Nadine’s birthday was about a week ago and last week I went over to her place for a little birthday celebration: a few presents, a little play-time with her daughter Kami, and, of course, cake.
I’m lousy at decorating cakes. Tai is the trained pastry chef at our house and he is great at it: he breaks out his cake turntable (yes, doesn’t everyone have one?) and makes a beautifully smooth frosting layer, pipes perfect litttle flowers and curlicues, and seems to do it all in about 10 minutes. I don’t seem to have the patience, nor the skill required, to beautifully frost a cake. Plus, I always seem to be making a cake in July or August, when it is 90 degrees and humid; frosting doesn’t want to stick, even Royal icing is soft and gloppy, and really, since wild berries are in season, what better way to adorn a delicious, mostly-local cake?
Wild wineberries are always in season right around Nadine’s birthday. Last year I made a chocolate cake with chocolate buttercream frosting and drizzled melted chocolate (Nadine really likes chocolate) over that in a grid pattern that I accented with fresh berries. This year I decided to go with a berry theme again, this time in the shape of a Q (Nadine’s maiden, and now middle, name begins with “Q” and the single letter is a nickname of sorts) with a chocolate cake and strawberry cream cheese frosting. With the simple frosting and a cake recipe worked out the week before, this cake came together quickly and yet was delicious and quite impressive when topped with birthday candles and presented on my Grandmother’s depression glass cake plate. Happy Birthday, Nadine!
Nadine’s Birthday Cake
- 1 recipe Whole Wheat Pastry Flour Chocolate Cake
- a double recipe of cream cheese frosting
- 4 tbsp strawberry puree (thawed from frozen)
- 1 cup (8 oz) wild berry preserves (or any type of berry jam or jelly)
- 1 pint fresh berries (red or black raspberries, wineberries, blackberries, blueberries, etc.), rinsed and dried by rolling back & forth in a clean kitchen towel (or air-dried)
- If it is hot, humid, weather (like say, in late July), make some space in the fridge and/or freezer: enough to fit a frosted 9″ cake on a cake plate. You will need to pop the cake in and out of the cool air if the frosting starts to droop and the whole decorating process will be much easier with a chilled cake.
- Make the cake layers and allow to cool completely before frosting. I made the cake (and the frosting) the day before and stored the layers, once completely cooled at room temperature, wrapped in plastic wrap in the refrigerator. You can also store cake layers, triple-wrapped, in the freezer indefinitely until you need to use them. I used Rose’s silicone cake strips for even baking of the top and sides, and I have to say they worked much better, and were easier to use, than the aluminum ones. The cake layers came out quite nicely, with just the tiniest dip from the edges to the middle of the cake, but not really enough to worry about trimming. If you should not be so lucky and your cake layers come out dipped, or with burnt, crumbly sides, or of uneven sizes, simply trim the cake layers down with the largest serrated knife you have (this is much easier to do if you chill the cake first in the fridge or freezer). Make sure you also stack the layers at this point, to make sure they are the same size; trim along the edges if necessary to make the two layers identical. Chill the cake layers again before frosting and make sure to use a crumb coat (see below) when you frost.
- Make the frosting. The butter and cream cheese must be softened at room temperature for about an hour, so it is handy to take them out when you begin making the cake, then they will be ready once the cake comes out of the oven. The frosting will soften as you whip it together, so it is best to make it in advance and store it in the refrigerator until needed. If the weather is very warm, remember, that more sugar will stiffen the frosting, more strawberry puree will soften it. Store in an air-tight container, in the refrigerator, overnight if you can.
- Assemble the cake. Get out your prettiest cake plate. Cut 3 strips of waxed paper (or parchment) about 3 inches wide, and lay these in a triangle across the edges of the cake plate. The goal is to have the edges of the bottom cake layer rest on waxed paper, not on the cake plate, so that the mess of frosting etc., will be whisked away on the waxed paper, and not remain on your lovely cake plate. Get the first cake layer out of the fridge. Unwrap and position over the strips of waxed paper (see how much easier it is to handle when it’s chilled?). Now it’s time to begin the crumb coat. In order to protect your frosting from getting crumbs in it, you can either separate the frosting into two bowls (about half and half), or you can use a separate, small bowl, the rim of which you use to scrape crumb-laden frosting bits from the spatula (this is what I do). I also keep a glass of warm water and a kitchen towel handy to clean the spatula frequently while crumb-coating. Remove the frosting from the refrigerator. You may need to whip the frosting a bit, with your spatula, to soften it for frosting. Apply a thin layer to the outside edges of the bottom cake layer (spinning the plate is the easiest way to do this, so feel free to use a turntable or lazy-susan if you have one). Don’t worry about crumbs in this layer, but try not to get any crumbs back into your frosting (unless you separated your frosting into 2 bowls). Clean your spatula frequently for ease in applying the frosting. Once the sides of the bottom layer are finished, you are going to build a little frosting dam along the outside edges of the top of the bottom layer (ie the middle of the cake); this frosting dam will hold in the jam filing and prevent it from oozing out of the frosted cake. This is probably easiest with a pastry bag (picture a thick line of toothpaste, squeezed in a ring all along the perimeter of the cake), but I’m too lazy to fill it and wash it, so I just build a frosting dam up from the sides of the cake. It should be about 1/2-inch thick and about 1/2-inch tall, all around the perimeter of the top of the bottom cake layer. [If, at any time, your frosting softens up too much, you can pop the whole cake plate into the freezer for 5 to 10 minutes, or in the fridge for 20-30 minutes, to firm up. Put the bowl(s) of frosting in the fridge as well, while you do this.] Once the dam is complete, fill the center space with your preserves, jam or jelly. Pop the cake plate into the fridge or freezer for a few minutes to allow the jam & frosting to set a bit. Remove and unwrap the top cake layer and place atop the chilled & filled bottom layer. Carefully line up the top and bottom layers before actually putting the top layer down; you can slide the top layer a little bit if need be, in order to line it up, but it’s best not to disturb the filling layer too much. Crumb coat the sides and top of the cake and once again put it in to the fridge or freezer to chill and set the crumb coat.
- Frost the cake. With your crumb-free frosting, apply a nice thick layer of frosting to the entire cake. Use a light touch, to avoid stirring up crumbs in the crumb coat, and don’t worry over much about getting the surface of the frosting completely smooth; I like a pattern of swirls in my cake frosting, but if you like it completely smooth, it is easier to smooth out chilled frosting with a heated spatula. To smooth, once your cake is evenly frosted, chill again in the fridge (15 minutes) or freezer (5 minutes). Fill a large glass with very hot water from the tap; dip a large spatula in this, to warm the spatula, then wipe off with a clean kitchen towel. Use the heated spatula to lightly smooth out the ripples in your chilled frosting; warm the spatula repeatedly, as necessary, until your frosting is as smooth as you like it.
- Decorate the cake. Apply fresh berries, in whatever pattern tickles your fancy, to the softened frosting. Make sure the berries are dry (press them lightly into a kitchen towel if necessary) and press them lightly into the frosting layer so they will ‘stick.’ Obviously “Q” won’t work for everyone, but you could use the initial of a person for whom you are making the cake, a big “4” for the 4th of July, various circles or groups of three, or ‘flower’ shapes with a sprig of mint for the leaves and stem. You can press berries in along the bottom and sides (like I did – remove the waxed paper before doing this step), or you could undulate berries in a sine wave formation along the middle of the sides of the cake, or scatter berries about randomly along the sides. For a more formal look, you could completely smooth the sides of the cake and then fill the top layer entirely with an even field of berries. Anything goes, and no one is going to complain that there are too many berries on the cake!
Yields one, 9-inch, double-layer cake. Serves 12, ostensibly.
- The cream cheese frosting really is a little too soft to be making in summer heat (but it is so easy and oh-so yummy that I couldn’t resist). Rumor has it that a Swiss buttercream stands up best to heat (of the frostings that are not made with shortening – ewwww.)
- If you don’t have fruit puree on hand (and no time to make any) you could try using a soft jam or preserve; if it has large chunks of fruit you may want to puree it in a food processor or blender first. You could also try pureeing a handful of fresh berries in strawberry or raspberry jelly and adding that, by the dollop, to the cream cheese frosting.
- If you have no good jam or preserves in the house, you can fill the center of the cake with frosting mixed with a handful of fresh berries.
Refrigerated for up to 1 week. Bring to room temperature for at least an hour before serving for the best flavor and moistness of the cake layers. The cake can be frozen for up to 1 year (Nadine was eating last year’s cake for nearly 8 months – one tiny sliver at a time!). She said that the last slice was as good as the first.
Summer is the season for fresh berries but this cake, with alternate decorations, can be made year-round.