For us, the words birthday cake call to mind box mix and nostalgic memories of our mothers spreading Duncan Hines frosting on a Betty Crocker cake. So we're tackling the challenge of recreating a yellow cake with chocolate frosting that's even better than the semi-homemade one we loved as kids (see the recipe)—and has that spirit and soul Tosi's after.
In addition to tapping Tosi, known for her birthday cake and truffles, we enlist the help of Bobbie Lloyd, chief baking officer of Magnolia Bakery, and Stella Parks, author of BraveTart, to help us out.
"As a baker, a perfect birthday cake is all about balance and point of view," Tosi says. "It starts with moist, evenly baked cake and well-balanced fillings (be it ice cream, frosting or beyond) that complement the cake."
Taking it one step further, Parks says, "I'm in the school that birthday cake has to be layered. You only get so many occasions where you can pull out all the stops. A layer cake is special."
We couldn't agree more, so let's break down the steps to a flawless birthday cake.
I Love You, Pan
Before you even turn the oven on, there's a crucial step to baking any cake that is so often overlooked: You must grease and flour your pans. As Lloyd puts it, "After all your hard work, you don’t want your cake sticking to the pan!"
The reason to do both? When you put your cake in the oven, the heat begins to unravel the proteins in the batter and then coagulates them over the course of baking. These proteins will stick to a bare pan like glue, which spells trouble when you go to remove your cake. The grease puts a barrier between the batter and pan, to prevent any kind of sticky situation; dusting with flour prevents the fat from dissolving into the cake batter.
Wake and Bake
Tosi hits the nail on the head when she says, "The flavor of yellow cake is magical." We second that. "[It] should be slightly dense (rich in egg yolks as opposed to lightened with egg whites), a gorgeous yellow color, perfectly moist, and the flavor deep and soothing: a hint of butter and vanilla flavors, but generally a flavor that feels impossible to put your finger on otherwise."
Tosi is proud to share that her home state of Ohio is also where scientists invented the artificial yellow cake flavor of your favorite boxed moments. But for those looking for the real deal, attention to detail when mixing is key.
"It’s easy to overmix cake batter, and you must be careful when adding ingredients," Lloyd adds. When you're making the batter, you want to make sure the butter is at room temperature, so you can cream it with the sugar and avoid any lumps. Then, when you add the eggs, going one at a time allows more air to be whipped into the batter.
Some people may argue that the frosting is even more important than the cake itself. (We're equal opportunists when it comes to our sweets and give both components ample attention, but we don't dispute the importance of a good, rich topping.) We make a classic American buttercream with butter and confectioners' sugar before folding in a cooled salted ganache of melted chocolate and sour cream. It's rich and sweet and salty, and you're going to love it.
Parks says that when it comes to frosting, the crust factor—or the super-thin crackle that forms from the confectioners' sugar solidifying—is just as crucial. This helps extend the shelf life of the cake and keeps it moist by sealing in all the moisture.
Can We Build It?
Now here's the part everyone gets worried about: assembling. We're all about that lazy Susan life. Throw your cake stand on one and see how much easier it is to frost that bad boy. We even have pictures below in the slideshow to help steer you down the right path.
"Keep your cool—frosting a cake can be a very stressful and frustrating thing to get your cake to look picture perfect," Tosi admits. Her secret method at Milk Bar? "Throwing caution to the wind, we spread each layer of cake, filling, frosting and crumb evenly using a very fancy, high-tech tool: a cheap metal spoon! Just bend the handle until you get the angle that works best for you, and you’ll have an easy-to-use makeshift froster that you can build a bakery empire around."
The Waiting Game
Finally, the overarching motif connecting every baker's advice is the necessity of patience. Go ahead and bake your cake layers in advance to ensure they fully cool. Then after you build your beauty, let the cake and the frosting sit and properly set before cutting into it. And above all, unless you're traveling with it in the heat of summer (in which case 30 minutes would suffice), never put that cake near the fridge. Chilling it will ruin the creamy texture of the frosting and risk drying out the cake.
So there you have it: the perfect birthday cake. Bet you wanna put your name on it.
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