Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Secret to Stress-Free Birthday Cakes

Today I would like to share the #1 secret to making amazing birthday cakes without breaking a sweat. It's not having all the fancy kitchen gadgets, although some specialty tools can help. It's not taking expensive baking classes, although you can learn lots from great teachers. And it's not using expensive ingredients, although sometimes it's worth it to pay more. No, the #1 secret to stress-free baking is to watch the time.

Allow me to illustrate this very important principle with an example. Well, it's really more of an anti-example...

This is Ryan. You may remember him from such previous cakes as the Baby You're A Rock Star cake, which he enjoyed while still in the womb. (Aw, baby's first taste of sugar.) Ryan recently celebrated his first birthday and I was lucky enough to be asked to do the baby cake and mini cupcakes for the party. Here's how it went down:

Get the email with the party details, everything's great.
Finalize the numbers and flavors and decorating ideas, everything's great.
Do all the prep work the day before, everything's great.
Get up the morning of the party and get started baking the cupcakes and decorating the cake. Everything is still great.

After a leisurely morning of swanning around the kitchen, fiddling with different tasks, I check my email to make sure that I have everything covered and all the details in order. Only then, upon closer reading, do I discover that I mis-read the party invitation and what I thought was the start time was actually the end time. Suddenly I am running an hour and a half behind, and the party is supposed to start in 10 minutes. And the cake's not quite done. And the cupcakes aren't frosted or decorated. And I haven't showered yet. And, oh yeah, it's a 25 minute drive to the party house. Commence panic.

The next 45 minutes were spent tearing around the house like a Tasmanian devil, piping cupcakes like a madwoman, trying to strike a balance between finishing everything and not being unforgivably late. It was not my finest moment.

Of course, this story has a happy(ish) ending. I made it to the party about an hour late, which, while embarrassing, still left plenty of time to have Ryan eat the cake and let the guests enjoy the cupcakes. My friend Jane, the hostess, was beyond gracious and understanding. And the cake and cupcakes turned out pretty well. There were things about the cake I didn't have time to fix, and cute fondant cut-outs that didn't make it on top of the cupcakes, but I'm trying not to focus on the negatives.

The guidelines Jane gave me were to use shades of blue, green, and brown, and to try to work in a striped pattern. I did that for the bottom layer, but since I know Jane is a wee bit fond of obsessed with argyle I thought it would be fun to do one of the layers in an argyle pattern. It turned out to be my favorite look, by far. I wish I'd done all the layers argyle...but then I would have been about 4 hours late to the party!

This picture is for my adolescent self, who would scowl in geometry class and huff, "When will I ever use this in real life?" Drink it up, Past Liz, you could have used a little more geometry learnin' this weekend. Diamond measuring is hard work.

I made the 1 out of rice crispy treats, which is a fabulous trick when you need to sculpt something with hard edges or difficult details. I didn't love how the plaid turned out, so next time it's all argyle all the way. Live and learn!

It wouldn't be a post about a first birthday cake without a few pictures of the cake carnage.

This picture pretty much sums up Ryan's whole attitude toward the cake-eating. He was extremely suspicious of the whole enterprise--I think he thought we were playing a trick on him.
After taking a few exploratory bites, he found what he really loved about the cake: pounding it flat. He made like Animal and wailed on the cake, sending cake shrapnel flying through the air. I laughed, and then I cried, and then I took about a million pictures.
The end result was a horrifying swamp of cake and frosting covering him, and his high chair, and a swath of floor around him. Good thing there were cupcakes for the guests to enjoy, because no one was eating that cake when he was done with it.

I made two kinds of mini cupcakes: S'mores and Caramel Apple.

The S'mores cupcakes were a rich chocolate devil's food, with a thin layer of graham crumbs on the base and a sprinkling of graham on top before they baked. The cupcakes were topped with a vanilla marshmallow frosting that was lightly torched for that toasted marshmallow-round-the-campfire flavor.
The caramel apple cupcakes were the brainchild of Jane's husband, Seth. I was actually a little less excited about them because to me, apple cupcakes = muffins. And we all know muffins aren't so exciting. However, it turns out if you add enough sugary accessories to apple cupcakes, they're awesome. Here they were filled with a mix of caramel sauce and apple butter, then topped with a caramel buttercream and a caramel drizzle.

The S'mores and Apple Caramel Cupcake recipes are below.

S'mores Cupcakes

Basic Chocolate Cupcakes
Yield: 1-6" round, 1-4" round, and 48 mini cupcakes (make a 2/3 batch if you just want 48 mini or 24 regular cupcakes)

9 oz butter, softened to room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup brown sugar
3 eggs, room temperature
1 tbsp vanilla extract
1 tbsp chocolate extract (optional)
1.5 cups buttermilk, room temperature
3/4 cup sour cream, room temperature
3 tbsp lukewarm coffee (can use water instead)
2-2/3 cup all-purpose flour
1.5 cups BEST QUALITY cocoa powder, Dutch-processed (I use Valrhona)
2-1/4 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line cupcake pans with paper liners.

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream the butter and 2 sugars on high speed until light and fluffy, approximately 5 minutes. Lower the speed to medium, add the eggs 1 at a time, then add the vanilla and mix well. In a separate bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, sour cream, and coffee. In another bowl, sift together the flour, cocoa, baking soda, and salt. On low speed, add the buttermilk mixture and the flour mixture alternately in thirds to the mixer bowl, beginning with the buttermilk mixture and ending with the flour mixture. Mix only until blended. Fold the batter with a rubber spatula to be sure it's completely blended.

Divide the batter among the cupcake pans (1 rounded standard ice cream scoop per cup is the right amount). Bake in the middle of the oven for 20 to 25 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool for 10 minutes, remove from the pans, and allow to cool completely before frosting.

To make S'mores variation: mix 1 cup graham crumbs with 1/4 cup granulated sugar. Melt 1/4 cup butter and stir it into the graham mixture. Place a small spoonful (about 1/2 tsp) of graham mixture in the bottom of each muffin cup and press it down evenly. Fill the cups with cake batter, then sprinkle more graham on top of each before baking.

Marshmallow Frosting
8 large egg whites, room temperature
2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Place egg whites, sugar, and cream of tartar in the bowl of an electric mixer. Set over a saucepan with simmering water. Whisk constantly until sugar is dissolved and whites are warm to the touch, 3 to 4 minutes.

Transfer bowl to electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, and beat, starting on low speed, gradually increasing to high, until stiff, glossy peaks form, 5 to 7 minutes. Add vanilla, and mix until combined. Use immediately.

After piping on cupcakes, use a kitchen torch to lightly toast the outside of the frosting. If you don't have the torch you can try sticking them under the broiler for 20-30 seconds at a time, carefully watching them the whole time. I have a very old, very crotchety oven that doesn't heat evenly, so I wouldn't trust it to brown these sufficiently, but you may have better luck.

Caramel Apple Cupcakes

Apple Cupcakes
Yields: about 55 mini cupcakes

2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
2 cups sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
4 cups coarsely shredded apples, liquid squeezed out

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line muffin tins with paper liners; set aside. Whisk together flour, baking soda, baking powder, spices, and salt in a medium bowl; set aside.

Put butter and sugar into the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment; mix on medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Mix in eggs and vanilla. Reduce speed to low; mix in apples. Don't worry if the batter looks broken at this point. Add flour mixture; mix, scraping down sides of bowl as needed, until just combined.

Divide batter among lined cups, filling about 3/4 full to get generous, crowning apple cupcakes. Bake until tops are springy to the touch, about 15 minutes for mini cupcakes. Remove cupcakes from tins; transfer to a wire rack; let cool completely.

Brown Sugar Buttercream
Yield: enough to frost 55+ mini cupcakes (7-8 cups?)

8 large egg whites, room temperature
2.5 cups packed dark brown sugar
1/2 tsp salt
5 sticks (20 oz) unsalted butter, soft but cool to the touch

Put egg whites, sugar, and salt into the bowl of a standing mixer set over a pan of simmering water. Whisk constantly, until hot to the touch, about 5 minutes.

Beat in the mixer using the whisk attachment on high speed until stiff, glossy peaks form, and the bowl is no longer hot to the touch, about 6-8 minutes. Reduce speed to medium-low. Add butter, 2 tablespoons at a time, beating after each addition. It's normal for the meringue to deflate and look soupy at this point. If your meringue wasn't hot when you started adding it, and your butter was cool but supple to the touch, you should be okay. Beat until frosting is smooth and glossy, 3 to 5 minutes. Buttercream can be refrigerated airtight for up to 3 days; bring to room temperature, and beat before using.

Caramel Sauce
Yield: about 2 cups

1/2 cup water
2 cups granulated sugar
4 tablespoons light corn syrup
1 cup heavy cream, warmed to 100 degrees F
1/2 cup full fat sour cream
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Pinch salt (less than 1/8 teaspoon)

Combine the water, sugar, and the corn syrup in a medium saucepan. Stir them together with very clean fingers, making sure no lumps of dry sugar remain. Brush down the insides of the pan with a little water, using your hand to feel for any stray granules of sugar.

Cover the saucepan and place it over medium heat for 4 minutes. After 4 minutes, remove the lid, increase the heat to high, and bring to a boil. Do not stir from this point on. Keep an eye on the pan. It will be very bubbly. When stray sugar crystals appear on the side of the pan, brush them down with a wet pastry brush.

As the sugar cooks, the bubbles will get larger. Insert a candy thermometer, and when the temperature reaches 300 degrees F, lower the heat to medium, which will slow the cooking. Continue to cook the sugar until it reaches 350 degrees F. It will be dark brown. Remove the pot from the heat and let it sit for 1 minute, or until the bubbles subside.

Add the cream to the caramel. It will bubble up vigorously, so be careful.

Vigorously whisk in the sour cream, lemon juice, and salt. This sauce is now ready to be served warm or cooled to room temperature. It will keep stored airtight in the refrigerator for up to 1 month.

To make the caramel buttercream:
Have buttercream in the bowl of a mixer fitted with the whisk attachment and turn mixer to medium-low. With mixer running, add about 3/4 cup of room temperature caramel sauce--it should be the same temperature as the buttercream, not warmer or cooler. Once it's completely incorporated taste the frosting, and add a bit more caramel if you want the flavor to be more pronounced.

To assemble the caramel apple cupcakes:
Poke a hole in the middle of each cupcake. I mixed together some caramel sauce and apple butter, since I had apple butter languishing in the refrigerator, but you can use straight caramel sauce if you want. Squirt a little sauce in the center of each cupcake. Pipe the caramel buttercream on top, and finish with a drizzle of the remaining caramel sauce.


  1. Your cake is gorgeous, geometry lessons or not. And the cupcakes are adorable. Lucky Ryan!

  2. Thank you thank you thank you SO much Elizabeth! You are wonderful and Ryan's birthday cake couldn't have been tastier or more beautiful. And those Still savoring every bite. AND, Argyle IS the best!!!!

  3. I didn't know about your chaotic morning! You played it cool. The cake looked fabulous and the cupcakes were wonderful. We're so lucky!

  4. Anonymous3:43 PM

    Hello. I am Noriko, a co-worker of Ryan's daddy. I am extremely happy today because I had a delicious cup cake. Big THANK YOU!! (^_^)

  5. Seriously? I can't believe that perfection came from such a hectic morning. I'm still salivating over those cupcakes! And I might have licked my fingers when snagging a small mashed cake bit for Whitney to try. The chocolate cake of Ryan's was delicious. If only we all were as brave as Whitney to head into the cake fury- it would have been worth it. So yummy! Thanks for sharing your never-ending creativity and talents with us!

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