Those who have been paying attention know that I had been testing cake recipes for Kami’s birthday cake, which was due for her birthday dinner, last Thursday. Well, let’s just be brief and say “the best laid plans of mice and men (and crazy red-headed baking chicks)…” Let’s just review the cakes I’ve baked over the last couple of weeks:
- A mini-version of the Pink Lady cake over at Smitten Kitchen. I cut the recipe to 1/4 of the original and substituted WW pastry flour for cake flour. As I noted in the previous post, the cake was too moist, too dense, and collapsed. I assumed the cake recipe/trimming the recipe/or flour substitution was the culprit, so I moved on to another recipe.
- A 1/2 recipe (one 9-inch cake pan) of Rose’s White Velvet Butter Cake. As I noted, this cake rose like a dream, had a great texture, but was a little too vanilla-y. I noticed that a similar version of this cake replaced some of the butter & sugar with melted white chocolate (the White Chocolate Whisper Cake), so I decided to bake this one, cutting down on vanilla and marrying the white chocolate flavor to the strawberry cream cheese frosting. All is good.
- The day before Kami’s birthday, Wednesday, I decide (unpredicatably) that I will avoid crazy-cake-baking-day stress and make both the cake layers and the frosting a day early, hence only having to assemble and decorate the cake on Thursday. We did not have to leave the house until 3pm, so that would give us acres of time. Mmmm hmmm. You see where this is going, right? So, in the early afternoon, I dutifully whip up one recipe of the White Chocolate Whisper Cake, carefully settle the batter into the prepared pans, and pop them both in the oven. About 30 minutes later, they are nicely golden, the cake tester is clean, and the sides are starting to pull away just slightly from the cake pan (which Rose tells us should not happen until after the cake is removed from the oven, so technically these should have been slightly over-cooked). I remove the cakes from the oven to cool, in the pan, on wire racks. They are nice and fluffy & high, with a slight rise in the middle, that I figure I will just slice off to even the cake layer (and have extras to snack on). Five minutes later my beautiful, puffy 1.5-inch cake layers have sunk about an inch and now look like The Crater of Doom. Well, shit. Now I have to make dinner and I still have to make the frosting so I don’t really have time to make another cake. I decide to get up early on Thursday to make another cake and have plenty of time to frost it. I wrap the layers and stuff them in the fridge, thinking I can make trifle or something.
- 10:00 pm on Wednesday night. I realized that I don’t really know why the cake fell: was the WW pastry flour too dense to be supported by unwhipped egg whites? Did I not mix the cake enough to develop structure? I started obsessing and decided to bake a 1/2 cake recipe, in one pan, but this time to whip the egg whites to soft peaks and fold them into the batter just before panning. I also decided to switch from 8-inch pans to a 9-inch pan, just in case the pan size had something to do with it. Voila, it is 11:30pm and I have yet another fallen, dense brick of cake. Same exact scenario; looks beautiful in the oven, starts browning at edges and pulling away, etc., etc., then 10 minutes later, Crater of Doom. So now I’m pissed off. The whipped egg whites didn’t help at all, I don’t know why this cake is falling, it’s nearly midnight, I have dishes to do, I haven’t made the frosting yet and I have $40 worth of useless, dense cake in my fridge. I clean up, set the alarm for 9 am (early for me!) and decide that I will switch back to the regular White Velvet Cake that worked so well a week ago.
- Thursday morning, 10:30am. So, apparently I turned off the alarm. Tai didn’t wake me up because “I seemed tired.” Hurrumph. I bound out of bed (well, it sounds better than rolled, grunting and grumbling) and get started on the White Velvet Cake. I send Tai to the store for more milk and butter. I also decide that maybe my ancient old hand mixer simply isn’t up to snuff these days, and I break out the heavy guns (the Kitchen Aid, which normally lives in the garage) in case I am simply not able to mix at high enough speed to develop structure with my trusty hand mixer. I measure exactingly, mix to the letter of Rose’s recipe, switch back to 8-inch pans (don’t ask me, I’m desperate), wrap the pans with wet cake strips (to slow the sides down, because maybe that is making a difference), cross my fingers, and put the cakes in the oven. I won’t even do the dishes while the cakes are in there; I’m tiptoeing around the kitchen, holding my breath, hoping the planets have suddenly come into Cake-Favorable-Alignment. Forty minutes later, they look beautiful, gorgeous, magnificent; I even give a little “Now, that’s what I’m talking about!” victory cheer as I take them out of the oven. Until about 5 minutes later. What the %^%$#*!!!! I am upset. I am bewildered, I am frustrated. I am swearing like a truck driver. (I believe that the bilious cloud of curse words that came out of my mouth is still hovering over northern Westchester County. Gardeners and sunbathers, I apologize). I don’t know what the hell is going on. Nadine (Kami’s mother) calls, on her own crazy errand to try to honor Kami’s dinner request of “pizza, beans and broccoli” and I tell her that the cake is likely to be very dense. She scoffs and tells me she’s sure it will be delicious.
- Finally, I have an epiphany. Maybe (just maybe) something is wrong with the oven! I turn one of the latest layers upside-down and cut a small slit with a paring knife; the cake is raw. Thoroughly uncooked. Ridiculously uncooked, actually. Well, I can’t serve this. This goes beyond dense-fallen-cake-land; uncooked cake is a) disgusting, and b)potentially dangergous (raw eggs, anyone?). All I need to do is give Kami a nice helping of salmonella for her birthday. Now we’re in full-blown crisis mode; it’s 1pm and we have to bake, cool, frost and decorate a cake in 2 hours. I send Tai back out to get an oven thermometer, while I (yet again) whip together the dry & wet ingredients of the cake, holding the mixing until he gets back. I make the frostings and (yet again) do another pile of dishes. Now, don’t ask me why I don’t have an oven thermometer already. Practically every cookbook tells you to get one. Baking cookbooks practically beg you to get one. They cost about $5. But, I’ve never gotten one. I’ve thought of it many times, as in “I should really get an oven thermometer.” But, to no avail. Never got one (well, until now). So, Tai gets back with the afore-mentioned, really-stupid-that-I-don’t-already-have-one-oven-thermometer, and we get to work. The oven’s been on all day, basically, so it should be pretty nicely pre-heated. I put the thermometer in the middle rack, middle of the oven. 350 degrees. Huh. Left side of the oven, middle rack. About 345 degrees. Very front of the middle rack. 325 degrees. Hmmmm. Bottom rack: 325 degrees. This can’t be good. If the oven is simply off, you can adjust. But if the internal temp of the oven is varying all over the place, what do you do? Well, I mixed and panned up the 4th layer cake of the last 24 hours. I put both pans on the middle rack and pushed them all the way to the back of the oven, still set to 350 degrees. I decided that I would bake for 30 minutes, then cover with foil and back another 15-30 minutes, to make sure that they would be cooked through. In the meantime, I realized that on that schedule, they were due to come out of the oven at between 2:45 – 3:00 pm. About when we have to leave the house to make it to Kami’s on time. There would never be enough time to cool, frost & decorate the cake, and I wasn’t even confident that it would turn out edible.
- I sent Tai back out: to Balducci’s, to buy a birthday cake.
So, you may be thinking, “Well, duh. You should have done that 5 cakes ago.” Yes, you are correct, sir. Why did I not? Because I am dumb. And stubborn. And a science geek who cannot rest when there is a puzzle, a problem, a mystery. But mostly, because I am dumb. And obviously so confident in my own baking skills (not) that it took me 6 cakes to figure out that there might, just possibly, be a problem with the cake recipe that was outside of my control. (She takes deep breaths.) Really, it is ridiculous. I don’t bake cakes all the time, but often enough to know that I can bake a basic butter cake. Want to know what is even more ridiculous? I live with a trained pastry chef. Yes, that’s right: Tai graduated from culinary school with a degree in pastry, worked as a pastry chef in Manhattan, and even interned with Sylvia Weinstock, of wedding cake fame. But when I, eyes rolling in a panic and my voice so high & squeaky that it’s only audible to dogs, ask him “What is going on? What should I do?” he shrugs and says “I don’t know. Use white flour.” Et tu, Brutus? Et tu?
So, the moral of the story? Buy an oven thermometer. Trust your baking instincts. And send me recipes calling for fallen, dense, overcooked cake layers. Many, many recipes.
Adapted from White Chocolate Whisper Cake in The Cake Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum.
Kami’s Birthday Cake (That Was Not To Be)
- 6 oz white chocolate
- 4 lg egg whites (4.75 oz)
- 1 cup whole milk
- 1 tsp vanilla (1 and 1/2 tsp in original recipe)
- 3 scant cups sifted whole wheat pastry flour (9.5 oz)*
- 2.5 tbsp cornstarch (1 oz)*
- 1 cup + 3 tbsp (8.5 oz) organic evaporated cane sugar
- 1 tbsp + 1 and 1/2 tsp baking powder
- 3/4 tsp sea salt
- 9 tbsp (4.5 oz) butter, softened at room temperature
*Rose’s original recipe calls for 3 cups (10.5 oz) sifted cake flour (without cornstarch). You can also substitute 3/4 cup all-purpose flour + 3 tbsp cornstarch for cake flour. Despite what Tai (a.k.a. Brutus) says, I have made many successful cakes with WW pastry flour substituted for cake flour. This is the first time I’ve tried lightening the cake with cornstarch, but obviously, I will need to try it again with a functioning oven.
- 1 cup (8 oz) no-sugar-added strawberry jam
For frosting & decoration:
- 1 and 1/2 recipe Strawberry Cream Cheese Frosting
- 1/2 recipe Cream Cheese Frosting (omit strawberry puree)
- food coloring
- fresh strawberries
- Butter, line with parchment, butter or spray parchment, and then coat with flour two 9-inch by 2-inch cake pans.
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Check your spanky new oven thermometer to see if your oven is accurate.
- In a double boiler, melt the chocolate over hot, but not simmering, water, stirring frequently. Remove from the water.
- In a medium bowl, lightly combine the egg whites, 1/4 cup milk and vanilla.
- In a large mixing bowl, combine the dry ingredients and mix on low speed for 30 seconds to blend. Add the softened butter and remaining 3/4 cup milk. Mix on low speed until the dry ingredients are moistened, then increase to medium speed (or high speed on a hand mixer) and beat for 1 and 1/2 minutes to aerate and develop the cake’s structure. Scrape down the sides and gradually add the egg mixture in 3 batches, beating about 20 seconds in between additions. Scrape down the sides once more and add the melted chocolate; beat to incorporate.
- Scrape the batter into the prepared pans (you should have about 20 oz per pan) and level the tops with a spatula. If desired, wrap the cake pans in soaked cake strips, to produce an even, flat cake top. Bake 25 to 35 minutes or until a tester inserted near the center comes out clean and the cake springs back when pressed lightly in the center. The cake should start to shrink from the sides of the pan only after removal from the oven.
- Let the cakes cool in the pans, on wire racks, for 10 minutes. Loosen the sides with a small metal spatula and invert onto greased wire racks. To prevent splitting, reinvert so that the tops are up and cool cakes completely before wrapping airtight, or frosting.
- As noted,the original recipe calls for 3 cups (10.5 oz) of sifted cake flour, no cornstarch, and 1.5 tsp vanilla.
- The basic White Velvet butter cake recipe is nearly identical, with the following changes: eliminate chocolate, increase butter to 12 tbsp (6 oz), increase sugar to 10.5 oz, increase vanilla to 2 and 1/2 tsp.
Airtight, for 2 days at room temperature, 5 days refrigerated, and 2 months frozen. According to Rose “texture is most perfectly moist on the day of baking.”