“Why didn’t I think of that?!” Those are the frustrated words of every one of us who has gritted her teeth as an idea that seems at once so brilliant and so stupid brings the inventor millions. (Topsy Tail anyone?) But what is even worse is watching them hit the jackpot when you actually had thought of that; you just didn’t do anything about it. You have no one to blame but yourself but still, you have to hate the person who had the guts to bring your idea to life.
Since I was young I’ve had several ideas that stayed in my head and became a career for someone else. When I was a kid and wore a uniform to school, wearing “cool” socks was a way to add a little personality to our blue jumpers. What if there was a store that just sold tights and socks? We’d call it The Sock Hop (hey, Happy Days was big then) and it would be filled with great, fun socks! And here it is, only I don't own it.
When I used to actually go swimming I thought, wouldn’t it be fun if instead of regular rafts for your swimming pool there were floats that looked like they were part of a tropical island? Yup.
When getting ready to spend a semester abroad I wished there was a place where I could get everything I needed for my trip. I’d call it "Bon Voyage" and there’d be luggage, and little kits to bring on the airplane and convertible hairdryers and, cut to Flight 001 where you can find all those things and more.
I’ve been able to shrug off these various knocks to my inner Caracatus Potts (oh come on, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s hapless inventor!), probably because I didn’t have the required fire in my belly to follow any of my ideas to fruition. However, more recently there has been an insult to the passion said belly holds dearest.
I first read about Baked by Melissa in The Times three years ago. Like a lot of young bakers, this Melissa had left an unsatisfying career to follow her sweet bliss. At the time she was selling her teeny, tiny cupcakes out of the window of Café Bari downtown. Let’s review why I was resentful: 1) I’ve been making mini-cupcakes for years and have let the concept of “legal kitchen” and “insurance” scare me away from doing anything business-y with them. 2) She was in The New York Times and 3) she was 25. Done. But because her little window was all the way downtown I was able to forget her. Until now. Her business has taken off and she has free-standing stores all over town. One is just 10 blocks from my apartment. Truthfully, I rarely venture to that strip of Broadway, and I would have been able to continue to ignore her if my friends hadn’t been over the moon with the fabulousness of the fact that her cupcakes are only 50 calories each. This is surprising? They’re the size of a quarter! And I think we all know there is no way in hell you will eat just one. And by the way, if you took one bite of a normal size cupcake that would be 50 calories too! Ugh. Anyway, I kept hearing about how adorable these little treats were and they’re so good and the packaging is so perfect and blah, blah, blah.
It was just a matter of time before I tasted one at the home of a friend. Okay, I’ll give you that they are cute. Anything small is cute, except a bed bug or a mouse. But how did they taste? You probably think this is where I’ll have a big mea culpa moment and say they’re incredible and how could I have been so judgy?! Not going to happen. I’m giving them a “meh.” I tried a few and found the cake to wander between gummy and dry. The cream cheese frosting topping the red velvet was way too sweet and the chocolate chips on top of the mint chip had an off flavor. However, I will concede that when a whole platter of them is set out, they make a very pretty presentation. One in particular caught my eye, again in the “I’ve thought of that!” mode. It looked like it was tie-dyed and at that moment I reminded myself of the idea I’d had for Niece One’s birthday cake.
You may remember that last year’s cake almost sent me to the psych ward. I got myself so worked up in my pursuit of perfection that I wound up making the most ridiculous mistake. I was determined not to let that happen again and set off to research how I could bake an entire cake that had a hippie-by-way-of-a-7-year-old-with-a-pink-fetish vibe.
First and foremost I knew I was going to use India Tree food coloring. Its dyes are made from vegetable colorants and if I used the fake stuff my brother-in-law would kill me. Plus, “Melissa’s” tie-dye cake is very primary colors and my niece would never stand for that. I wanted to go for pretty and pastel. There were plenty of websites that offered advice and I’ve culled a bit from each of them in the instructions below. Now, although I never endorse using a mix, if the idea of this cake is appealing to you in terms of its look but you’re not up to also making a homemade cake, I will not judge thee.
Again, I worked myself into a frenzy wanting Niece One’s cake to be completely perfect. I tinted the bowls of cake batter and they looked so pretty in their pink, peach, light blue, pale green etc. And here is where I screwed up. Somehow I forgot that the baking process dims all but the brightest of hues. The results of my six-colored efforts were distilled to just two, yellow and blue.
Of course I didn’t learn this until we cut into the cake at the party and at that moment I realized how grateful I am that I’ve kept my sweet passion something I do for pleasure and not for sale. My paying customers would not have been satisfied with a dual color tie-dye but my nieces were thrilled. And most importantly, it tasted fabulous. This is my go-to birthday cake recipe and I highly recommend pairing it with a cream cheese frosting if your birthday girl or boy doesn’t want chocolate. The tang of the cream cheese really contrasts with the vanilla sweetness of the cake so nicely and of course, everything tastes better when it’s pink. But the best taste of all is the one that’s lovingly baked from the heart. I’m glad I thought of that.
I Thought of That Tie Dye Cake
Cake only from Food & 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
Food Coloring of your choice
Directions-Cake. For prep photos click here
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.
OR--not that I would endorse this but, you could use your favorite boxed white cake mix and proceed up until the point when you are about to scrape the batter into the pan. Then switch to directions for tinting below.
Divide the batter evenly into six bowls. Add food coloring of your choice to each bowl, mixing to make different colors as directed on the box etc. Mix thoroughly with a spoon after each addition of food coloring in order to gauge how much more coloring you might need to use. Mix using a different spoon for each different color. Keep in mind the color will fade as it bakes. Of the below colors only the bright yellow and the blue made it through the baking process. Colors should look very bold.
Here is where you can get creative. Either use three colors for each layer or use all six colors for both layers, dividing the batter of each of the six bowls in half. Scrape each color of batter into the pan in concentric circles, starting at the outer edge of the pan and working your way to the middle. Invariably you will drag some color through as you smooth the top but do not do that with aggressive purpose.
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.
Vanilla Cream Cheese Frosting
adapted from Barefoot Contessa Parties! Ina Garten, 2001
3/4 pound (12 ounces) cream cheese, at room temperature
1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 pound confectioners' sugar, sifted
Food coloring of your choice
Cream the cream cheese, butter, and vanilla in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment.
Add the sugar and beat until smooth. You want the frosting to make a thwapping sound, indicating it has gotten really whippy and light. Tint frosting the color of your choice.
Follow directions for basic frosting as indicated in this past post.
Note: because my cake seemed a bit crumbly on the sides I decided to do a quick "crumb coat." Meaning I frosted the top of the bottom layer normally, placed the top layer on top of the bottom, used just a thin coating of the icing on the sides and the top of the top layer, put it in the fridge to firm up for 10 minutes, and then proceeded to frost normally. That way I was able to get a nice smooth finish and not drag crumbs through the frosting.
If you want to pipe some decorations in a contrasting, darker color, reserve about 1/2 cup of frosting for that purpose and tint to your preference. Fill a pastry bag with your preferred tip and get your fancy on. I had some extra so used it to make a dark pink/light pink chambray effect on the sides of the cake.