Monday, January 26, 2009

Hit or miss

For those who are looking for this week's TWD, it'll be coming a bit later on Tuesday.  My dad has been here for a long weekend, so I haven't been spending much time on the computer.  And Brianna's birthday (6 already--where does the time go?!) was on Sunday, so we're still recovering from chocolate cake and cupcakes.

I may have mentioned this before...  When I was growing up, it was tradition that for your birthday you got to pick what to eat for dinner and what kind of cake you wanted.  Brianna's pick for dinner was hamburgers and french fries.  The bucket of dough in my fridge came in handy for making burger buns.  =)  Dad asked me what my favorite birthday dinner used to be.  I'd have to say it was ravioli.  But I haven't found that particular sort of ravioli in years.  They were frozen.  There were 50 in a package--two sheets of 25 each (5 x 5), and you had to snap them apart before dropping them into the boiling water.  No idea what the brand was, but both the meat and cheese ones tasted different from (i.e. much better than) the ones I can buy in my grocery store now.  

As for the cake, that changed for me over time.  I can remember having a few spice cakes.  And I really liked angel food cake (with either chocolate or raspberry glaze) for quite a while.  But yellow cake with chocolate frosting was ultimately my favorite, and still is.  Brianna's hasn't changed since she was old enough to tell me what kind she wanted--"all chocolate."  

This year was no different.  I used the same chocolate cake recipe that I've been using for the past several years.  It's the Simple Chocolate Sheet Cake from Cooks Illustrated (Jan/Feb 2001).  I played around with it just a bit this year.  I added about a teaspoon of instant espresso powder to the chocolate mixture.  I also mixed the batter differently, although that wasn't really on purpose.  I just started mixing without looking back at the recipe.  =)  Since I was planning on taking the cake out of the pan to decorate it, I also lined the baking pan with parchment.  

As usual, the cake turned out great.  Next up, frosting.  I stuck with another tried-and-true recipe, the Dark Chocolate Frosting from the Feb/Mar 2006 issue of Cook's Country.  It's more or less a ganache frosting, made in the food processor.  As usual, I got it too warm trying to melt all the chocolate, and had to whisk it over a bowl of ice and water to get it to firm up.  For the trim (pink, of course), I just whipped up a quick buttercream consisting of butter (8 tablespoons), powdered sugar (about 4 ounces, I think), milk (a couple tablespoons?) and a bit of salt.  I overdid it a bit on the food coloring and ended up with a pretty bright shade of pink. =)  The decorating was nothing fancy.  For the fourth birthday running, it was a Princess cake, complete with Belle, Aurora, Ariel and Cinderella.  Buying those toppers is some of the best money that I've ever spent (about $10, if I recall correctly).  

The verdict?  The cake was a big hit with everyone--kids and adults alike.  Some kids may dislike dark chocolate, but not mine. =)  And it's really not all that hard to make.

So that was for Brianna's actual birthday and party on Sunday.  Since her birthday fell on the weekend this year, I told her I would make cupcakes for her kindergarten class on Monday.  Since the weekend was pretty busy, I didn't make them until Monday morning.  I've made a few chocolate cupcake recipes, but for some reason it didn't occur to me to use a recipe that I've made before.  Instead, I decided to try the Devil's Food Cupcakes from the same article as the frosting (Cook's Country).  Unfortunately, that didn't go as well as I hoped.  

The recipe makes 24 cupcakes (the amount I needed), but I only have one muffin/cupcake pan.  So I made two half-batches.  I think something is wrong with the leavening, because for both batches, the cupcakes rose nicely but then sank in the middle when they started to cool.  The cupcakes also spread out too much on top, and then the edges broke off when I took them out of the pan.  I thought that I'd overfilled the cups in the pan, so I put a bit less batter in each one for the second batch, but that didn't help.  They still spread on top, and just ended up with bigger dents in the middle.  

Fortunately, I was making these for a bunch of 5- and 6-year-olds who would just think "Hey, more room for frosting!"  So I kept going.  For the frosting, I wanted something that wouldn't be too sugary-sweet.  I made what was more or less a whipped ganache.  It was on the soft side, since I ran out of time to chill it, but it was quite tasty.

The verdict?  I spent several hours making cupcakes, and they were devoured in under two minutes. =)  The frosting really was pretty fantastic.  I won't bother making the cupcake recipe again though.  It clearly has issues, and the taste isn't good enough for me to want to spend a lot of time fixing it when I have some other perfectly good recipes that work.

Want to try some of these yourself?  The America's Test Kitchen recipes are only available to website subscribers and those who buy the magazines and books.  If you subscribe to the Cooks Illustrated site, the Sheet Cake recipe can be found here.  It's also in Baking Illustrated (page 342).  The Dark Chocolate Frosting can be found here on the Cook's Country site.  And if you want to see if you have better luck with the cupcakes, that recipe is here.  Here's the frosting I made for the cupcakes:

Creamy Whipped Ganache Frosting

12 ounces heavy cream
4 ounces semisweet chocolate (I used El Rey 58.5%)
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate (I used a combination of El Rey 70% and Ghirardelli 72%)
6 ounces powdered sugar
pinch salt

Chop the chocolate into small pieces and place in a heatproof bowl.  Heat the cream until very hot. (I microwave it for 1 1/2 to 2 minutes in 30 second bursts to make sure it doesn't boil over.)  Pour half of the cream over the chocolate and let it sit for several minutes.  Stir the chocolate and cream mixture together in small circles, starting at the center and working your way out in increasingly larger circles, until it forms an emulsion.  Carefully stir in the other half of the cream.  Let stand at room temperature until the mixture thickens a bit.  With a hand or stand mixer, beat in the powdered sugar.  Continue to beat until the mixture lightens and eventually forms peaks, kind of like making whipped cream (6-8 minutes?).  You want it thick enough to pipe, but still somewhat soft.  

I know, it's a picture of Gillian on a post about Brianna's birthday.  But it was too cute to pass up. =)


  1. The cake and the cupcakes look great and absolutely delicious. I love the last picture of Brianna, because I've been guilty of the same. :P

  2. Actually, the picture is Gillian. I've labeled it now. =)

  3. Oooh, such a pretty pretty princess cake! My girls would have been all over that when they were little. And I'm with you - yellow cake with chocolate frosting all the way! You did such a good job on the birthday goodies!

  4. Can't wait to see that gingerbread! But in the meantime, Happy Birthday to Brianna! lucky is she to get a mom wh omakes her such lovely princess cakes! WOW!
    LOL LOL We used to have the same tradition at home - pick your b-day diner! I used to choose roastbeef and green peppercorn sauce, fried onions and mashed potatoes! LOL

  5. I love Brianna's cake!! I think I just stepped on that same Ariel, in fact. That cake would be a big hit around here! I am really interested to try the CI chocolate sheet cake. Both the cake and the cupcakes look great. I am sure that the 5 and 6 year olds appreciated the fact that you left extra room on those cupcakes for some more frosting! Love the picture of Gillian, too.

    I hope that Brianna had a GREAT birthday!

  6. Thank heavens for frosting, it covers a multitude of mishaps!
    I still buy princess and fairy cake toppers for my daughter's cakes... and she will be twenty this year.

  7. I hate it when cupcakes do that! Grr.. But you are right, the frosting covers it. Anyways, 5 and 6 year olds think anything homemade is just awesome. And you did a beautiful job on the cake. Really pretty!