Friday, August 31, 2012

Epic Four-Layer Birthday Cake

Sometimes we just need to be told what to do
I like this message. I grew up in a family where many major decisions and choices were put off until the right time—and though my parents did their very best, so often the right time never came. Maybe that's why I can sometimes be impulsive and determined. That attitude has served me well, and also not so well. My first impulsive move to Arizona as a twenty-something landed me a job with Gary Nabhan, a renowned ethnobotanist, and all around incredible person. On the other hand, my determination to work in the food field has left me with a time deficit. Writing, blogging, cooking, testing, leading tours—well, sometimes it's hard to balance it all.

Layers of goodness
When it comes to making a cake however, I have been going large—with great results. Yes, I can be satisfied with a simple pound cake or a crumb cake if I just need something for a quick dessert, or a breakfast treat. But special occasions call for something bigger. Like a four layer cake. With triple chocolate-hazelnut frosting. And Banana Cream filling. And Strawberry Swiss Meringue Buttercream filling. Both my daughter and husband celebrate their birthdays this month--what better occasion to go large? The cake was truly epic. The trick to going big, and feeling balanced? Starting well ahead. I froze the layers 2 days ahead, and made the frostings/fillings the day before, leaving them at room temperature.
Enjoying one of our favorite places on hubby's birthday
The cake layers featured both white angel food cake and chocolate cake. I love this angel food cake recipe, and had made the cupcakes for my daughter's birthday. For the epic cake, I simply poured the batter into two cake pans, and the layers were perfectly thin. Then I look for a great chocolate cake recipe. This one from Smitten Kitchen never disappoints. I halved the recipe so that I could bake 2 thinner layers. 

The filling was dreamed up by me and my husband after I hinted that I was going to make a nutella frosting. What goes with Nutella?, I asked. Bananas, we said simultaneoulsy. Weird. Anyway, banana cream filling it was.
And I has some amazing Strawberry Meringue Swiss buttercream left from my daughters cake (which was half as epic, but then again, she's only 5). And, last but not least, I was super proud of myself because I made up my own chocolate frosting recipe!! I wanted a Nutella frosting with the consistency of a great chocolate frosting. It worked.

The cake, topped with fresh pansies
Here are the parts and pieces.  Though I waited for a birthday to make this incredible cake, you don't have to. Why not go big today?

Epic Four-Layer Cake

Cake Layers

Angel Food Layers (makes 2 thin layers) from Amanda's Cookin'

2 1/4 cups cake flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups buttermilk
4 large egg whites
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
1 stick (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Grease 24 muffin cups or line with paper liners.
Whisk together cake flour, baking powder and salt.
In a separate bowl, whisk together egg whites and buttermilk.
Place the sugar in your mixer bowl and add the lemon zest. Rub the zest into the sugar with your fingers until moist and fragrant. Add the butter to the sugar mixture and beat at medium speed for 3 minutes, until very light.
With mixer on low, add one third of the flour mixture, then add half of the buttermilk mixture. Add half of the remaining dry ingredients, then the rest of the buttermilk mixture, and finally the remaining dry ingredients. Scrape down the bowl then beat on medium-high for 2 minutes to ensure it is thoroughly mixed and well aerated.
Spoon batter evenly into 2 cake pans
Bake in the preheated oven until lightly browned and a toothpick inserted into the center of a comes out clean, 20 to 25 minutes.
Cool cakes for 5 minutes; transfer to cooling rack to finish cooling. 

Chocolate cake layers from Smitten Kitchen

5ounces fine-quality semisweet chocolate such as Callebaut
3/4 cups hot brewed coffee
1.5 cups sugar
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cups unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch process)
1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoons salt
2 large eggs
1/3 cup vegetable oil
3/4 cups well-shaken buttermilk
3/4 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat oven to 300°F. and grease pans. Line bottoms with rounds of wax paper and grease paper.
Finely chop chocolate and in a bowl combine with hot coffee. Let mixture stand, stirring occasionally, until chocolate is melted and mixture is smooth.
Into a large bowl sift together sugar, flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. In another large bowl with an electric mixer beat eggs until thickened slightly and lemon colored (about 3 minutes with a standing mixer or 5 minutes with a hand-held mixer). Slowly add oil, buttermilk, vanilla, and melted chocolate mixture to eggs, beating until combined well. Add sugar mixture and beat on medium speed until just combined well.
Divide batter between pans and bake in middle of oven until a tester inserted in center comes out clean, 30 minutes.
Cool layers completely in pans on racks. Run a thin knife around edges of pans and invert layers onto racks. Carefully remove wax paper and cool layers completely. 

Fillings and Frostings

 Banana Cream Filling

3/4 cup evaporated milk
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 egg yolks
3 tbsp butter 
1 mashed banana (I use at least 2) 
3/4 cup chopped nuts (personally never used nuts, it doesn’t need them!)
1 tsp vanilla

Cook milk, sugar, egg yolks and butter over medium heat, stirring constantly until thick (12 – 17 mins). Add banana, nuts and vanilla. Cool stirring occasionally until of spreading consistency.

Strawberry Swiss Meringue Buttercream Yield: ~5 cups

5 large, fresh egg whites (150 g/5 oz) 
1 1/4 cups (250 g/9 oz) sugar 
3/4 lb (3 sticks/340 g/12 oz) butter, cut into cubes and cool, but not cold 
2 teaspoons (10 mL) pure vanilla extract
1/4 cup (or to taste) strawberry puree (I used strawberry rhubarb jam) OR a handful (about 1 cup, or more to taste) of fresh, washed, and dried strawberries, chopped 
pinch of salt 

If using strawberry puree, place a handful of frozen strawberries in a food processor, and process until a smooth puree. Measure approximately 1/4 cup and set aside (you may want to add more puree to taste).
Wipe the bowl of an electric mixer with paper towel and lemon juice, to remove any trace of grease.
Add egg whites and sugar, and simmer over a pot of water (not boiling), whisking constantly but gently, until temperature reaches 150°F, or if you don’t have a candy thermometer, until the sugar has completely dissolved and the egg whites are hot.
With whisk attachment of mixer, begin to whip until the meringue is thick, glossy, and the bottom of the bowl feels neutral to the touch (this can take up to 10 minutes or so). *Don’t begin adding butter until the bottom of the bowl feels neutral, and not warm. 
Switch over to paddle attachment and, with mixer on low speed, add butter cubes, one at a time, until incorporated, and mix until it has reached a silky smooth texture (if curdles, keep mixing and it will come back to smooth). *If mixture is too runny, refrigerate for about 15 minutes and continue mixing with paddle attachment until it comes together.
Add vanilla and salt, continuing to beat on low speed until well combined.
Add strawberry puree to taste or the finely chopped strawberries, and blend until combined.
Add small amount of pink food colouring, if desired.

*Note: I used strawberry puree from frozen strawberries for my buttercream. 

Triple Chocolate Frosting

16 tbsp butter
1 cup confecioner'st sugar
4 oz chocolate melted
¾ cup cocoa
2 tbsp corn syrup
cup nutella

*enough to frost one 2 layer cake -- outside only
Heat chocolate over pan of water until melted, set aside to come to room temp.
Beat sugar, cocoa powder and butter until mixed and fluffy, add in vanilla, corn syrup, nutella and melted chocolate.