In the end, it was easy to settle; his train mania nearly rivals the baseball one, and since he couldn't have two parties, he voted for Thomas the Tank Engine.
So we chugged our way through the early part of July happily dreaming up game, food, prize and pinata ideas.
Happily, that is, but for the cake. You might think that I, as the owner (before kids) of a catering business called Dessert First, would especially enjoy baking and eating cakes. And I do, if they're cheesecakes, or flourless chocolate, or chocolate-Kahlua. But basic, usually dry birthday cakes rarely tempt me, seeming more of a bother than their taste is worth, second only to wedding cakes.
At least I can make a mean frosting. Few things are worse than a grocery-store cake, a bit dry and crumbly, smeared with that slightly gritty, horrifyingly sweet icing made of shortening and sugar. Maybe the current uproar over trans fats will spell the end of Crisco frostings. Even made with butter, though, these icings still give me a tongue-ache.
But frosting can carry your reputation only so far. Sooner or later, no matter how thick the roof, your guests will get to the foundation.
Cake cookbooks usually start with the classic "1-2-3-4" cake, so called because it uses 1 cup butter to 2 cups sugar to 3 cups flour to 4 eggs. If you're lazy, you don't separate the eggs, and the recipe goes together fast and fairly painlessly. Should you be stuck in an ill-equipped kitchen and need to bake a cake, this is the one to go for. You can remember the ingredients easily, and if you use the same cup for measuring each ingredient, you can get the proportions right.
This is a perfectly decent cake; it has a moist enough crumb and is what most people expect underneath the candles.
To go a bit fancier without going overboard, one of the best sources is A Piece of Cake, by Susan Purdy. Her recipes don't knock you over with detail, as some cake "bibles" do, and they work, baking up moist, tasty cakes. I especially appreciate the batter yields she lists for each cake.
For my son's birthday, I made a large chocolate buttermilk sheet cake topped with licorice train tracks, a lake (made by squeezing out lots of those annoying little tubes of shiny piping gel from a grocery's baking aisle), and two trains partly made from strips cut off the sheet cake (plus trees, upside-down ice cream cones coated with green frosting). Using Purdy's batter yields (along with her chart of how much batter various cake pans need) made it easy to choose a recipe that just needed doubling to fill the pan.
And if the cake is good enough, then a fabulous frosting is, well, icing on the cake. Look to Europe for inspiration; the classic is a French egg yolk buttercream. If you're still ticked at the French, though, the Swiss come to the rescue.
A Swiss meringue buttercream takes barely more time than beating shortening and sugar together--and you'll bask in the kudos for your rich, silky, not-too-sweet frosting that stands up to Southern humidity nearly as solidly as Crisco.
Still, when my birthday comes, I plan to skip all that. I want the cake of my pre-teen memories, a chocolate chip-mint ice cream cake with a pool of fudge on top. I'm not sure if I remember the whole birthday correctly -- I think it was my 10th, and my friends and I got to go drool over John Travolta and dream of sounding like Olivia Newton-John in Grease. But I distinctly recall sitting in the dining room with them afterward and being presented with that speckled green slab. Cake doesn't get much moister than that.
Cook's notes: There are a few tricks that make cake-baking, and especially decorating, less stressful.
If it's a butter-based cake, use softened butter so it whips properly. One stick of butter in my microwave for 45 seconds at low power comes out malleable, just right for beating.
Grease and flour the pans (or, preferably, brush them with a mixture of equal parts vegetable oil, flour, and shortening, beaten until combined well--store leftovers of this in a sealed container). Then put in a sheet of parchment, cut to fit the bottom, and grease and flour it, too. This guarantees that your cake will willingly flip out of the pan.
Use cake strips so your cake doesn't bake up with a dome. Called either Bake-Even or Magic Cake strips, these reusable, silicone-coated fabric strips simply need moistening and wrapping around a cake pan to equalize the baking time between the edge and center of the cake. I think leveling a cake is a real pain; these nearly eliminate that need.
Buy an inexpensive plastic turntable from a craft or kitchen store. Even if you rarely make cakes, you will be blessing yourself repeatedly when, at midnight the night before the party, you can slowly spin that cake around and frost with ease. I put a square of rubbery shelf liner under the turntable, and another on top of it (underneath the cake plate) to keep things from sliding.
If possible, freeze your cake layers before frosting. I like to make my cake layers several days ahead, cool them completely, and wrap them in plastic and foil to freeze. Frost them straight out of the freezer; the frosting will set up and go on smoothly almost instantly. (And I've never had trouble with the cake throwing off too much moisture as it defrosts, to my surprise.) This keeps crumbs from getting into the frosting (otherwise, do a "crumb coat"--a thin layer of frosting to seal in crumbs that you let set for about 15 minutes before continuing with the frosting). Use a narrow-blade, offset spatula to spread the frosting, and when you're almost done, dip it in hot water and wipe it dry before doing one final pass over the cake, for a super-smooth finish.
For the Swiss buttercream, your life will be easier if you use an instant-read thermometer and a stand mixer, but neither are necessities. It can be chilled for a week, or frozen; thaw overnight in the refrigerator before using.
Yield: 3 1/ 2 cups (enough for one 9-inch, 2-layer cake, or a 9-by-13-inch sheet)
4 large egg whites
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
Pinch of salt
1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, softened (see step 2)
1 teaspoon vanilla
1. Bring a saucepan filled with a few inches of water to a simmer. In a large metal mixing bowl, whisk together egg whites and sugar. Place over saucepan, being sure water doesn't touch the bottom of the bowl. Whisk constantly until whites are warm and the sugar dissolves; if you have a thermometer, this should be between 120 degrees and 130 degrees. Remove from the heat, add the cream of tartar and salt, and beat the whites with an electric mixer on medium-high speed for 7 to 10 minutes, until the whites form a very thick meringue that is cool to the touch. Be sure both the meringue and the bowl are cool, to avoid melting the butter.
2. Check the butter; it should feel cool, not cold, and be slightly malleable. (If it's too cold, the buttercream could separate; should this happen, heat it very briefly--just a few seconds over simmering water, then re-beat until it comes together.) If you have a thermometer, it should register about 68 degrees.
3. While continuing to beat the meringue on medium-high speed, add 2 tablespoons butter at a time, whipping after each addition. This will deflate the meringue at first, but it will fluff up by the end. When all the butter is added, add the vanilla and beat briefly to blend. Use immediately or chill; if buttercream seems too soft to use immediately, chill for 5 to 10 minutes and rewhip briefly.
Variations: Add 2 tablespoons of liqueur with the vanilla. For chocolate buttercream, melt and cool completely 4 to 6 ounces of good-quality semisweet chocolate; whip 1 cup of the finished buttercream into the chocolate to blend it well, then add that to the remaining buttercream and whip to blend well. For a citrus buttercream, beat in with the vanilla 2 tablespoons grated orange or lemon zest (or combine the two), plus 1 teaspoon orange or lemon extract, or an additional tablespoon of an orange liqueur such as Grand Marnier. For a coffee buttercream, dissolve 1 tablespoon of instant espresso powder in 1 tablespoon coffee liqueur, hot coffee, or hot water; add to buttercream with the vanilla. Combine the coffee and chocolate additions for a mocha frosting.
Timberwood Organics CSA In last month's column, I wrote about the joy of having fresh produce delivered to my door once a week from the Timberwood Organics CSA (community-supported agriculture). Several people have asked how to contact Timberwood. On the web, it's www.timberwoodorganics.com; e-mail TW_Organics@mebtel.net; or call (919) 563-9464. It's not too late to sign up for deliveries for the rest of the season, which runs well into fall.