Cakes 101

November 2, 2010 · 14 comments

I make a cake about 3 times a year. Notice that’s the same number annually as my headcount of offspring.

Once my kids are able to talk, I give them a choice of what kind of cake they want for their birthday. Then a week before the party, I google the cake. I usually end up on a short video from a website called Disney FamilyFun. Last week’s search for “jack-o-lantern cake” was no exception, and I optimistically watched this video. The cake seemed easy enough — but as is always the case when you condense cake-making into 60 seconds, some details are easier said (by a talking head who doesn’t even make the cake) than done. That little part where you simply flatten the gumdrops into a pancake to make the facial features? Yeah, well. Standing on a stool to put all of my body weight onto a rolling pin for fifteen solid minutes seemed like a bit more trouble than the end result was worth.

Which might be why I totally biffed the “3-dimensional effect” created by using chocolate to shade the features. Tim was the first to notice it (of course) after I put it all together. I was standing there, admiring my work and feeling prideful because there were still 15 minutes before the party started. He looked at it, and said, “Something’s whack with that mouth.”

And lo, there was. I somehow forgot, in an instant, how to do something I learned when I was eight: how to draw shadows from a light source.

Once I saw it (again, thanks Tim) it’s like I just wanted to wipe it off, in a fit of OCD-fury. But alas, our first guest arrived. And her Mom said no, you can’t redo it, not now.

But you know what I can do? I can Photoshop it, for perpetuity. I learned that when I was twenty:

It still doesn’t look right — I think it’s a contrast issue.

But no matter. The real reason I need to get back-to-the-basics of cake-making is that the cake? It was dry. And the truly frustrating part of this is that I’ve given people advice on how to make a birthday cake that’s not dry (especially when you freeze it). For years, I made the same cake every birthday: The Grit’s Vegan Chocolate Death Cake. But this year, with two layers to play with, and wanting to change things up a bit, I went with two Cook’s Illustrated recipes: this one (yellow cake) and one from The Cook’s Bible (chocolate cake). I made the cakes the evening before the party, and immediately wrapped them in plastic after they cooled on the rack. They were iced not 12 hours later. And it was so disappointing, to cut into dry cake at that party. No, the 6- and 7-year olds didn’t notice, but I did. And isn’t that who I’m doing this for, anyway?

There was so much butter in those cakes. And buttermilk. And eggs. Aren’t those the very ingredients that should guarantee a moist cake? What’s a perfectionist, compulsive mom to do? Who can tell me how to make a rich, moist, homemade cake that’s worth the decorating effort?

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Amy November 2, 2010 at 10:54 am

Did the butter have freezer burn and ruin the taste? You are still light years ahead of the rest of the world. And I had to bring a couple of people into my office to compare the two pumpkin-cake pictures before we saw the difference.

nana November 2, 2010 at 2:02 pm

go with Betty Crocker and make home made icing??
I know you LOVE that response, but thats what I do.
Everyone likes the cake better, well everyone but you I’m sure:)

nana November 2, 2010 at 2:03 pm

oh…and the cake looks pretty awesome. love it.

Stephanie November 2, 2010 at 3:19 pm

So cute! Love your decorating job!
Hmm, a few thoughts on dry cake:
1. Did you bake it too long?
2. Did the recipe you used have enough sugar/butter/etc.?
3. Should you use a different recipe?
I have a problem with not-so-moist cupcakes, but that’s usually from leaving them in the oven a tad too long. Also, you may just need to find a better yellow cake recipe. I’ve got one if you need it. :)

katy November 2, 2010 at 3:25 pm

Yes, I need it! If I can remember, I won’t be making that recipe again. What’s yours?

I do have a favorite yellow cupcake recipe from CI — maybe I should just use that as a cake.

I don’t think I overbaked it — as it cooled, I pulled off a piece from the underside that was going to be cut off, and it was delicious. Between the two cakes, there were like half a dozen eggs and a pound of butter…

katy November 2, 2010 at 3:21 pm

Amy, I admit I’m being OCD about the mouth. No one but me (and my non-OCD husband) would notice.

Nana – seriously? Everyone likes a boxed cake better than homemade?

Christine O. Taylor November 2, 2010 at 3:57 pm

I haven’t tried the frosting recipe that accompanies it, but I do like “Hershey’s Perfectly Chocolate Chocolate Cake.” It is moist, dense and chocolatey. It’s almost heavy, it’s so moist. In my oven it always takes longer to cook than the directions say; I worry that it’s not quite done when I decide to take it out (but it always is); and it looks rather ugly (the top is almost never level and usually a little wonky). I’m really selling this cake, aren’t I? It is yummy. I use the same recipe for cupcakes. They come out with a flat top ready for a nice pile of frosting. I say give it a test run between now and the next birthday and see if you like it.

(I often Photoshop away bruises on my child’s face in snapshots.)

P.S. Thanks for that shortening recommendation earlier this year. Trans fats gone and no one can tell the difference in my biscuits.

katy November 2, 2010 at 9:04 pm

Christine, I’ll be trying it — thanks for the rec.

One thing that irks is the fact that you can’t seem to have a cake that’s both tasty and easy to decorate. This one was a breeze to frost, because it was two bundt cakes, and they had a very smooth, even surface for icing (i.e., no crumbs). It sounds like with the Hershey’s cake, it would be delicious, but a beast to frost.

Glad you are getting good results with the Spectrum. I love it, too.

Christine O. Taylor November 2, 2010 at 10:55 pm

Yes, the Hershey’s cake is crumby. I go with a smooth butter and powdered sugar frosting that I can smooth over it.

punkinmama November 3, 2010 at 3:43 pm

I can’t help you out with the cake part, but that is the cutest pumpkin cake ever! Congrats on an excellent decorating job!

Kathye Gresham November 19, 2010 at 8:02 am

Hi Katy! I finally found your food blog. Have you ever tried to bake a cake without eggs, dairy, OR wheat? I know, pointless, right? I’m charged with doing this for a friend’s birthday, and I’m not happy about it. My plan is to use almond milk and bake a vegan chocolate cake with a Kahlua glaze. But I’m a little scared.

We miss you!

katy November 19, 2010 at 8:50 am

Hello Kathye!! We miss you too!

MAN, that’s a challenge. I became quite adept at dairy-free, egg-free, soy-free — but I never really had to deal with wheat-free.

A vegan cake is a good start, with an alternative flour. What are you thinking? I’ve heard good things about almond flour, but I’ve never baked with it, so I have no idea how it would act.

Also, are you sure Kahlua is wheat-free? I remember my GF friends being able to have liquor (rather than beer), but only some kinds…

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