to be nearly as good as a butter cake.)

The other thing you have to remember is that when you're making a cake with lemon curd and raspberry buttercream, you could pretty much use Saltines for the layers (Yes, in this paragraph I say you could use salty crackers while in the last paragraph I said that you couldn't use a cake mix; get over it. You weren't really going to use Saltines for the cake anyway, were you? I will note, however, that if you have extra raspberry buttercream and/or lemon curd left over, you can amaze your friends by sandwiching a thin layer of either or both between two vanilla wafers.), and everyone would still love it. So it's really just not worth beating yourself up over not using cake flour.

I'm making two nine-inch layers and splitting them to take the filling, but we all know that I'm a nutjob. This batter fills two standard nine-inch cake pans so that they come as close as possible to overflowing without actually making a mess on the oven floor, so you might want to make three eight-inch layers instead. If you're the nervous sort, that is.

Semi-Yellow Cake

1 lemon
2 1/3 cups all purpose flour, measured by dip and sweep
2 cups granulated sugar
2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. vanilla extract
1/2 t. almond extract
3/4 c. milk
4 eggs, separated

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Prepare your pans.

Grate the zest off the lemon and reserve. Juice the lemon, strain out the seeds, and reserve.

In the bowl of your mixer, put the flour, sugar, and baking powder. Mix on low for two minutes.

Add the softened butter tablespoon by tablespoon until it is all well incorporated.

Add the egg yolks, milk, extracts, and lemon juice and lemon zest, letting the mixer run after each addition until the ingredient is well incorporated.

Beat the egg whites until they form stiff peaks, then fold them into the batter. Divide the batter between or among the prepared pans and put them in the oven. Two nine-inch layers will take approximately forty minutes to bake, but check after thirty minutes, and remove them from the oven when a cake tester comes out clean.

Cool the cakes in the pans for fifteen minutes, then depan onto racks and cool completely.

You will notice how very flexible this cake recipe is. Remove the lemon zest and rind, add some extra milk to compensate for the lack of fluid, use only vanilla extract, and you have a very basic cake to which you can add any sort of flavoring you like. Everyone needs a basic cake or two of this sort in his culinary arsenal (And, if you have a culinary arsenal, the whole phrase "Let them eat cake" takes on a whole new meaning; "Captain! The pirates are attacking? Shall we load the cannons?" "Yes, Mr. Flynn. Let them eat cake!" In case it doesn't go without saying, if you intend to use your baked goods as ammunition, you will want to overbake them considerably to improve their aerodynamic qualities and to maximize the amount of damage that they will do upon impact. You can even use a cake mix.) It is delicious by itself, but by changing the flavoring or the filling or the frosting, you can customize it to suit almost anyone.

Even, one presumes, a room full of teenagers. Not that I will be there to witness them dismembering whichever variation on this cake I come up with for them. V. has decided that the best way to approach this party is to go out and do something else that evening. I can't very well leave the house to fifteen or twenty teenagers, but after making sure that there are plenty of snacks and ordering the pizza, I will certainly be shutting myself away in my room with some food and my new Almodovar DVDs. Ignorance is bliss, after all.


Anonymous leslie said...

Are you also making the lemon curd?

Whenever I'm out of cake flour - and I'm like you in my inability to remember if I've got any or no - I substitute 1/8 C cornstarch for all purpose flour (another RLB trick as I'm sure you know). It works very well although I find I have to be more religious about sifting.

You're a brave man to host a party for 17 year olds. My daughter's 16th birthday celebration was dinner out and a movie for fewer friends - I was so grateful! Is A a junior? I can't remember and was wondering if you too are in the throes of the college hunt.

6:24 AM  
Blogger anapestic said...

I will be making the lemon curd. I'll just use my lime curd recipe and substitute lemons wherever that recipe has limes. It was originally a lemon curd recipe, anyway.

A. is indeed a junior and is in the middle of the college search. Her mother is a lot better at managing things like the application process than I am, but I will probably end up proofreading her essays, and she and I talk occasionally about what places she's interested in. It changes a lot from week to week, as I'm sure you won't be surprised to hear.

7:09 AM  
Anonymous leslie said...

Figured you'd make the curd from scratch. Making me inspired and while both my father and father-in-law have birthdays this month neither are local so I don't have a good excuse :-(

The whole college search is a bit daunting. My daughter has a couple of very specific criteria that narrow things down nicely but it's still a big project! Does A know what she wants to study, at least broadly?

3:34 PM  

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