Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Birthday Cake — A Commissioned Work

cake-K bkg
My sister's oldest daughter (and my goddaughter) turns 12 today. Happy Birthday, K! About a month ago, she asked me to make her cake. How could I say no?

I spent a couple of weekends testing cake and frosting recipes (a tough job, but I wasn't taking this lightly) and going through cake decorating books from the library. After learning a bit more about cake making and the critical importance of correct cake pan preparation, I settled on the recipes and the kind of decorations I wanted.

Here's one of my first attempts. The decorating is not ideal, but making the tiny layer cakes was so much fun. Please note: Brown frosting is not a good idea. Not at all. K mentioned that, along with blue and green, brown was a favorite color. Needless to say, I nixed that plan after this attempt.

mini cake collage

Since K's birthday was so close to Thanksgiving and the family was already going to be together, her mom decided that we'd celebrate on Thanksgiving. K's youngest sister, C, shares a birthday with her Papa (my dad) on November 30 (Happy Birthday, guys!) so we celebrated theirs as well.

1109 blowing out candles

This meant that Thanksgiving food prep would be extra intensive, since I'd already planned on making a couple kinds of bread and another dish. I started early and made it all work even though I was a tad late and the frosting was not happy being in a hot kitchen!

First, the recipes.

1-2-3-4 Cake
Adapted from Paula Deen
A delicious, easy, all-purpose yellow cake that stays nice and moist.

1 cup butter (2 sticks), room temperature
2 cups granulated sugar
3 cups self-rising flour*, sifted
4 large eggs, room temperature
1 cup milk, room temperature
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp butter flavoring
*An easy substitute for self-rising flour is to add 1-1/4 tsp baking powder and 1/4 tsp salt for EACH cup of flour. That's what I did.

  • Preheat oven to 350°F. 
  • Grease and flour 3 (9-inch) cake pans. Here's how! On parchment paper, trace around the bottom of each pan and trim just inside the line. Spray pan with cooking spray, then line with trimmed parchment. Spray again, making sure to coat entire pan. You can smooth it out with a pastry brush if you want. Then sprinkle with flour, tapping the edge of the pan with the heel of one hand as you rotate the pan with the other. This ensures that the flour is evenly distributed over the entire surface. Don't skip this step. You'll be sorry - trust me!
  • Using an electric mixer, cream butter until fluffy. This will take a few minutes. Scrape the bowl and continue mixing.
  • Add sugar and continue to cream well for 6 to 8 minutes, scraping down the bowl a couple of times to make sure it's all getting mixed in and fluffy.
  • Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Scrape.
  • Add flour and milk alternately to creamed mixture, beginning and ending with flour.
  • Add vanilla and continue to beat until just mixed. 
  • Divide batter equally among prepared pans. Level batter in each pan by holding pan 3 or 4 inches above counter, then dropping it flat onto counter. Do this several times to release air bubbles and assure you of a more level cake. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until done. Cool in pans 5 to 10 minutes. Invert cakes onto cooling racks lined with plastic wrap. Wrap tightly and put in the freezer for at least 1 hour prior to decorating.

The Best Buttercream Frosting EVER
Seriously, this stuff is amazing. It frosts beautifully and isn't too sweet. I doubled this for the three-layer cake and had about a cup left over.

1 cup granulated sugar
6 Tbsp flour
1 cup milk
1 cup butter (2 sticks)
1 tsp vanilla extract (you could use any flavoring you want)

  • Measure sugar and flour into a medium sauce pan. Whisk together to incorporate the flour into the sugar. This makes it easier to dissolve. Add milk to pan and whisk until smooth. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until mixture thickens. It will seem like nothing is going to happen, when all of the sudden, it thickens up. Cook for just a few minutes after it begins to set up. Keep stirring; you don't want it to burn-and it will.
  • Remove from heat and let cool completely.
  • Once cooled, combine with butter in large mixing bowl or stand mixer and whip like crazy (use whisk attachment). Beat for at least 5 minutes until the mixture is light and fluffy. Use immediately. It can be kept in the fridge, but it hardens considerably and will need to warm up a bit before being spreadable.

Now some decorating pics and tips...

First of all, this is why cake should be a special treat, not an "oh, it's another co-worker's birthday, I deserve a piece of cake" kind of thing.

Butter. Lots and lots of butter. Two sticks for the cake and FOUR for the frosting. Yeah, that's why it's both soooooo good and sooooo bad.

1-cake-in pans
This is the reason I used parchment paper to line the bottom of my pans. They release SO nicely. As long as you grease the sides and run a knife around the edge before turning out, you don't have to worry about leaving half the cake in the pan. You can see that I've lined the cooking rack with plastic wrap. That's so it's already in place, I just have to wrap it over the top.

3-cake-wrapped layers
Then I stack them up on a rack and pop the whole thing into the freezer for at least an hour. The layers are so much easier to handle when partially frozen and they ice better, too.

This is what I used for the dots—Airheads. I could have used fondant, but I wanted something people (ok, KIDS) would want to eat, and fondant isn't the best tasting stuff.

I unwrapped a piece then nuked it in the microwave for 7 seconds on power level 1. These melt very, very easily and I just wanted to soften them up a bit. Even so, they were difficult to roll out.

Sandwich the slightly warmed piece between parchment paper, NOT wax paper. They will stick. Or more accurately, the wax paper will stick to the candy. Blech.

Roll them to desired thickness. You have to start at one side and firmly push/roll, rocking back and forth, slowly squishing it flat. It's not for those with weak wrists. Mine were feeling it after it was all said and done.

airheads-1st cut
I used my apple corer and a borrowed cookie cutter.  I needed leverage when using the cookie cutter because it was so small and you need a lot of force to cut through the candy.

So I used the bottom of a small dish. PLEASE put a cutting board underneath the candy if you're cutting on a soft surface - unless you want small circular cuts in your table!

My apple corer pops the disks out, but the tiny cookie cutter was another matter.

I used the end of my instant read thermometer holder to push them out.

airheads-punch out
And then, after what felt like far too long, I had lots of dots in two sizes and two colors.


Mmm... frosting.

I took out a cup or so for each color and tinted them blue and green to go with the theme. It's GO TIME.

Frosting the cake collage
Sure, it was far from perfect, but K was happy with it and it tasted great. I'd call that a success!


  1. this is perhaps the finest use for icky airheads that will ever exist, and that's that. what a lovely, tasty-looking cake.

  2. I love the different color frosting layers inside - what a fun surprise!

  3. Grace- I have a whole pile left if you want 'em. ;)
    Thanks for the compliment!

    Barb- That's what I was going for! I thought about tinting the cake instead, maybe doing a fun marble effect, but I think the tinted frosting turned out cute.

  4. Kelly - My birthday is January. Just sayin'! :)

    It is so cute - I love the tinted frosting inside. Have you ever taken the Wilton cake decorating class?

  5. Great job! It looks beautiful and I'm sure K was super happy that Auntie Kelly made her special birthday cake. :)

  6. Susie - I'll keep that in mind. :) I haven't taken the cake course, but a woman I work with just finished hers up. She took at least two different ones at Michael's and made the CUTEST cakes. I think it would be a lot of fun and I'd learn a whole lot.

  7. I think you should take a class, Kelly. It would be right up your alley, creative and baking!

  8. Very cute way to do the dots! I have a photography question about the photo with the girls. It looks like you did not use a flash but the picture looks like the lights were dim but the photo is still light and clear. How did you do that? I am a dunce with photos in the dark like that and would apprecitate to know how you made such a nice picture.

  9. Robin Sue-
    I did not use a flash. I had the ISO cranked at 1600 and a large aperture (small f-stop #) so I wouldn't need the flash. The higher ISO and smaller f-stop, the more light enters the camera.

    The candles added a nice light to their faces, which really helped. But I also added a dark edge in Photoshop. I made a layer and used a large brush to paint the edges with black and turned down the opacity so it's not solid black, just dark.

    Does that help?

  10. Susie - I've definitely thought about it. Finding the time is a trick, but it would be really fun!

  11. Thanks Kelly it does help. I need to practice with the settings on my camera more! I do see how you brushed in the dark around the edges, very dramatic! Thank you, thank you!

  12. Amazing. Simply amazing. I am in awe of your cake making as much as I am in awe of your bread baking!

  13. LOVE the Airhead idea! I don't like to use fondant either b/c of the taste.

    I love your blog and have subscribed! Can't wait to read more good ideas!

  14. Staci- Thank you so much for the compliments and for subscribing!

  15. That is such a cute idea. I loved the airhead idea! My son loves those so I will have to find a way to incorporate that with his cake! :)
    Off to read some more of your blog - that I just bookmarked. :D

  16. For apprx. how many minutes should we have the mixture over heat?

  17. Anonymous - I haven't timed the cooking on the frosting (really need to do that!) but I would say it's about 7-10 min start to finish. It'll take a few minutes to get to the point where you notice it starting to thicken, but then it goes pretty quickly from there. I hope that helps!

  18. for the buttercream.... did you use regular sugar or powdered sugar?

    1. Rachel - it's regular granulated sugar. HTH!


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