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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A Banana Two-Stage

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No, that’s not a new dance move. We were mixing a cake using a different method — one that would require the kids to do the opposite of what I told them not to do the last time we baked a cake. Simple right?

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

First, let’s talk bananas.

Me: “When you guys go to the farmers’ market right now, what kind of fruit do you see there?”

“Oranges!”

“Tangerines!”

Me: “So, citrus fruits, like lemons, limes, grapefruit…anything else?”

“Apples?”

Me: “Do you see peaches? Or plums?”

“No!”

Me: “Well, why not?”

“Cause they’re not in season?”

Me: “Right! But the kids and I were in the grocery store the other day and we saw cherries. So, where did they come from?”

“From somewhere where the season is opposite of ours?”

Exactly.

We talked about the different foods available to us in California during the different seasons and where those January cherries and plums might have come from. I explained how, as a pastry chef trying to come up with an interesting dessert menu in winter, I would often times turn to tropical fruits…pineapples, mangoes, passionfruit, and yes, bananas. We reviewed which areas would be considered tropical, and I reminded them that our lesson on cocoa took us to those same regions.

But back to the cake.

I’d already heated the oven, so the next step was to prepare the cake pan. For a butter cake, that means greasing the pan, (we used the butter wrapper), placing a round of parchment in the bottom, and dusting the surfaces with flour.

I showed them a photo that Dorie Greenspan, (a famous cookbook author and personal idol of mine), posted on Facebook recently of a “baking fail” in which a chunk of chocolate cake clung stubbornly to the bottom of her pan; the caption read, “should have used parchment”.

I have my own “should have” stories, but bottom line, you won’t ever be sorry for taking the extra few minutes to prepare your pans properly.

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“So is this like banana bread?”

I knew they had all baked banana bread or banana muffins before, so I asked, “How do you guys make banana bread?”

“You put the wet ingredients in one bowl, and the dry ingredients in another bowl. Then you put them together.”

We remembered that this muffin method is what we used when we baked pumpkin cupcakes. The resulting texture of that method is coarser and more open than the fine crumb achieved with the creaming method we used to make butter pound cake.

The process we were using for this banana recipe, called the two-stage mixing method, would result in a similarly fine textured, very tender cake.

Therefore, the difference is the crumb and tenderness — the texture and chew of a muffin versus the texture and softness of a birthday cake.

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We placed a sifter on top of our mixing bowl and placed the whole thing on a scale.

“Don’t forget to zero it out!”

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They took turns placing the dry ingredients into the sifter.

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Then, everything was sifted together directly into the mixing bowl.

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“Hello? Is that you?”

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Cause, bananas.

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Next, the wet ingredients, also measured by weight, were added to a pitcher.

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I was very proud when they remembered, without my asking, that all the ingredients should be at room temperature.

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A couple of eggs…

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Finally, they each took a turn using the microplane to zest an orange.

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A lot of concentration was required to keep a very large orange from tumbling out of small hands.

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“It looks like an ice cream sundae!”

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With all of the wet ingredients in the pitcher, we used an immersion blender to combine them and puree the bananas.

Vocabulary word of the day: immersion.

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This is where I had to instruct the kids to forget everything I had told them about over mixing their batter.

Up until now, I’ve always warned them not to mix the batter too much once the wet ingredients were added; that flour, when combined with liquid and agitation, results in gluten development, which in a cake is not usually a good thing. Gluten development is what gives baked goods structure and chew; strong gluten development is good in bread, not as much in a tender cake.

However, in this two-stage technique, by adding softened butter and a small amount of the liquid in the beginning, we would be coating the flour in fat while the sugar would suck up the liquid that would usually promote the development of gluten.

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And because we were using cake flour, which is softer than all-purpose flour, we could mix away without worry. In fact, we wanted to mix enough to develop some structure; about a minute and a half would do it.

“I need someone to count 90 seconds.”

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They sat silently counting. It was the quietest moment of the afternoon.

We scraped down the bowl with a spatula, added half of the remaining wet ingredients, and mixed for another twenty seconds.

That’s when the chanting started.

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We repeated the scraping, adding, and chanting to “twenty Mississippi.”

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The batter went into the oven for about 30 minutes, and ta-da…cake!

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Everyone agreed that this was way better than banana bread, and just as easy.

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Banana Cake, from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Cake Bible

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and prepare a 9″ by 2″ cake pan by buttering it, placing a round of parchment in the bottom, and dusting with flour

2 large ripe bananas

1/2 c (4 1/4 oz) sour cream, room temperature

2 large eggs, room temperature

zest of one orange

1 1/2 t vanilla extract

2 c (7 oz) sifted cake flour

3/4 c +2 T (6 oz) sugar

1 t baking soda

3/4 t baking powder

3/4 t fine sea salt

10 T (5 oz) unsalted butter, softened

Combine the dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl or the bowl of a standing mixer. Set aside. Place the bananas, sour cream, eggs, orange zest, and vanilla in a pitcher and process with an immersion blender, or process them in a food processor. Add the butter and 1/2 of the banana mixture to the dry ingredients and mix on low speed until everything is just moistened. Increase to medium speed, (high speed if using a hand mixer), and beat for 1 1/2 minutes. Scrape down the sides. Gradually add the remaining banana mixture in 2 batches, beating for 20 seconds after each addition. Scrape down the sides. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the surface with a spatula. Bake 30 – 40 minutes or until a wire cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean and the cake springs back when pressed lightly in the center. Let the cake cool in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes before removing from the pan.