June 23, 2012

Birthday Cake for my Little Girl

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It was recently my little daughter's 3rd birthday and she decided quite early on that she wanted a birthday party with all the works (...Mommy, I want a birthday dress and birthday cake and party decorations and presents...) just like she always sees in the birthday parties in those endless cartoons she watches.

So with the ridiculous but amazing heroism latent in all mothers, I decided fulfill these wishes to the best of my ability. I mean, my little baby who could barely speak (and walk) just a few mere years ago was now asking specifically in her little baby voice for, among other things, a "birthday cake!"  And on her own initiative!  What kind of mother could possibly refuse?  Even though I am no cake maker by any means.

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So for this birthday cake for a little girl we finally ended up choosing to make a chocolate cake with vanilla buttercream frosting.  After much finger biting on my part: "hmmm?...will this actually come out looking like a cake after I get through with it?" We started making the chocolate cake the day before the big day with my little girl mostly helping out by licking the spoon and mixing bowl when she thought I wasn't looking and generally making a mess.  

The next day we made the buttercream frosting and put the cake together.  The chocolate cake recipe was easy to follow and came out from the oven looking really good already.  It is a light yet dense and very chocolatey cake that tastes better after keeping the leftovers in the fridge (more fudgy).  We did cut the sugar by half as we don't really like super sweet desserts plus I figured to let the frosting have the full amount of sugar thus balancing the two.  The cake ended up tasting like semi-sweet chocolate bars which is my favorite.

The buttercream frosting was really finger licking good.  I had never made buttercream before and it did require careful attention.  But what a taste!  Light, creamy, full of delightfully rich and complex 'real' frosting taste.  A taste that you remember and daydream about...despite growing up with the vapid taste of canned frosting.  One thing I could have done is to whip the final mix (after incorporation of all the butter) with the egg whisk longer until it was really, really smooth.

I was mixing with the hand mixer so I could incorporate the soft butter and had thought that it was smooth enough and therefore happily spread the light cream colored frosting onto the cake.  It was only when I colored a bit of the frosting to make the pink decorations that I discovered to my dismay that it definitely looked curdled. We immediately rushed out to the stores to look for the confetti decorations to substitute and there wasn't any to be found!  Disaster loomed grimly over the day in the guise of a decoration less birthday cake.  

Finally it occurred to me to try to mix the pink goo a bit more to see if it might still incorporate.  Yeah! I was right, I hadn't mixed the buttercream enough!   The egg whisk attachment whipped mottled pink buttercream for a minute or two and it became beautifully, pinkly smooth. Then into the plastic icing bag to the absolute squealing delight of my little girl (this must be why we mothers put ourselves through this kind of cake torture) and out with the pink goo in jerks and starts, brave attempts at flowers and patterns.

So finally the decorated birthday cake was ready.  And wonders of wonders it turned out to be a family smasher of a little kid's birthday cake:  yummy and not too sweetly chocolately, lots of frosting to muck around in for little fingers and delightful pink decorations to make it beautiful to the 3 year old little girl's critical eye.  And it wasn't that hard.  And most importantly for how happy it made my little girl, it was totally, totally worth all the effort.

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Chocolate Cake with Buttercream Frosting
Adapted from recipe here and here Prep: 10 mins  Cook time: 30 mins



Make cake layers:
Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 350°F or 177°C. Butter 2 (9- by 2-inch) round cake pans and line bottom of each with a round of wax paper. Butter paper and dust pans with flour, knocking out excess.

Whisk together hot water and cocoa powder in a bowl until smooth, then whisk in milk and vanilla.  Whisk together flour, baking soda, and salt in another bowl.

Beat together butter and brown sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer at medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, 3 to 5 minutes. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Reduce speed to low and add flour and cocoa mixtures alternately in batches, beginning and ending with flour mixture (batter may look curdled).

Divide batter between cake pans, smoothing tops. Bake until a wooden pick or skewer comes out clean and edges of cake begin to pull away from sides of pans, 25 to 35 minutes total. Cool layers in pans on racks 10 minutes, then invert onto racks, removing wax paper, and cool completely.

Assemble cake:
Put 1 cake layer, rounded side up, on a cake stand or platter and, using offset spatula, spread top with about 1 cup buttercream. Top with remaining cake layer, rounded side down, and frost side and top of cake with 2 cups buttercream.

Decorate cake:
For each color (you can make up to 5), transfer 3 tablespoons buttercream to a separate small bowl and tint with food coloring (we used only 1 drop of red food coloring to make the pink frosting). Snip off 1 corner of each plastic bag to create a 1/4-inch opening, then spoon each color of buttercream into a bag, pressing out excess air. Twist each bag firmly just above buttercream, then decoratively pipe colored buttercream onto cake. (We recommend practicing piping decorations onto a empty plate first if you are of the unskilled cake decorator group as we are.) Chill cake until buttercream is set, about 30 minutes.

Cooks' notes: Cake layers can be made 2 days ahead and kept, wrapped tightly in plastic wrap, at room temperature or frozen 2 weeks.  Cake can be assembled 4 hours ahead and kept at cool room temperature.  (We made it the day before to save time the day of)

Vanilla Buttercream Recipe
(Prep time: 5 mins  Cook time: 0 mins)


  • 4 large egg whites at room temperature
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 2/3 cup water
  • 1 1/3 cups plus 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 4 sticks (2 cups) unsalted butter, cut into tablespoon pieces and softened
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract


Note: We ended up with twice as much frosting as we needed.  So if you like a normal amount of frosting on cake you could cut this recipe in half or make extra cupcakes to frost for the birthday party.  Or you could save it in the freezer for later use like we did.

Combine whites and salt in a very large bowl. Stir together water and 1 1/3 cups sugar in a 3- to 4-quart heavy saucepan until sugar is dissolved, then bring to a boil over moderate heat, without stirring, brushing any sugar crystals down side of pan with a pastry brush dipped in water.

When syrup reaches a boil, start beating egg whites with an electric mixer at medium-high speed until frothy, then gradually add remaining 2 tablespoons sugar and beat at medium speed until whites just hold soft peaks. (Do not beat again until sugar syrup is ready.)

Meanwhile, put candy thermometer into sugar syrup and continue boiling until syrup registers 238 to 242°F. Immediately remove from heat and, with mixer at high speed, slowly pour hot syrup in a thin stream down side of bowl into whites, beating constantly. Beat, scraping down side of bowl with a rubber spatula, until meringue is cool to the touch, about 10 minutes in a standing mixer or 15 with a handheld. (It is important that meringue is properly cooled before proceeding.) (We used frozen vegetable packs from the freezer packed around the bowl to help cool the mixture down)

With mixer at medium speed, gradually add butter 1 piece at a time, beating well after each addition until incorporated. (Buttercream will look soupy after some butter is added if meringue is still warm. If so, briefly chill bottom of bowl in a large bowl filled with ice water for a few seconds before continuing to beat in remaining butter.) Continue beating until buttercream is smooth. (Mixture may look curdled before all of butter is added but will come back together by the time beating is finished.) Add vanilla and beat 1 minute more.  (We needed to use the egg whisk attachment for a few minutes in order to bring the buttercream together at the end)

Cooks' notes:
Buttercream can be made 1 week ahead and chilled, covered, or frozen 1 month. Bring to room temperature (this may take up to 3 hours; do not use a microwave) and beat with an electric mixer before using.

Need a special ice cream as well for the fabulous birthday party?  See our kid favorites Blueberry Ice Cream and Strawberry Frozen Yogurt recipes.



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