cake wrecking
February 28, 2009

(With a shout out to the real deal.)

I've offered to bring Rebecca a cake of her choice for her pseudo (non-leap year) birthday. It should be an easy Saturday afternoon. I've made the cake in question recently, and in the preceding week I've begged, borrowed and stolen all the essential cake-making accoutrements (pastry bags, cardboard rounds, a cake carrier, a YouTube how-to for folding a cornet). And, after all, I've been baking cakes since I could hold a measuring spoon.

But I've forgotten a few things in my hubris—most blatantly the cake havoc I wrecked at Britt's a few weeks ago, overflowing red velvet batter all over the oven floor and nearly smoking out a crowd of Superbowl watchers. And I've also glossed over how I've not yet developed a healthy relationship with this new oven, and the near sacrifice of Christmas's lemon tart has only made it hungrier.

Sure enough, about 15 minutes into baking, an acrid smell starts to permeate the apartment. I check the oven, and my two cake layers are tilted forward and spilling over, thanks to a faulty oven rack that won't sit flat. I do a quick cake spin with a pair of tongs and hope I've saved it—but 10 minutes later it's clear these cakes have some serious developmental problems. There are weird bulges where the half-cooked batter has slid back to center, and the edges now facing the back of the oven are crisped and blackened. Meanwhile, the old toothpick and thumbprint tests indicate that this cake is not near cooked.

Another 15 minutes go by before I decide to just remove what I have from the oven and cut my losses. I can always repair damages with a thick spread of buttercream (I've subbed lavender frosting for the cinnamon icing I normally pair with the cake because I'm out of cinnamon; it's later pointed out to me that anyone whose kitchen boasts dried lavender and not cinnamon is probably a little left of normal). But when I go to flip my layers from their pans, great fault lines split my cakes into unsightly piles of rubble. I stare at them for a while before admitting defeat and sliding all of it into the trash.

So what's the problem? Is it just because I'm adapting a cupcake recipe? That's shouldn't matter, right? I suspect the oven temp (325°) isn't high enough (even my mini cupcakes seemed to sag in the middle), but what's keep the cake from cohering? Too much flour? Not enough? Did I properly grease my pans? Egg whites should add structure to pastry, so I wonder if my problem is that second yolk rather than a whole egg. So, as if it's a science experiment, I set about testing a variation. I grease my pans this time and add parchment paper rounds. I put my cake together again adding only whole eggs. I crank up the oven temp to 375° and wrestle the top rack down to an approximate horizontal plane. Then I set the timer to 30 minutes and hold my breath.

It's gorgeous. Sure, still listing ever-so-slightly to one side, but it's evenly moist and perfectly round, with nary a crack. I'm running out of time (having now spent the better part of the day fretting over cakes), so I stick it in the freeer to bring it down to icing temperature.

I've lightly colored my buttercream lilac to match the lavender concept, and I do my best to write "Rebecca" in melted chocolate across the top. It's sweet, even if the handwriting is a little childish. Friends at the party congratulate me on finishing school, and other guests ask if I'm pursuing pastry or cake decorating. It's a nice vote of confidence, but I think I'm sticking with the rest of the menu for now.

But birthdays crop up quite a bit this time a year. I'm sure mini key lime tartlets for Tracy next week won't be any problem. After all, I've done it before....