Friday, February 24, 2012

Classic Birthday Cake

Remember when you were a kid, and at your birthday party, your mom would bring out some fluffy yellow cake, rich and buttery, slathered in soft, delicate frosting and sprinkled with confetti sprinkles?

This is that cake.

I found the recipe in the dessert cookbook published by the bakery Amy's Bread, which sells slices of this incredibly luscious cake paired with a rich, thick frosting so sugary it practically burns the roof of your mouth. I was a bit daunted by the complicated recipe (which calls for "poured fondant"), so I went for a simple swiss buttercream that's delicious but very light, maybe even a bit too light for some.

For me, it's all good.

photo by Anthony Palatta

The recipe, titled "Simply Delicious Yellow Cake," lists its ingredients by volume as well as grams and ounces for those of you with a kitchen scale.  For convenience, I'm listing them by volume, but you can find the other measurements on p. 169 of the book, which is well worth the investment.

Simply Delicious Yellow Cake

3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, sifted
1 tablespoon and 1 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 1/4 cups and 3 tablespoons milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups and 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, slightly softened
2 3/4 cups and 2 teaspoons sugar
5 eggs

Frosting of your choice

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease two 9 x 2 cake pans with baking spray that contains both oil and flour, then line the bottoms with rounds of baking parchment and lightly spray the parchment.

In a large bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, and salt and whisk them gently for even distribution. In a separate bowl combine the milk and vanilla.

Using an electric mixer with a paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar on medium speed until it is light and fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the eggs gradually, mixing well after each addition, scraping the sides and bottom of the bowl often.

Reduce the mixing speed to LOW and add the flour mixture to the butter in 3 parts, alternating with 2 parts of the milk mixture, beginning and ending with the flour. Mix just until it is evenly incorporated. This is a thick, fluffy batter, resembling whipped cream. There should not be any lumps or dry pockets of flour remaining. If the batter has a curdled appearance it has not been mixed enough. Increase the speed to medium and mix for another minute or until it is thick and fluffy.

Divide the batter equally between the 2 prepared cake pans. The pans should be about 2/3 full. Smooth the batter so it fills the pans evenly. Place the pans on the center rack in the preheated oven. Bake them for about 35 to 40 minutes, or until the cake is almost ready to pull away from the side of the pan and a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out with a few moist crumbs. Rotate the layers carefully from front to back after 20 minutes for even baking.

Cool the pans on a rack for 10 minutes, then invert them onto a wire rack that has been sprayed with cooking spray and lift off the pans. To prevent cracking, carefully right each layer so the top side is up and the parchment-lined bottom is down. Cool them on the rack completely. Before frosting, be sure to remove the parchment from the bottom of each layer.

To assemble the cake, place one layer, top side down, on a flat serving plate. Cut several 4-inch-wide strips of parchment or waxed paper to slide under the edge of the laer to keep the plate clean. Using a thin metal spatula, spread the top of this cake round with 1/2-inch thick layer of frosting, leaving a 1/4-inch unfrosted border around the edge. Place the second layer top side up on the first, aligning the layers evenly. Spread a generous layer of frosting around the sides of the cake, rotating the plate as you work so you're not reaching around the cake to frost the other side. Try not to let any loose crumbs get caught in the frosting. Let the frosting extend about 1/4 inch above the top of the cake.

Starting in the center of the cake, cover the top with a generous layer of frosting, taking it all the way to the edge and merging it with the frosting on the sides. Try to use a forward-moving, circular motion, not a back-and-forth motion to avoid lifting the top skin of the cake. Rotate the plate as necessary. Use the spatula or a spoon to make decorative swirls. Slide the pieces of paper out from under the edge of the cake and discard them. Store the cake at room temperature, preferably under a cake dome, for up to 3 days.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Surprise for Valentine's Day

My husband Anthony loves Linzer cookies, a buttery sandwich cookie glued together with jam, and a peekaboo window cut out of the top layer, which is dusted with powdered sugar. I've never made them before, so I decided to try making them as a surprise for Valentine's Day.

I debated between two recipes. The first came from Martha, and called for several more ingredients (including ground blanched almonds). I was less daunted by the number of ingredients than I was by the fact that the dough seemed quite sticky from the recipe and required a great deal of turns in and out of the freezer.

Instead I chose a recipe from my Williams-Sonoma Essentials of Baking cookbook, called "Raspberry Jam Sandwich Hearts." It had only 7 ingredients, all of which I already had in stock.

The dough is a straightforward shortbread flavored with vanilla and almond extract (hence no need for ground blanched almonds). You refrigerate it for 40 minutes, and then roll it out and cut out your cookies. The book calls this an "easy-to-roll" dough, but I found it cracked almost immediately under a rolling pin, and I had to press it out by hand and then roll it smooth before cutting it.  I've noticed that with doughs that use confectioner's sugar rather than granulated, this is often the case.

Eventually, the dough came together and I was able to cut out several heart shapes, taking care to cut a smaller heart out of every other cookie once it was on the cookie sheet. I also baked off the small heart cut-outs and dusted them with red sanding sugar.

After the cookies were done, I brought half a jar of Anthony's favorite raspberry jam (Hero) to a boil, then let it simmer on low for 5 minutes to thicken it. The hot, runny jam passed easily through a sieve, allowing me to strain out the seeds.  I then stuck the seedless mixture in the freezer to cool.

When sandwiching the cookies, it's important not to spread the jam on the bottom cookie all the way to the edge, as the pressure of the top cookie causes the jam to spread a great deal.

The finished cookies were pretty and had a rich buttery flavor with subtle hints of almond. They'd be perfect with tea.

We'll see how Anthony likes them!

Linzer Cookies
(adapted from Williams-Sonoma Cookbook)



2 cups all-purpose flour, plus additional for work surface
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
¾ cup confectioners (powdered) sugar, plus additional for dusting
1½ teaspoons pure vanilla extract
½ teaspoon pure almond extract

½ cup seedless raspberry jam or raspberry preserves
(or use your favorite jam and strain it as described above)


In a medium mixing bowl, sift flour and salt together. Set aside.

In a large bowl of an electric mixer, combine butter and confectioner sugar; beat together until mixture is smooth. Add vanilla extract and almond extract; beat to incorporate. Add flour mixture on low just until incorporated.

Form dough into two flattened disks and wrap in plastic wrap. Refrigerate until well chilled, about an hour.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Baking sheets may be ungreased, lined with parchment paper, or lined with a non-stick baking mat.

On a lightly surface, press down dough, then roll out using a lightly floured rolling pin, to a 1/4 inch thickness. Cut dough into hearts or other desired shapes using a 2½ inch cookie cutter.  Transfer to baking sheets and then, using a 1 inch heart shaped cookie cutter, cut out the center of half of the 2½ inch cookies. Re-roll the scraps, or bake the 1 inch heart shapes separately.

Bake 10 to 12 minutes or until cookies are set and the edges are very lightly browned. Let them sit on the sheets on a rack for 5 minutes.  Then remove cookies from baking sheets with a metal spatula and place on a wire cooling rack to cool.

Filling and Assembly:
Leaving a ¼ inch border uncovered, spread about 1 teaspoon of the raspberry jam over each cookie without the middle cutout.

Using a fine-mesh sieve, dust the tops of the cookies that have the middle cutout with confectioner’s sugar. Place the cutout cookies on top of the jam-covered cookies.

(The recipe says this makes 16 sandwiches, but I barely
got 15...)