Monday, February 22, 2010

Happy, Happy Birthday Baby

Well, it's happened. The moment has arrived. I am officially 27 years old. I'm not entirely sure how that happened. I'm pretty sure I was turning 21 about 10 minutes ago; I'm still half convinced when I wake up most mornings that I'm going to be late for my first class. Then I roll over and discover I'm in a grown up big girl apartment in Queens sleeping next to my husband. It's a bit jarring. Last week as I stumbled blearily out of my bedroom and into the kitchen to make some breakfast, a tiny bit miffed that there isn't a dining hall to just make it for me, I noticed a recipe tacked to the cork board. It's been there for quite awhile, last May to be exact. The title reads "Happy Birthday to Me, With a Spanish Lilt".

Last May as I rode the subway to work I was completely absorbed as Melissa Clark described her birthday cake that year--sophisticated, elegant, and with a bit of a European tinge. She had made herself an almond cake, and topped it with rich buttercream spiked with lemon and sherry. The article and recipe were so captivating that I nearly missed my stop, so for nine months this cake had taunted me. I wanted this cake.

At the time I read the article, as regular readers know, I wasn't much of a baker. I still struggle, last week I tried to make cornbread to go along with the Jambalaya, and forgot the egg. I got corn cracker, sitting sadly in the bottom of my cast iron pan. Baking and I tend to get in fights. At the time I found the recipe, I did not even own cake pans. It is entirely possible that the last time I made a cake I was 12 and there was a box marked "Duncan Hines" involved. This cake, however, was calling out to me, and it was more then your usual cookies and brownies type baking. It was grown up baking, challenging baking, figure out how to build a double boiler type baking (way easier then I had thought).

Along the way through, I sort of wandered away from Spain. Will brought home a bottle of cooking Sherry, a product I have never worked with, and it was awful. I don't know if this is typical to Sherries, but it had salt mixed in for no reason I could come up with. There was no way it was going in my icing. My eye caught on a bottle of Madeira I've been keeping around. Therefore, I took a bit of a detour around the Iberian Peninsula and ended up in Portugal. It was a damn good detour.

Almond Birthday Cakes with Medera-Lemon Butter Cream
Adapted from the New York Times


For the Cake:
-1 Cup plus 2 tablespoons (2 sticks plus 2 tablespoons) Unsalted Butter, at room temperature; more for greasing pans
-3 large eggs
-1 cup sour cream
-1 teaspoon vanilla extract
-1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
-2 1/2 cups cake flour
-1/2 cup finely ground almonds (can be done in food processor)
-1 1/2 cups sugar
-3/4 teaspoon baking powder
-3/4 teaspoon baking soda
-3/4 teaspoon salt

For the butter cream:
-4 large egg whites (yes Will made me a cocktail with one of the yolks)
-Large pinch salt
-3/4 pound unsalted butter (3 sticks) at room
-2 tablespoons Madeira (or to taste)
-1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
-1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease two 9-inch by 2-inch deep round cake pans and line bottoms with parchment or waxed paper. In a bowl, beat together the eggs, 1/4 cup sour cream, vanilla and lemon zest.

In bowl of an electric mixer, whisk together the cake flour, ground almonds, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Beat in butter and remaining 3/4 cup sour cream until light and fluffy, 1 to 2 minutes. Slowly beat in the egg mixture until fully combined.

Scrape batter into prepared pans. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in center of a cake layer comes out clean. Let cake layers cool in pans on wire racks for 15 minutes, then invert onto racks and peel off paper. Let cool completely on racks.

While cakes cool, make frosting: In a heatproof bowl suspended over a pan of simmering water (or use a double boiler), whisk egg whites, sugar and salt until sugar is completely melted (130 to 140 degrees on a candy thermometer), 3 to 4 minutes. Remove egg whites from heat; beat mixture with an electric mixer on medium-high speed until completely cooled and thickened, 5 to 7 minutes.

Beat in the butter, a little at a time, until frosting is smooth and fluffy. Beat in the Madeira, lemon zest and cinnamon. Taste, add more Madeira if desired.

To frost cake, put a little dab of icing in the center of your platter to give yourself a little stability. Place 1 layer on a cake plate, rounded side down, trimming if necessary so it lies flat. Spread with a third of the frosting, top with second layer (rounded side up this time) and frost remainder of cake.

The "suspend a bowl over a simmering pan of water" thing is not nearly as hard as it sounds. Just take your largest mixing bowl (heat proof is more important then usual here) and rest it on top of a saucepan full of boiling water. Voila! You've built yourself a double boiler, and saved yourself $35.

When I ground my almonds, I ended up grinding way too many. Therefore I spread them on my toaster oven baking pan, and just toasted them for a few minutes. After the cake was iced, I carefully went around and pressed the crushed almonds into the bottom 2" of cake. I swear, I don't know if I'm becoming domestic or am just a show off.

The cake was everything I wanted it to be. It's a dense cake, with all of that almond, but richer and more complex then what you expect biting into what looks to be a vanilla cake. The icing was even better, all the heart stopping butteriness that you usually get from a buttercream, but with this very grown up something extra involved. It was certainly a cake I was happy to serve guests in my very grown up big girl apartment, because, lets face it, I am not a college student anymore. I am a grown up big girl of 27 years of age. But I'm still going to wear the tiara.

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