A Cake of Their Own

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“Mommy, daddy’s birthday is coming up! What are we going to make him?”

She said “we”, but that usually means me.

“Do you guys want to make it this year? Just a little cake for the three of us to share with dad?”

“Yes! Can we get sprinkles?!”

“Of course.” I would come to regret these words later.

We decided on a sour cream butter cake with dark chocolate frosting. And sprinkles.

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They proudly cracked open eight eggs in order to get a total of four whole yolks. I fished out the shells from the rejected mix of broken yolks and whites and put the blended eggs into a jar to save for breakfast the next day.

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A bit of sour cream and some vanilla were added to the egg yolks, then the kids took turns weighing the cake flour and sugar.

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They measured the remaining dry ingredients and everything was sifted together into the bowl of my KitchenAid.

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Sifting became a two-person job, slightly messier than one, but pretty efficient.

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Finally, they each buttered and floured a six-inch cake pan.

This is another two-stage cake recipe from Rose Levy Beranbaum. I really like using this mixing method because a) it results in a very tender cake, b) it’s fast and nearly foolproof, (the most time consuming part is measuring the ingredients), and c) kids, (see b).

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Softened butter and more sour cream went into the bowl with the dry ingredients and mixed together until just moistened.

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We cranked the speed up to medium for a bit, then began adding the egg mixture in three additions.

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The kids really enjoyed seeing the transformation from yolky soup to fluffy cake batter in a process that took barely minutes.

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I helped them portion the silky batter into the pans, then we popped the cakes into the oven.

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While the cakes baked, we turned our attention to the chocolate filling and frosting.

Ganache, while fancy-sounding, is actually pretty simple; it is just a combination of chocolate and heavy cream. The trick with ganache is to use the proper ratio of chocolate to cream — more cream will result in a more fluid product, (for glazing or to use as a sauce), slightly less cream will produce something firm enough to use as a frosting, while an even greater ratio of chocolate to cream will become firm enough to scoop and roll into truffles. The method is the same for any variation.

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I chopped the chocolate while my daughter heated the cream to simmering. She poured the hot cream over the finely chopped chocolate and we let it stand for a few minutes before she whisked it until it was shiny and smooth.

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The keys to baking and pastry? Timing and temperature. We now had a still warm cake from the oven, and a ganache that needed to firm up a bit. Lunch break.

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After everything was close to optimal temperature, we started assembling the cake. I like to cut the tops off my cakes to make them as level as possible. Also, you get to eat the scraps.

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We placed one cake, cut-side up, on the turntable, then topped that with a dollop of ganache. We smoothed the chocolate out to the edges of the cake with an offset spatula and added the second cake, cut-side down.

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Then the real mess-making began.

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I showed the kids how to hold a flat icing spatula in their dominant hand and dip it into the bowl of ganache resting on the opposite side.

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Using their other hand to rotate the turntable, they scooped up small amounts of ganache with the tip of the spatula and pressed it against the sides of the cake, sliding the spatula back and forth to spread the ganache evenly, (sort of). I resisted every instinct I had to jump in and smooth it out, or at least mitigate the flinging of chocolate, but they stayed on task and did a very fine job. When they had had enough, I tidied up the sides and evened out the top.

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Another key to pastry work? Decorate to hide mistakes! We had some crumbs mixed in with the frosting, so the kids opted to cover the entire cake with sprinkles.

They also covered the table, the floor, the dog…

But they were so happy with the results! And they were beyond excited to present it to their father, who was just as happy to eat it.

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Sour Cream Butter Cake, adapted just slightly from The Cake Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum

Makes one tall 6-inch cake, (two layers), serving 8, or a 9-inch springform pan (one layer)

4 large egg yolks

2/3 cup (5.5 oz) sour cream at room temperature

1 1/2 t vanilla

2 cups (7 oz) sifted cake flour

1 cup (7 oz) sugar

1/2 t baking powder

1/2 t baking soda

3/4 t salt

12 T (6 oz) unsalted butter, softened

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and butter and flour the cake pans. In a medium bowl combine the yolks, 1/4 of the sour cream, and the vanilla. In the bowl of a standing mixer combine the dry ingredients. Add the butter and the remaining sour cream and mix on low until everything is just moistened. Increase to medium speed and beat for 90 seconds to develop the cake’s structure. Scrape down the sides. Gradually add the egg mixture in 3 batches, beating for 20 seconds after each addition. Scrape down the sides and place the batter into the prepared pans. Smooth the tops of the cakes with a spatula. Bake for about 35-40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean and the cakes spring back when pressed lightly in the center. Let the cakes cool in the pans on a rack for 10 minutes before removing. Let cool completely before frosting.

Ganache Frosting

I used 70% bittersweet chocolate for this recipe. If you choose to use chocolate with a lower percentage of chocolate liquor (cocoa bean solids), you can use slightly more chocolate and less cream. For example, if there is no percentage marked on a standard bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, or anything marked 50 – 60% use 1 cup of cream for 8 oz of chocolate. For 61 – 66%, use 1 1/4 cups for 8 oz of chocolate.

7 oz bittersweet chocolate, (70%), chopped into small pieces

1 cup heavy cream

Place the chopped chocolate in a medium bowl. Bring the cream to a simmer and pour it over the chopped chocolate. Let stand for 5 minutes, then stir until the chocolate is smooth. Let the ganache cool at room temperature, without stirring, until it looks thick enough to spread. If it firms up too much before you can use it, set the bowl in a pan of barely simmering water until the ganache is partially melted, then stir gently to the desired consistency.

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…Five Piping Bags!…

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Four gel paste colors, three cups of flour, two sticks of butter, and a 200-count box of double-pointed round toothpicks!

That last part doesn’t quite roll off the tongue like “a partridge in a pear tree”, but it was a stretch anyway.

It’s holiday cookie time!

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We skipped the mixing and baking this session and just jumped straight into decorating.

I had about five dozen sugar cookies at the ready, along with a large amount of royal icing.

We had used piping bags once before in baking class, but I felt a little reminder would be helpful.

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I demonstrated how to hold the bag, placing the closure in the crook of my hand.

“You’ll squeeze the bag from the top of the icing so it comes out at the tip, just like toothpaste. What do you think would happen if I were to squeeze it from the middle?”

“You’ll get icing coming out the other end!”

“Exactly. That would be super frustrating. And messy. So, from the top, you can twist the bag a bit to increase the pressure.  Easy peasy.”

I know what my bathroom looks like after the kids brush their teeth, so I was fully prepared for icing bag explosions.

“The icing in the bag is for outlining.  It is thicker than the icing in the bottle which is called flood icing.”

I showed them how to make a little dam of icing on the edge of the cookie, keeping the tip of the piping bag close the the surface and steadying it with the fingers of my other hand. Then, I partially filled in the outline with the thinner flood icing.

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The flood icing shouldn’t be so thin that it flattens out completely on its own.  A toothpick comes in handy for spreading it to the edges of the outline.

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After I had a base color down, I used contrasting flood icing to add dots and lines.  Then, using a toothpick, I enhanced the design by dragging the tip of it back and forth through the still wet icing.

“Ooooh”

That little trick never fails to thrill.

They were chomping at the bit to decorate at this point, but I wanted to show them how they could create other designs by drawing lines from the center out…

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Or by drawing concentric circles. Or how to turn dots into hearts by dragging the toothpick through the center of them.

“Just play around with it.”

So they did.

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They tackled the decorating, without trepidation.

They shared piping bags and bottles and encouraging words.

There were a few breaches of icing dams, one or two dropped cookies, and at least one masterpiece was ruined by a 95 lb. dog, but there was nary a fight or complaint, and only a couple of tears were shed, (thanks to the dog).

And there were no icing explosions!

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Just lots of creative color combinations.

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And concentration.

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And inspired designs.

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And meticulous work.

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And chatter.

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And excellent piping technique!

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And compliments, enthusiastically given.

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And proud children.

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And moms who happily took up the task of decorating when the kids had had enough.

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Oh, and messes.

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But it was totally worth it.

“Sure”, you say, “but what am I going to need to make this a tear-free, (parents included), cookie decorating party?”

Let me lay it out for you:

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Gel paste colors, I prefer Americolor.

(please note that all the decorating supplies aside from Americolor gel paste colors, can be found at many craft supply stores or even party supply, near the wedding or cake decorating items, and they are usually cheaper than Amazon.)

Piping bags, I prefer Wilton.

Round #2 piping tips (do not pay more than $2 a piece for these)

Couplers come in handy when decorating with kids because they provide a secure seal around the bag.  There is nothing worse than springing a leak near the tip and dripping icing all over your just finished masterpiece.

Plastic squeeze bottles

Toothpicks

Damp dish towels or plenty of paper towels

Cookies! Baked and completely cooled, (I usually bake them the day before).  After trying many different sugar cookie recipes, I found that I like this one the most.  I usually double the smaller recipe to get about 6 dozen cookies. Simple shapes are best for the kids, they are easier to decorate and less likely to break.

Royal icing, this recipe works well if you are using pasteurized egg whites from a carton, which I recommend because it is just easier, especially if you are making a big batch, which I also recommend. You do not want to run out of icing. For our decorating session, I used 9 oz of egg whites and 12 cups of powdered sugar.  That gave me more than enough to tint several colors. Remember, you will need two different consistencies of icing, the thicker outline icing, and the thinner flood icing. To do that…

Make it. It should be thick enough to make a little peak, but not so thick that it is hard to pipe. To adjust the consistency, you will be adding water to thin, or more powdered sugar to thicken it. But before you thin it…

Tint it.  Working with one color at a time, place some of the thick, white icing in a small bowl. Use the gel paste colors, (a little goes a long way!), to tint it.  When you have the color to your liking, place a third of that into a piping bag fitted with a piping tip.  Use the side of a spatula to press all the icing forward, like you would a toothpaste tube; you do that right? Do not overfill it, a third full is good for a child’s smaller hand; no more that half full for an adult. Twist the bag at the top of the icing and tie it with a piece of string.

Thin it. Add water, a half teaspoon at a time, to the other 2/3 of tinted icing left in your small bowl.  I know it doesn’t sound like a lot, but it thins out fast. Stop adding water when, if you lift a spoonful of it up and drag a ribbon of it across the surface, the ribbon disappears in “1 Mississippi, 2 Mississippi”. This is all very scientific, I know. Pour your flood icing into a squeeze bottle.

Continue tinting and thinning as before.  Don’t make yourself crazy with the colors.  The kids were fine with red, yellow, green and blue. And white, of course! Don’t forget to save some plain white icing, outline and flood.

Now, go make some cookies!

Wishing everyone a very happy holiday and a joyous new year.