This time of year I become insufferable. Moodiness and impatience start right after Memorial Day, making way for slight giddiness two weeks later, and followed by a slow, seeping depression around the third week of the month. By July 4th acceptance and resignation have taken over and then I turn a corner and am back to my old(er), chipper self. Six weeks is a long time to suffer from birthday-syndrome.
I’ve mentioned before how ambivalent I am about my birthday. Of course aging is awful and who wants to do that? But the real issue is the taking stock, reckoning, and assessing that comes with marking the day you entered the world. How’d I do this year? Where was I last year? Where am I headed? It’s exhausting. And it would be one thing if I tortured only myself every June. But I don’t. I let all my nearests and dearests in on my psychic torment—indicating my expectations for support and/or celebration, yet trying to control any efforts on their part to help assuage my all-encompassing grumpiness.
I’m not sure what it is I expect or think will make me feel better. I hate surprises, so it’s not like I want to unexpectedly open my apartment door and see 40 people (make that 20, the place is pretty small) wearing party hats and screaming “surprise!” I’d hate that for so many reasons. What if the party planners didn’t realize who all my friends are and left out a bff? What if someone made a hummus-crudite platter? I hate hummus. What if my roots were showing or my good jeans were in the wash? There is just too much risk.
So, if I don’t want a party what on earth is it that I do want? I’ll let you know when I figure it out. In the meantime, one way I have found to cope is to bake my own cake every year. And no, I don’t make it just for me and no, I don’t sit there with a nine inch layer cake on my lap clawing at it with my hands. Although that might be kind of fun. I make it for my friends and family. I do it partly because usually someone else is making me dinner and expecting a cake too is asking a lot. But really it’s because I know I’ll make exactly what I want: a yellow cake with chocolate frosting.
The history of this cake goes back to Ethel, my maternal grandmother’s housekeeper who kept us in cake whenever we visited. Ethel was one of those women who could be both warm and terrifying at the same time. That might have had something to do with the fact that Nana, for whom Ethel worked for close to 40 years, often dumped, I mean entrusted, the care of her grandchildren onto her devoted housekeeper while she played cards for eight hours at the club. During those long days Ethel might take us to run errands or to Friendly’s for lunch, all the while warning us not to stick our heads out of the back seat windows because she knew a little boy who did that and his head slammed into a mailbox and he was decapitated. That was Scary Ethel. But Nice Ethel baked an amazing cake.
Traditionally we ate the cake with the whole family and my sister, the biggest chocolate fan, would first eat just the cake, saving the F shape of frosting for last. This caused Grandpa Jim to lunge towards her with a fork and say “You done with that?” while she screamed “NOOO” and hurled her body across her plate. (As you can see from her plate last weekend, her cake eating style hasn't changed.)
The first time I attempted a facsimile of the cake I had just turned 10 and was finally allowed to walk to the corner store myself. Having already celebrated my birthday with my friends and a bakery cake weeks earlier (before school let out and everyone scattered) my actual birthday arrived and nothing seemed to be happening. So, I took matters into my own hand and, donning my bandana shorts and my “Don’t Bug Me” iron-on transfer ladybug tee-shirt, walked to the Sloan’s on 84th and Columbus. I bought a cake mix (I was young and foolish) with a photo on the box that looked like an Ethel cake and a tub of matching chocolate frosting. By the time my mother realized what was going on the layers were out of the oven and a craggy fault line ran across one of them. I was devastated but learned that’s why God invented frosting: it fills all the holes. Luckily, Mom saved me from the can of what amounts to cocoa Crisco and together we made Ethel's signature “Elegant Frosting” from a recipe then found on the back of the box of Baker’s unsweetened chocolate.
So, after years of searching for a perfect yellow cake I have settled on this one from Food and Wine. You may notice it is the same cake I made for my father on his birthday a few weeks ago except here I use regular, not coconut, milk. It is simple and perfect. The stunner is the frosting. It is no longer found on the Baker’s chocolate box so you owe me one for sharing it with you. It combines the best of both ganache and butter cream and is worth the tiny bit of extra effort for those of you who usually make the confectioner’s sugar, butter, melted chocolate chip stuff (not good ) or open a tub (very bad). I will say, baking this cake always puts me in a better mood and of course eating it doesn’t hurt. Happy Birthday to Me! Until next year.
Happy Birthday to Me Yellow Cake with Chocolate Frosting
Adapted from Food and Wine, June 2007
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3 cups sifted all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1 tablespoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup whole milk, at room temperature
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
2 cups granulated sugar
4 large eggs, at room temperature
Preheat the oven to 350°. Butter two 9-by-2-inch round cake pans and line with parchment paper; butter and dust with flour.
In a bowl, mix the 3 cups of flour, baking powder and salt. In a cup, mix the milk with the vanilla. Set aside.
In a standing mixer fitted with the paddle, beat the butter at medium speed until light and creamy. Add the sugar and beat until fluffy, 4 minutes. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, scraping down the bowl.Beat in the dry ingredients in 3 batches, alternating with the milk mixture and scraping down the bowl.Scrape the batter into the pans. Bake in the lower third of the oven for about 35 minutes, until springy. Let cool for 15 minutes, then run a knife around the edges and invert onto a rack. Peel off the paper, turn the cakes upright and cool completely.Elegant Frosting
From the back of the Baker's Unsweetened Chocolate Box, circa 1975
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 cup heavy cream
5 one ounce squares of unsweetened chocolate
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter cut into 8 pieces
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Combine sugar and cream in heavy saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. When mixture begins to boil stir it constantly for 6 minutes.Take pan off heat and add chocolate, stirring until melted and blended.Stir in butter until melted and add vanilla.Pour mixture into either a large bowl (if you will be using a hand mixer) or the bowl of your standing mixer.Chill for 30 minutes.
Beat until thick, frosting will go from darker to lighter.Chill for another 30 minutes or so, beat to aerate again and frost the cake.
Place several pieces of wax paper strips in sunburst pattern on serving platter or frosting turn-table.
Place one cake layer on top of wax paper strips.
Place one cup of frosting on top of cake layer and spread with a spatula (offset is best).Place second cake layer on top of first layer and frost top and sides with remaining frosting.Carefully remove wax paper strips and serve. Feel free to chill for a bit but cake is best served at room temperature.
Yield: one 9 inch layer cake (16 slices)