Monday, December 18, 2006

Birthday Celebrations

I know, it’s been a while. This December has been unusually stress filled and crazed but the New Year promises to offer some clarity.

The craziness peaked with D’s birthday. Like last year, D decided to have some friends over for eats and drinks. Unlike last year, we decided to step the food preparations down a notch and enjoy our time with friends. We made pizza. Two nights before the birthday I bought, chopped and cooked all the pizza toppings (the food processor is my best friend). The day before the cake was started and the morning of, pizza dough was prepared and meringue was added to the cake-- Much less crazy than it sounds.

The day’s events brought pizza of choice to all who attended. The ingredients were on the table and as guests arrived we rolled out dough and people created pies. Everyone (seemed) to enjoy it and really, there is little better than fresh, warm, homemade pizza. The smell alone will drive you to drooling.

The highlight of the evening was by far the birthday cake. While D insisted on Red Velvet, I decided if I was making the cake, I was making something even more special.

Many foodies (and even some non-foodies) have realized that cupcakes have been all the rage in the past two years or so. There are multiple cookbooks devoted solely to cupcakes, a blog and in New York City, there is even a restaurant called Cupcakes and Burgers. Why do we love cupcakes? Who knows, but here is some possible insight: They are small, and we all know small food is cute food. They are individually sized (so it’s all equally me, me, me!)—or just the perfect serving, and they are easy to decorate (and if you mess up you have plenty more to try again).

Here in New York, I am fortunate (or not) to work in a foodie-friendly environment. We swap foodie tales and foodie destinations and sometimes we even take an extended lunch to head on down to Billy’s Bakery for a Red Velvet cupcake for a late afternoon pick-me-up. The favorite is by far the Red Velvet.

I brought one home to D one day and he was hooked. The striking red of the cake is beautiful against the pristine white of the cream cheese frosting (it would even make a fabulous Christmas cake for next year!). With a hint of cocoa they are perfect for the chocolate cake-vanilla frosting set as well as the vanilla cake-vanilla frosting set (sorry chocolate frosting lovers).

Skip ahead a few months and one of D’s office mates brought Red Velvet cupcakes into for all, proclaiming they were Billy’s Red Velvet and no red food coloring is used to make the cake brilliantly red. That in fact, it is the reaction of baking soda with cocoa powder that turns the cake it’s ruddy hue.

D ran home with the news to which I skeptically stated I was sure there was red food coloring in nearly every recipe of Red Velvet I had looked at. Further investigation revealed that this was once the cake. Today’s cocoa is processed in such a way that the red reaction no longer occurs but it is where we receive the term “Devil’s Food Cake”—or as we know it, delicious chocolate cake. So, today, in order to keep its bright hue, we add a good 1-2 tablespoons of red food coloring to our Red Velvet Cakes to ensure their brilliance is wowing.

So D was pushing for Red Velvet but I pushed (and ultimately won since I was baking) for the above pictured cake: Blackberry Chocolate Cake with Blackberry Meringue Frosting. It also helped that I found an amazing deal on blackberries that week ($1 per pint!). To make it extra special I purchased100% cocoa powder from La Maison du Chocolat for a hefty price. The cake tasted better than it looked and everyone especially loved the fresh blackberries inserted between each layer (4 layers to be exact).

While it all sounds complex the most involved part was sieving fresh blackberries for the cake batter. All else was a breeze—even assembly. My boss passed this recipe on to me with the warning “it’s a very special cake.” Well, the cake is amazing with a rich chocolate cake and surprisingly thick, yet light and fruity frosting. The recipe, I believe, is from Saveur Magazine. It is claimed to [gluttonously] serve 10 but is more like 15. This is the recipe as it was given to me.

Serves 10. Active time= about 2 hours. Inactive time= about 1 hour.
Can be made the day ahead and kept at room temperature.
* Vegetable oil spray
* 3 cups all-purpose flour
* 2 cups granulated sugar
* ¾ cup unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
* 2 teaspoons baking soda
* 1 teaspoon salt
* 2-½ cups fresh or thawed frozen blackberries
* 1 cup low-fat (1.5%) buttermilk
* 2/3 cup vegetable oil
* 2 tablespoons distilled white vinegar
* 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

* ¾ cup egg whites (about 6 cups)
* 1-½ cups granulated sugar
* ½ teaspoon cream of tartar
* 1-½ cups seedless blackberry preserves, at room temperature
* 1 pint fresh or thawed blackberries, plus additional berries for garnish
* 2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar

1. Make the chocolate cake: Preheat oven to 350F. Coat two 9-by-2-inch round cake pans with vegetable oil spray and line the bottoms with parchment paper. Lightly spray the paper. In a large bowl, sift together the flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda and salt.
2. Pass the blackberries through a fine strainer set over a bowl; you should have about 1 cup of puree. Whisk in the buttermilk, oil, vinegar and vanilla to the puree. Pour the blackberry mixture into the dry ingredients and mix until just combined.
3. Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans and bake for about 40 minutes, or until the cakes pull away from the sides and the tops spring back when pressed. Let cool on a rack for 10 minutes, then unmold and cool completely.
4. Make the blackberry filling: In a large heatproof bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water, whisk the egg whites with granulated sugar and cream of tartar until the sugar dissolves and the whites are hot to the touch, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a standing mixer and beat at high speed until the meringue cools to room temperature and is very thick, about 15 minutes. Stir the blackberry preserves until smooth, then gently fold 1 cup into the meringue.
5. Using a serrated knife, split the cakes in half horizontally. Thinly spread the remaining ½ cup of preserves on 3 of the cut cakes layers. Set one of the layers on a large plate, preserve side up. *Spread one-third of the meringue on top and press one-third of the blackberries into the meringue. Repeat with the remaining preserve-spread layers and the remaining meringue and blackberries. Top the final cake layer and let stand at room temperature for 1 to 3 hours. Just before serving, sift the confectioners’ sugar over the top of the cake and garnish with additional blackberries.

*The amount of meringue created in this recipe was astounding. Instead of dividing it into thirds, I essentially divided it into fifths. Each layer received one-fifth and the remaining fifth covered the outside of the cake. I then topped the meringue with a final blackberry layer and sprinkled with confectioners’ sugar. I felt the cake looked more finished this way too—though you don’t see the layers until sliced.

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