I was told several times that it was both crazy and “sad” to bake my own birthday cake (how’s that for encouragement…?) but I don’t think this project deserved either of those two misnomers! This was the first layer cake I have ever made and aside from the occasional freak out, the experience was totally rewarding! I spent a long time researching how to make a layer cake (if you are looking for good instructions, I love Deb’s here), reading about crumb layers, leveling layers, freezing layers….. and of course then discovered that working with a layer cake was going to be different from reading about a layer cake.
Luckily I had coerced a friend into helping me make the frosting, assemble the cake, and decorate it. That’s one advantage to baking your own birthday cake…. it’s your birthday, people feel sorry for you, they’ll feel moved to come alongside you, even amid total cake craziness. This friend had actually made layer cakes before and, as it turns out, is much more courageous with a large knife. Emily did the layer splitting and the chocolate chopping, and generally talked me through my swiss meringue buttercream crisis. That sucker takes a looong time to make…
But that is getting ahead of ourselves. The frosting crisis came very late in the game.
First there was cake baking, requiring cake flour making, achieved through this clever method from Joy the Baker, which turns all purpose flour + cornstarch into cake flour. If you are going to do this, though, be sure to sift the cornstarch into the flour several times — Joy says five times, I did six, and still ended up with little chewy cornstarch lumps in my cake. Yuck. Luckily the cake itself and the frosting were so delicious, I’m not sure anyone noticed but me!
No major notes on the cake recipe… it is fussy and requires a lot of beating (as Jen mentions in her original post), but really, it was so worth it. The cake batter was extremely fluffy and light, almost the texture of a mousse. It stayed light but cakey throughout the entire baking, cooling, freezing, thawing, cutting, frosting, and assembling process, so in my book, this recipe is a winner — and the beating is worth it!
Once the cake was baked, into the freezer it went:
I really liked this tip, also from Deb (see above) — I took the cake out of the oven, sat in on the counter for a bit, and then threw it in the freezer, cooling racks and all. Once it had been in the freezer for about a half hour or so, I triple-wrapped those suckers in plastic wrap, and let them hang out in the freezer until my birthday, when we needed them for frosting and assembling. The cake itself stayed incredibly moist — I was SO worried that after a few days of banishment in the freezer, it would be hard and dry, but the plastic did its job! This was so useful because there was no way that all these steps were going to happen in the same day. The cake was also a lot easier to work with while it was cold.
Flash-forward two days later, when we took the layers out of the freezer and started making the frosting (chocolate espresso swiss meringue buttercream) and ganache (chocolate espresso). Our goal was to make both frosting/filling, assemble, and then frost in time to have it ready to eat after my birthday dinner. It was a big goal, but we eventually got there!
Let’s start with the buttercream, which starts with…
Yep, that’s four sticks of butter. But… we’re talking about a big cake here, folks. You’re not going to be eating four sticks of butter at a time.
Does that make it better?
Oh, and it’s my birthday. That definitely makes it better.
Moving on quickly… this was my very first time making swiss meringue buttercream, and let me tell you, it’s kind of nerve-wracking. You have to coddle (ok, whip) the egg whites over a double boiler while working some white sugar into them. You wait until the sugar has dissolved (Jen says the mixture should measure 140 degrees F) and then whip them (using a stand mixer) into a meringue. This is the start of a very very long whipping process that had Emily and I getting quite anxious and our patient husbands running out of the kitchen to escape the terrible Kitchen Aid noise. The idea is to get the egg white cool to the touch, after you have just so carefully heated them up… see why it’s a little annoying?
Once you have a very wonderful meringue, you proceed to ruin it by dropping insane amounts of butter into the mixer and watching your beautiful, fluffy egg whites dissolve into greasy, soupy chaos.
And then, by some miracle, after whipping the whole thing for a long time (see Deb’s comments, “whip whip whip” — I think it was honestly 15 minutes of whipping), the whole thing comes together in a very smooth, buttery way. The frosting was the perfect consistency and I think that unless I am in a serious hurry, I may never make other buttercream frostings again.
The ganache was a home run as a cake filler, but we ran into problems when we refrigerated it during the assembly process… see my notes on the recipe below.
Once assembled, the cake is put bake into the fridge — at which point we were all starving and went to dinner! When we came back, it was time to frost and eat… they even sang Happy Birthday.
All told, this project was a wonderful success. You can find the original recipe here, but I have put it below also because I have some advice and notes-to-self (in blue). There are a few things I would do differently next time — but I think that has more to do with my learning several new techniques at one time rather than faults in the recipe!
Chocolate Espresso Fudge Cake
modified from Death by Chocolate by Marcel Desaulniers/use real butter
4 oz unsweetened chocolate, chopped
8 tbsps unsalted butter, room temperature
2 tsps unsalted butter, melted (for pan prep)
2 cups cake flour (I used all-purpose flour at 8500 feet elevation)
2 tsps cake flour (for pan prep)
2 tsps baking soda (I used 1/2 tsp baking soda at 8500 feet elevation)
1/2 tsp salt
2 cups light brown sugar, very tightly packed
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 cup water
1 cup sour cream
1 cup heavy cream
2 tbsps unsalted butter
2 tbsps granulated sugar
8 oz semisweet chocolate, chopped
1 tbsp instant espresso powder
chocolate espresso buttercream
8 oz semisweet chocolate, chopped
2 oz unsweetened chocolate, chopped
2 tsps instant espresso powder
1 lb. unsalted butter, room temperature
5 egg whites
1 cup granulated sugar
Cake: Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly coat the insides of 2 9×2-inch cake pans with melted butter. Flour each pan with 1 tsp cake flour, shaking out the excess [I just used nonstick spray].
Heat 1 inch of water in the bottom half of a double boiler over medium heat. Place 4 ounces unsweetened chocolate in the top half of the double boiler and heat for 5 to 6 minutes. Remove from heat and stir until smooth.
Combine together in a sifter the remaining 2 cups of flour, the baking soda, and salt. Sift onto wax paper and set aside.
Combine the brown sugar and 8 tablespoons of butter in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle. Beat on low for 3 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, then beat on high for 2 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl again and beat on high for another 1.5 minutes. Add 4 eggs, one at a time, beating on high for 30 seconds after adding each egg. Scrape down the bowl after each addition, then beat on high for 2 more minutes. Add the melted chocolate and the vanilla. Beat on low for 30 seconds, then scrape down the bowl.
Heat 1 cup water to a boil in a 1 1/2-quart saucepan. While the water is heating, operate the mixer on low while adding a third of the sifted flour and 1/2 cup sour cream; allow to mix for 30 seconds. Add another third of the flour and the remaining sour cream and mix for another 30 seconds. Add the remaining sifted flour and the boiling water and mix for an additional 30 seconds before removing the bowl from the mixer. Use a rubber spatula to finish mixing the batter, until it is smooth and thoroughly combined.
Pour the cake batter into the prepared pans, spreading it evenly. Bake until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, 45 to 50 minutes. Remove the cakes from the oven and cool in the pans for 15 minutes at room temperature. Invert onto cooling racks and refrigerate uncovered until needed. Or, cool and then stick it in the freezer, let it freeze and then triple-wrap it in plastic, freeze until using.
Ganache: Heat the heavy cream, 2 tablespoons butter, and 2 tablespoons sugar in a 2 1/2-quart saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Bring the mixture to a boil. Place 8 ounces semisweet chocolate and 1 tablespoon instant espresso powder in a stainless steel bowl. Pour the boiling cream over the chocolate and espresso. Let sit for 10 minutes, then stir until smooth. Keep at room temperature until ready to use.
Buttercream: Heat 1 inch of water in the bottom half of a double boiler over medium heat. Place 8 ounces semisweet chocolate, 2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, and 2 teaspoons espresso powder in top half of double boiler. Allow to heat for 8 to 10 minutes, transfer to a stainless steel bowl and stir until smooth. [We needed to heat the mixture longer -- that's why our frosting looks speckled, the chocolate wasn't melted after 10 minutes -- I would make sure it stirs smoothly before taking it off the heat]. Set aside until needed.
Place egg whites and sugar in a Kitchenaid mixing bowl. Set bowl over 1 inch of water in a saucepan over medium heat. Whisk gently until mixture reaches 140°F. Remove from heat and set on Kitchenaid mixer with balloon whisk. Whisk on speed 4 until stiff. Turn down whip speed to 3rd and whip until cool to the touch (this takes a while [about 10 minutes or more] – should be cooler than your hand). Gradually add soft butter by tablespoon pieces. Whip, whip, whip — this could take 15 minutes. Once desired consistency has been reached, fold in cooled chocolate until well incorporated.
Assembly: Trim off domed tops of the two cakes. Slice each cake horizontally into 2 equal layers. Place the top layer of a cake onto the bottom of a closed springform pan. Evenly spread 1 1/2 cups of buttercream over cake in the pan. Place a layer of cake over the buttercream and gently press into place. Pour 1 1/4 cups of the ganache over the cake layer, spreading evening to the edges. Refrigerate remaining ganache [this did NOT work for us -- the ganache got very hard -- to hard to spread, and no way to re-melt it]. Place the top layer of the second cake on the top of the ganache and press into place. Spread 1 1/2 cups buttercream evenly over this layer. Place the remaining bottom cake layer, cut side down, onto the buttercream and gently press into place. Cover the entire cake and pan with plastic wrap and freeze for 1 hour.
Fill a pastry bag fitted with star tip with 1 1/2 cups buttercream. Remove the cake from the freezer. Cut around inside edges to release the cake. Using a cake spatula, evenly spread the remaining buttercream over the top and sides of the cake. Refrigerate for 1 hour [didn't do this]. Fill a pastry bag fitted with star tip with remaining ganache. Decorate the cake as desired. Refrigerate for 1 hour before cutting and serving [didn’t do this]. Bring slices to room temperature for 10 to 15 minutes before serving.