My Kind of Birthday Cake
A little fairy came by recently, questioning me about my taste in birthday cakes. Did I have a favorite, by chance? A secret admirer wanted to know and was interested in placing an order, but not until he got a sense of my cake crumb preferences and peeves.
"Nothing fancy or fussy," I said. "No candy do-dads, frosting roses, buttercream, pudding centers, jams, jellies, dacquoise, and most importantly, nothing too sweet."
Frantically, he made some notes, and then looked at me, his eyebrow knitted.
"Well, is there anything about a birthday cake that you DO like?" he asked. "You've shared your peeves but none of your preferences."
I closed my eyes for a minute, envisioning the perfect birthday cake. I like simple, homey cakes, sometimes in a bundt shape or in a single springform layer. Red velvet comes to mind. Coffee cake. Rum cake. Gingerbread.
"You know what, fairy," I said. "Maybe I should make my own birthday cake. I know you're trying to be helpful, but really, I think I'll be happier if...
"You control everything?"
"That's one way of looking at it," I said, sheepishly.
Thoroughly annoyed, he tsked tsked me and then poofed into the air. A weird dream indeed.
Whatever was going on in my make-believe world has a ring of truth to it: I'm insistent on simple, homey birthday cakes -- even when I make them for others -- and I'm a control freak who'd rather bake my own.
For the past few years, I've been partial to the Very Good Chocolate Cake from "The Gift of Southern Cooking," a lusciously moist layer cake cloaked in an intensely chocolate icing that will make your teeth chatter. But I must admit, icing a two-layer cake is a struggle for this arts-and-crafts-challenged gal, and even though the results are stellar, I'm usually ready for a nap in the hammock after all the cake construction.
For this birthday girl, the ideal cake is one layer, with one simple coat of frosting that frees me from coloring within the lines. And lo and behold, I recently found a new contender that is blowing all the other crumbs off the cake display.
The latest cake to win me over comes from Nigella Lawson's "Feast." It is a single-layered chocolate cake made, strangely enough, with a healthy portion of Guinness stout. Yes, there's beer in my cake batter, and it's positively weird and wonderful, with gingery-spicy notes that make beautiful music with the chocolate.
It is a damp cake and dark brown-black in color, similar to a gingerbread or a Caribbean black cake. Stranger still, the beer batter is made on top of the stove with a whisk rather than with an electric mixer, and then simply poured into a lined springform pan. The one-pot trick cuts down on prep time as well, taking just about 15 minutes to assemble ingredients and warm up batter.
In her effort to mimic a pint of Guinness, Lawson cleverly suggests a fluffy cream cheese icing, intended to resemble the head of the beer.
The results are neither too sweet nor too rich, the cake holding steady and moist, the icing just enough to finish the job and make everything pretty (but not polished).
If you don't mind a little beer in your cake and chocolate with your suds, this will be the best pint on a plate ya ever had.
P.S. Just found out that Food Network diva Giada De Laurentiis is also a birthday girl today. Anyone else we should be fete-ing? Chime in and join me for a piece of cake.
Chocolate Guinness Cake
From "Feast" by Nigella Lawson
1 cup Guinness stout (not the whole can)
1 stick unsalted butter (I substituted Earth Balance shortening seamlessly), sliced
¾ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 cups granulated sugar (superfine, if possible)
¾ cup sour cream (I substituted plain yogurt without a hitch)
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 ½ teaspoons baking soda
8 ounce cream cheese
1 cup confectioners' sugar
½ cup heavy cream
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-inch springform pan and line bottom with parchment paper.
Pour Guinness into a large saucepan, add butter and heat until melted. Whisk in cocoa powder and sugar. In a small bowl, beat sour cream with eggs and vanilla and then pour into brown, buttery, beery mixture and finally whisk in flour and baking soda.
Pour cake batter into greased and line pan and bake for 45 minutes to an hour (Check at 45 minutes for doneness, poking a skewer in center.). Leave to cool completely in the pan on a cooling rack, as it is quite a damp cake.
When cake is cold, gently peel off parchment paper and transfer to a platter or cake stand.
Place cream cheese and confectioners' sugar in a mixing bowl, and whip with an electric beater, until smooth (You may also do this with a food processor.).
Add cream and beat again until you have a spreadable consistency.
Ice top of cake, starting at middle and fanning out, so that it resembles the frothy top of the famous pint.
Yields about 12 slices.
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