Friday, August 21, 2009


We are headed out to dinner tonight with friends. Turns out that two of them are celebrating birthdays and one couple is celebrating an anniversary. My friend Bess thought it might be fun to go out for dinner (Rathbun's!), then celebrate at her house afterwards with cake and champagne.

Cake? Oh yeah, I am SO there. Not for eating it (see previous blog entry), but for baking it. Bring it on!

Naturally I volunteered. Bess immediately (like, she didn't even hesitate) accepted. Oy vey! What have I gotten myself into? I'm dealing with 8 people here. Who likes what? Who doesn't like what? Should I go the chocolate route? Vanilla? Caramel? Citrus? What about cupcakes?

And here's another problem: my cake decorating skills SUCK. No kidding. You're probably wondering how in the heck I managed to work in a bakery. Well, I'll tell you how. I got by because I had friends there! Anytime a cake needed to be decorated, they stepped up to the plate (no pun intended) and covered my sorry ass. Sandee, Dorothy, Carla and Michael -- you know who you are!

So here's what I did in the end. Ina Garten (gee, have I mentioned her before?) has a great recipe for a sheet cake. It's really, really good. So I made it in the half sheet pan she recommended (if you don't have one, you can buy it at Costco or Sam's) and then proceeded to deviate from her instructions and go it on my own. Uh-oh. What was I thinking?

Turns out what I was thinking ended up being pretty damn good. I cut the cake into thirds, layered it with a caramel filling, then frosted it with Ina's chocolate icing. Turned out gorgeous and it tastes good, too (I know this because I consumed a fair amount of both the caramel filling and the chocolate icing. Who needs the actual cake, anyway?) And I actually screwed up my courage, dragged out the pastry bag and decorated the thing. Woo Hoo!

And when we cut into it later tonight, it will taste great. Helped, of course, by all of the wine and champagne we will have consumed beforehand.....

Ina Garten's Birthday Sheet Cake (adapted slightly)
2 1/4 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
3 cups granulated sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
6 extra-large eggs, room temperature
1 cup sour cream, room temperature
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
Zest of 1 lemon
3 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
1/3 cup cornstarch
1 teaspoon baking soda

Preheat oven to 350-degrees. Butter a 12x18x1-1/2-inch sheet pan. Line with parchment and butter again.

Cream butter, sugar and salt in an electric mixer until very light and fluffy, about 8 minutes, scraping down sides of bowl several times. Reduce speed to medium-low and eggs, 1 at a time, then the sour cream, vanilla and lemon. Mix well, scraping down bowl as needed.

Sift flour, cornstarch and baking soda. Add to the butter mixture in thirds, with mixer on low speed until just combined. Finish mixing by hand as you do not want to overbeat or cake will be tough.

Pour batter into the prepared pan and level it with an offset spatula. Rap it once on countertop to remove any air bubbles. Bake for 25-30 minutes or until top is golden and a toothpick comes out clean. Remove from oven and let cool to room temperature.

Caramel Filling (adapted from Southern Cakes)

3 cups light brown sugar
1/2 cup unsalted butter
7 tablespoons cream or half-and-half
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

Combine all ingredients in a medium saucepan. Place over medium heat and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. When mixture is boiling, reduce heat so that it bubbles gently. Cook for 7 minutes, stirring often. Remove from heat and let cool 5 minutes.

Stir briskly with a wooden spoon until filling cools down and thickens. This could take anywhere from 3 to 6 minutes.

Use as soon as it reaches spreading consistency. If it becomes too hard, warm gently over low heat and add a tablespoon or two of cream or half-and-half until filling softens again.

Ina's Chocolate Frosting

24 oz. chocolate chips (I used Ghirardelli 60% cacao)
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature

Place chocolate chips and cream in a heavy saucepan and place over medium-low heat. Stir frequently, until chocolate is melted and mixture is smooth. Remove from heat and add the corn syrup and vanilla. Blend well, then set aside and let cool to room temperature. When completely cool, place in the bowl of an electric mixture fitted with a whisk attachment. Add softened butter and whisk on medium spped for 2-3 minutes until thickened and ready to spread. Use immediately.

To Assemble Cake:
When cake is completely cool, loosen edges with a knife or spatula and turn out onto large cutting board. Trim edges on all sides (you can eat these yourself and no one ever has to know which is of course the other reason why I know this tastes good) to make an even rectangle. Cut crosswise into thirds (my finished pieces measured 11 x 5/14 inches).

Place first layer onto platter, bottom side facing up. Spread with caramel filling. Repeat with second layer, working quickly before filling hardens. Top with third layer, bottom side facing up.

Put a big dollop of chocolate frosting on top then use an offset spatula to bring it down over sides in order to cover. Continue this process until cake is frosted completely. You can smooth the top and sides and decorate as desired, or you can just go for the "natural" look. Either way, you can't go wrong!

This cake will serve approximately 8 - 10 people.

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