I sometimes wish that life were not such a mix of opposites, that goodness didn’t always seem to come alongside trial, that the whole of our experiences would just meld into a clear and compelling picture. The yin and yang of my days is catching me off guard; unprepared, I am swinging from the shadow to the light at the mercy of my circumstances.
Along with opportunity comes risk; adventure pairs with loneliness and doubt; on the first days that boast crisp morning air, the apartment dips into a chill that no blanket can relieve; making a beautiful cake requires more than a bit of work. This is no secret. We’re all aware. And I am sure that I’ve said here before that I am grateful, really I am, that life is this complex. The goodness wouldn’t be so good without the trouble, I’ve always liked a challenge and isn’t this more interesting, after all? But damn, sometimes it’s just so hard.
The early morning light was still delicate when I awoke, fragile and beautiful and perfect, gently creeping from where it appeared over the hills to make the big blue expanse of sky unspeakably bright. Only moments after I shuffled out of bed, I went outside to get a lemon from the tree behind the house, wrapped up tightly in a blanket. (Why a lemon so early in the morning? Well, thanks to Laura, I have very quickly become hooked on this drink.) Perhaps it was the cool air that slowed my persistent racing thoughts, slowing slowing like a small child before bed as I crept back into mine to write and think, bowl of steaming oats with banana and pumpkin and yogurt cradled in my hands.
I need to stop myself, to get out of this spinning crazy mess in my mind, to let the joy that resides deep in my gut trump the emotion of the day, to worry less about every bad thing that could potentially, theoretically happen. What is happening consists of a pretty fair mix of good and hard, and the holidays are coming, which tips us toward the good. I am hopeful, or at least I am trying to be, about all that is to come.
Which brings us to cake. In the midst of trouble, or confusion, or a stretch of long days at work that result in nothing tangible, or a little bout of sadness or whatever it is that plagues you, cake feels like a victory. And it’s celebratory, which is an essential component of my coping strategy. I made this cake for Ben’s birthday, and though birthdays of loved ones are rather unanimously understood as celebratory events, I also enjoy celebrating less monumental things, like monthly anniversaries and very small achievements. After all, I grew up in a household that boasted such things as decorations and craft projects for most every holiday, a red You Are Special Today! plate reserved for birthdays and particularly notable accomplishments, plenty of traditions and a lovely habit of acknowledging half birthdays. (And sometimes even birth-months: Happy birth-month, Dad!).
With this finished cake on the dining room table last Friday, layers (relatively) even, frosting smooth, some chocolate sprinkles for effect, pretty white cake stand free of rogue globs of frosting, I felt like a VICTOR, despite the elements of my life that would suggest otherwise and all of the craziness in my brain. You see, in the complexity of everything swirling around us, a cake is a triumph, especially if it is a well-frosted, delicious, celebratory layer cake. And if you see it as such, if you count even the smallest of your victories, they add up. Laundry finished, kindness extended, dreaded small task accomplished, fabulous cake baked. A million tiny victories. Sometimes that is enough.
Yellow Layer Cake with Chocolate Sour Cream Frosting
Adapted from Deb Perelman at Smitten Kitchen
With the release of Deb Perelman’s cookbook and the well-deserved flutter across the Internet that it has prompted, I feel a bit out of place posting something from her blog, The Smitten Kitchen, instead of the book, but here I am, doing just that. Perhaps, though, this is best seen as a testament to all that woman has done — she is a wonderful, trustworthy resource. Her blog has been one of my favorites for years, and as evidenced by the following, I don’t just read it or look at its pretty pictures; I cook from it. After much searching for cake recipes, this one rose to the top. Now that every last crumb has been enthusiastically devoured, I can attest that it is indeed a winner.
A few notes: For me, the volume and weight measures didn’t match up all the way through. I suggest choosing one method of measuring and staying with it throughout the recipe. The cake seems to be relatively forgiving, so you should be fine. As for the frosting, this recipe made more than I needed, but since you may frost more liberally than I and no one really objects to extra frosting in the fridge, I’ve given it to you as Deb does. I imagine you could cut it down easily enough.
Finally, if you need some layer cake tips, Deb has those, too! They are, characteristically, clear and abundantly helpful.
FOR THE CAKE
4 cups plus 2 tablespoons / 480 grams cake flour, not self rising
2 teaspoons / 10 grams baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon / 5 grams salt
2 sticks / 1 cup / 225 grams unsalted butter, softened
2 cups / 400 grams natural cane sugar
2 teaspoons / 10 ml vanilla extract
4 eggs, at room temperature
2 cups / 475 ml buttermilk
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter two 9-inch round cake pans and line them with circles of parchment paper, then butter the parchment.
In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. In a large mixing bowl, beat the butter and sugar with an electric mixer at medium speed until pale and fluffy. Beat in vanilla. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well and scraping the sides of the bowl after each addition. At low speed, beat in the buttermilk until just combined (the mixture will look curdled at this point). Add the dry ingredients in three batches, mixing after each addition until just incorporated.
Spread the batter evenly in cake pans, then rap the pans on the counter several times to eliminate air bubbles. Bake the cakes until they are golden and a tester inserted in the center comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes.
Cool the cakes in their pans on a rack for 10 minutes, then run a knife around the edge of each pan. Invert the cakes onto a rack and discard parchment. Allow them to cool completely, about 1 hour.
Yield: two 9-inch round, 2-inch tall cake layers
FOR THE FROSTING (Adapted by Deb from Christopher Kimball’s The Dessert Bible)
15 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1 1/4 teaspoons instant espresso (optional)
2 1/4 cups sour cream, at room temperature
1/4 to 1/2 cup light corn syrup
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
Combine the chocolate and espresso powder, if using, in the top of a double-boiler or in a heatproof bowl over simmering water. Stir until the chocolate is melted. Remove the chocolate from the heat and let cool until tepid.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the sour cream, 1/4 cup of the corn syrup and vanilla extract until combined. Add the cooled chocolate slowly. Then, stir quickly until the mixture is uniform. Taste for sweetness. If needed, add additional corn syrup in increments of one tablespoon until the desired level of sweetness is achieved.
Let the frosting cool in the refrigerator until it is a spreadable consistency. This should not take more than 30 minutes. If the frosting becomes too thick, leave it out until it softens again.
Yield: about 5 cups of frosting