Happy Birthday to Me Yellow Cake with Chocolate Frosting

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
Printer Friendly Version
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.

Directions-Frosting 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)


When Life Hands You Lemons Loaf Cakes

I have a new pet peeve which, although I think it’s completely valid, is really annoying because I already have so many pet peeves to begin with. (I wonder what it would be like to be peeve-free?) The newest addition to the list of things that makes me go “argh” is when people take the misfortune of others and turn it into their own personal tragedy. Like when my father’s aunt took to her bed for weeks after Kennedy was assassinated, as if the nation’s loss had happened only to her. Okay, that’s a dated example, but it came to mind recently when I saw her photo in a family album; I love the idea of this 4’10” kvetch drawing the curtains and collapsing onto Betty Draper’s fainting couch while poor Jackie was busy figuring out how to go on with her life raising two small children alone.
More recently I’ve been struck by how many people take the illness of another as a cue to be “just sick.” I can’t even count the times someone has reported the news of a friend’s health problem with “I’m just sick over it. I couldn’t eat a thing last night and could barely sleep.” Maybe I know too many narcissists, but I feel like I hear this kind of talk all the time. Whether it’s in response to something that has indeed touched someone close or a national incident, I want to scream, “It’s not about you!”

Using the word “sick” when you aren’t the one who is actually ill is just so wrong. You may have lost your appetite for one measly meal but this poor friend will be suffering for months and probably hasn’t slept a wink since the diagnosis. Of course everyone has the right to react to a friend’s bad roll of the dice, but I challenge the choice of words. Just say what’s really going on; you are scared, sad, and probably mad. But you’re not the sick one. What is really important is that you get over yourself and show up. Be a good friend to your friend and process your own stuff honestly and privately.
Word choice is a funny thing. I have a friend whose mother died by her own hand 30 years ago and every time I am with my friend I find myself saying about something, “Oh I could have just died!” or “I was so bored I wanted to kill myself!” Isn’t that awful? Obviously I don’t do it on purpose but it happens all the time. Luckily, I have a generous friend but my carelessness really brings to light just how unconscious certain phrases have become, which is not good. “I’m starving!” “I’m exhausted!” “I could kill her!” “He’s a moron!” If you stop yourself and think about what you’re saying you probably aren’t starving if you’re eating three squares. Maybe you’d like a little snack. Maybe you could use a good night’s sleep. Maybe she did something really annoying and you’re pissed off and maybe he made a big mistake because he wasn’t thinking. I don’t mean to be a finger wagging prig; I’m just trying to call attention to something I am certainly guilty of and it’s just laziness.
I think there are also elements of the conversational forbidden fruit syndrome contributing to the hyperbole or the slips. Have you ever noticed when you are hyper-aware that you shouldn’t bring something up in front of certain people that specific something is the one thing you have to force yourself not to bring up? Stifling it almost hurts, right?
I am being really cranky and I don’t mean to be. I think I’m just reacting to the fact that I have two friends who’ve been struggling with serious health issues. That’s the bad news. The good news is that things are looking up and both of them are on the mend. I also think that I’m thinking about all of this heavy stuff because today is my birthday. Yup, and next week we’ll talk about my cake, but this week I’m thinking about what starts to happen as you age. No, not the physical changes that a happy syringe of Botox or a trip to Dr. Sherrell Aston can cure, but the really scary stuff that stinks, the realization that truly bad things happen to wonderful people (and vice versa but that’s a story for another day).
Okay, this has got to stop. I am going to keep repeating something a dear friend who has been through way too much always reminds me, “Every birthday is a gift.” And it is and I really do feel that way and I’m not even thinking about my aging per se. And I’m going to get over MY-self and bake a little get-well-and-start-packing-on-those-pounds-you-lost-in-the-hospital treat for my two healing pals.
This lemon loaf cake is perfect for summer and the recipe conveniently make two. It travels really well and is great for a picnic in the park or on the beach. Light and bright and fantastic paired with berries. I’ve served it with lemon curd (had some in my freezer) lightened with some yogurt and sprinkled with blueberries for a little something extra. But it is lovely on its own and a wonderful way to deliver some sunshine to anyone who has been (deservedly) feeling gloomy.

When Life Hands You Lemons Loaf Cakes
Adapted from Barefoot Contessa Parties! by Ina Garten, 2001
Printer friendly version


2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
2 1/2 cups granulated sugar, divided
4 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
1/3 cup grated lemon zest (from 5/6 large lemons)
3 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice from the lemons you zested, divided
3/4 cup full-fat yogurt, (or low-fat buttermilk if you're not trying to fatten anyone up) at room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter and flour two (8 1/2 by 4 1/4 by 2 1/2-inch) loaf pans. For extra peace of mind, also line bottom of pans with parchment paper, butter and flour as well.
Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a bowl. In another bowl, combine 1/4 cup lemon juice, the yogurt (or buttermilk), and vanilla. Set both bowls aside.

Cream the butter and 2 cups of the granulated sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, until light and fluffy, about 3-5 minutes.
With the mixer on medium speed, add the eggs, 1 at a time, and the lemon zest. Beat until incorporated.
Add the flour and yogurt (or buttermilk) mixtures alternately to the batter, beginning and ending with the flour.Divide the batter between the pans, smooth out the tops, and bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until a cake tester or toothpick comes out clean.
Combine 1/2 cup granulated sugar with 1/2 cup lemon juice in a small saucepan and cook over low heat until the sugar dissolves. If there are pieces of pulp, strain into pitcher.
When cakes are done, cool for 10 minutes. Remove the cakes from the pans, peel off parchment paper and set them on a wire rack set over a tray or sheet pan lined with wax or parchment paper.

Pierce tops of cakes with toothpick or cake tester and pour the lemon syrup over them.
If you feel up to it, carefully remove wax paper with syrup drippings and pour drippings over cakes again. Allow the cakes to cool completely.

Yield: 2 loaf cakes


Love the Real Housewives But Not Bethenny's Cookies

I have mixed feelings about reality TV. I’ve never watched Survivor, American Idol or The Amazing Race. I just don’t care about that kind of competition, plus, Ryan Seacrest reminds me of Kermit the Frog and I stopped watching Sesame Street in 1970. I am, however, a sucker for anything that smacks of a life change. I cry every time I happen to catch even five minutes of Extreme Makeover Home Edition, the Biggest Loser, or its new spin-off, Losing it with Jillian. Between sniffles, I actually find myself saying things like “you are SO brave! You can do it!” and holding my breath when Ty yells, “move that bus!” I don’t really judge myself for this kind of TV viewing because it only happens accidentally, when I stumble upon one of the "programs" (as my grandmother would say) and my motives for watching are supportive and positive.
Unfortunately, there is a category of reality programming which does not bring out the best in my character: the train wreck from which you cannot look away. Certainly that was the case with the genre’s most tragic example of a few years ago: Fox’s The Swan. Basically it took ugly ducklings and turned them into….you know the rest. Each episode focused on two of the contestants who endured extreme dieting, plastic surgery from head to toe, new Da Vinci tooth veneers, colored hair extensions and life-coaching. They couldn’t look at a mirror during the three months (condensed for us into one episode) of the makeover and then in the last few minutes of the show saw themselves for the first time in the big reveal. Then each one struggled to speak, because she had to take the shape of her new mouth into consideration, as she cried and talked about her life-changing “journey” all while her baby-Daddy and handful of kids came out from behind a curtain for a gasp and a wet group hug. And that wasn’t all. There was a weekly winner who would later return to compete in The Swan pageant finale hoping to be crowned “The Swan.” Just writing about it has made me feel like I ate too much really bad candy (like those waxy Palmer Easter eggs). Thank goodness it was canceled and I was able to reclaim some dignity.
That is until I succumbed to the next guilty pleasure, the equally train-wrecky Real Housewives of New York City on Bravo. I can’t get enough. You’d think I’d know better—know that all of the “drama” is created in the editing room, that the definition of a "housewife" is loose at best, and that most of these women are people I would hope never to know. In case you are unfamiliar with the set-up the Housewives are a group of women who may or may not have previously known each other before the show began. In New York (there’s also Atlanta, Orange County, New Jersey and the forthcoming DC and Beverly Hills) we have Jill, Alex, Ramona, the Countess (aka LuAnn), Bethenny, Kelly, and now Sonya (aka the New One We Don’t Care About).
Basically we just follow them in their daily lives. Some work, some don’t, some are catty, some are dumb, some are nice, some are boring, and one is made to seem certifiably delusional. The back biting, the griping, the over-privilege never ceases to stun and amaze and I have gotten completely sucked in.

This season got particularly ugly with the demise of what seemed like a beautiful friendship. Bethenny is the (until recently) single Housewife, natural foods chef and founder of the Skinny Girl margarita mix. Haven’t heard of it? Oh, just watch the show for two seconds and the product placement will be forced down your throat like the requisite shot of tequila.
Jill Zarin, her former BFF, is the co-author, with her mother and sister, of Secrets of a Jewish Mother. Haven’t bought your copy yet? Don’t tell Jill. Last year she was the one who seemed to have a heart. This year she revealed what seems to be her true self; she is a mean girl who decides not to be mean to you when you need her and then the claws come out when you don’t. You know the type.
So these two break-up over B. not being there for J. when J.’s husband was ill and B. claiming she didn’t know how sick he really was etc., etc. I’m exhausted just relaying their petty tale. In the meantime, the Countess was dumped by the Count, dated several seemingly gay men, took up a singing career, (if you consider singing to be talking with the aid of Autotune), and released the hit CD “Money Can’t Buy You Class.” Haven’t heard it? Just watch the show for another two seconds and she’ll be happy to hum a few bars. Or click here and watch her sing at her release party!
Ramona “renewed” herself by getting a new hair cut (the fast track to a spiritual awakening, of course) and marrying her husband again even though they were only celebrating their 17th anniversary and Kelly, the nut, thought that was really "weird" and a "random" year of marriage to be noting. Alex did nothing but behave like a normal friend to Bethenny during trying times, organize the world’s lamest fashion show in Brooklyn, have an anxiety attack during a pedicure, and stay married to her creepy but actually kind of nice husband. They have a book out about parenting, in case you're expecting.
Meanwhile Kelly, former model, editor, and ex-wife of much older “legendary” photographer, Gilles Bensimon, had some kind of meltdown during Ramona’s bachelorette weekend on St. John. While twirling her hair, shoving jelly beans in her face, and muttering “satchels of gold,” (huh? What does that even mean?) Kells flipped out over the other “girls” bullying her (they weren’t) while she attacked Bethenny, her historical nemesis, and accused her of being a cook, NOT a chef because NONE of Kelly's friends in the Hamptons had EVER used her. Plus she called her a “ho-bag” (a word choice the Countess took major issue with) because Bethenny had had a few one night stands in her past. I’d be more sympathetic to Kelly’s questionable mental health if I didn't find her to be both so full or herself and full of it. You know who she is? She’s one of those high-school "friends" who, when the rest of her group agrees to dress as witches for Halloween, shows up in the sexy cat costume. You know that girl. And with a toss of the head and a giggle (while she winks at the football player eyeing her slutty outfit) feigns ignorance with, “OMG wait, we were all supposed to be witches? Oohhhh, I didn’t realize!”
I won’t talk about Sonya because I have no interest in her although she did manage to get herself arrested, off-camera, for drunk driving right in time for the airing of the show’s season finale.

Anyway, all of this ridiculousness ended with the girls making nice (enough) so they could celebrate Ramona and her husband Mario at the Pierre where Jill noted there wasn’t any food for the hour they had to wait for the ceremony to begin and if you’re going to make her wait that long you’d better feed her. So, through fake toothed smiles and crocodile tears, the third season came to an end.
But here’s the thing. As unseemly, tacky, mean-spirited, and low brow (despite how high brow the ladies mistakenly think they are) as this show can stoop, smart, savvy, well-educated women of all ages tune in week after week—often behind the backs of their eye rolling husbands. Everyone I know watches it. What is it that has us all addicted and unable to avert our eyes from the cooked up craziness? Schadenfreude? There but for the grace of God go I? I don’t know. What I do know is that I ended the season loving Bethenny and my DVR is going to be very busy tonight. First we have what is sure to be the must-see catfight of the spring on The Real Housewives of New York City Reunion. Then it’s the premiere of Bethenny’s own show, Bethenny’s Getting Married?.
So, I thought in preparation/celebration of tonight's Bethenny-fest I'd make a recipe to snack on from (where else?) her own The Skinnygirl Dish cookbook. This proved to be a very bad idea. Bethenny purports to be a natural foods chef, but what I didn't know was that by "natural," she meant "inedible." As directed, the dough was so dry that I had to roll it in order to get the cookies to hold any kind of a remotely round shape. But that was the least of the problems; they had a horrible, creepy taste that may have been from the combo of fake butter/banana/whole wheat flour and they were tooth rottingly sweet. I figured I had nothing to lose by adding the rest of the banana (she only calls for 1/2) to the remaining batter and at least then they were spoonable, cookie looking and had a nice texture when baked. But still, way too sweet and now way too banana-y. At this point I was so annoyed that I'd wasted a cup of good chocolate chips (the only redeeming ingredient in the mix) that I gave up.

My bad Bethenny baking experience to one side, "Bravo" to Bravo for capitalizing on this funny, tart-tongued, quick and engaging cook? chef? mixologist? brand? Without having watched a single episode I already know I’m going to be hooked on her show. Someone please help me.
For what it's worth, here's the recipe:

Love the Real Housewives but Not Bethenny's Cookies
adapted from The Skinnygirl Dish by Bethenny Frankel, 2009
1/2 cup non dairy butter, softened
1 1/2 cups raw sugar
1 banana, mashed
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
2/3 cup cocoa powder
3/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1 cup dried cranberries

Preheat the oven to 350°F. In a large bowl, beat the butter, sugar, banana, and vanilla extract with a hand mixer until light and fluffy.
In a separate bowl, combine the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt.
Stir the flour mixture into the butter mixture until well blended.
Stir in the chocolate chips and cranberries. Drop by rounded teaspoonfuls onto parchment lined baking sheets.
Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, or just until set. Cool slightly on the baking sheets before transferring to wire racks to cool completely.
Yield: 6 1/2 dozen creepy tasting cookies