he turned eleven
I don’t know of anyone who takes the selection of his or her birthday cake so seriously, but I respect my son for this trait. It’s a big decision, to be sure. Chocolate or vanilla? Buttercream frosting or cream cheese? Ice cream on the side or not at all? Or perhaps an ice cream cake? So many choices to choose from.
We’ve been in birthday cake negotiations for weeks now. I offered up the easy-for-Mom and always-crowd-pleasing Publix birthday cake. Publix cake is usually a no brainer. Everyone loves that cake. Oliver, though, thinks it’s too sweet. He’s right. It is too sweet, but this usually isn’t a problem for most of us. We eat it, feel guilty, maybe add in an extra workout or neighborhood walk, then sneak a second slice when no one is looking. Oliver never finishes a slice. He’s the smart one in this household.
The weekend before we were to celebrate his birthday, I offered up three of my baking books for him to peruse and make a selection from. One had few pictures, so he wasted minimal time on that book. In the other two books, he placed sticky notes on the photos he thought looked interesting and “not too sweet,” though I’m not sure how he made this judgement based on photos. Ultimately, he walked away with one cake in mind – the cookies and cream cake from page 107 of Tessa Huff’s Layered: Baking, Building, and Styling Spectacular Cakes. His only condition was that he wanted the Swiss meringue buttercream frosting from page 41 rather than the white chocolate-cream cheese frosting the recipe called for. He definitely wanted the Oreos in it, though.
I warned him, “You’ll probably think it’s too sweet.” He was insistent, though, that this was the cake he wanted.
I made the three chocolate cake layers one night after getting home from work, and I stored them, wrapped in plastic wrap, in the freezer until the night before I assembled the cake. On the morning of Oliver’s birthday sleepover, I made the frosting and assembled the cake.
Oliver had a couple of boys over for a sleepover that night, boys he’s known for years – and one since preschool. After a dinner of hamburgers, tater tots, and fresh fruit, it was time for cake. I stuck eleven striped candles into the top of the cake, lit them, and carefully set the cake in front of Oliver. We began singing, and at the end of the song, he blew out all of the candles in one big breath.
Watching him experience such joy – the joy of being with his friends and his family on his almost-birthday, with homemade cake and no bedtime – was such a gift to me. Almost as much of a gift as he was to me on October 4th eleven years ago.
Later, after all the dishes were done and the boys were getting ready to go upstairs to watch a movie or play video games, I asked him how the cake tasted.
He shrugged. “I’m not the biggest fan,” he said.
It was too sweet. Imagine that.
Yield: Serves 12-15
Cookies and Cream Cake
The components of this recipe come from the Layered cookbook by Tessa Huff. In her book, the recipe for Cookies and Cream Cake is made with cream cheese frosting. Somehow, I have a son who doesn't like cream cheese frosting (is he really mine?), so I've used her recipe for Swiss Meringue Buttercream frosting instead. I also made the cake with 8-inch cake pans rather than 6-inch pans.
This recipe makes one 3-layer cake, and there will be frosting leftover.
For Chocolate Cakes:
2 ½ cups (315 g) all-purpose flour
1 cup (95 g) unsweetened cocoa powder
2 ½ teaspoons baking powder
¾ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons (150 mL) canola oil
2 cups (400 g) granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1 large egg yolk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
½ teaspoon almond extract
1 ½ cups (360 mL) whole milk
1 cup (240 mL) hot coffee
For a large batch of Swiss Meringue Buttercream:
1 cup (240 mL) large egg whites
2 cups (400 g) granulated sugar
3 cups (6 sticks/675 g) unsalted butter at room temp, cubed
1 tablespoon vanilla
10 Oreo cookies, crushed
Preheat over to 350 degrees. Grease and flour three 8-inch cakes pans and set aside.
Sift together the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda, and salt and set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment, beat together the oil and sugar on medium speed for 2 minutes. With the mixer on, add the eggs, egg yolks, vanilla, and almond extract. Stop the mixer and scrape down the bowl.
Turn the mixer to low and add the flour mixture in three batches, alternating with the milk, beginning and ending with the flour mixture. Stop the mixer and scrape down the bowl. With the mixer on low, stream in the coffee. Mix on medium-low for no more than 30 seconds, or until combined.
Evenly divide the batter among the prepared pans. Bake for 23 to 25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cakes comes out clean. Let them cool on a wire rack for 10 to 15 minutes before removing the cakes from their pans.
Place egg whites and sugar in bowl of stand mixer. Whisk them together by hand to combine. Fill a medium saucepan with a few inches of water and place it over medium-high heat. Place the mixer bowl on top of the saucepan to create a double boiler. The bottom of the water should not touch the water.
Whisking intermittently, heat the egg mixture until it reaches 160 degrees on a candy thermometer or is hot to the touch. Once hot, carefully fit the mixer bowl onto the stand mixer.
With the whisk attachment, beat the egg white mixture on high speed for 8-10 minutes, until it holds medium-stiff peaks. When done, the outside of the mixer bowl should return to room temperature and no residual heat should be escaping out of the top of the bowl. Stop the mixer and swap out the whisk attachment for the paddle.
With the mixer on low speed, add the butter, a few tablespoons at a time, then the vanilla. Once incorporated, turn up the mixer speed to medium-high and beat until the buttercream is silky smooth, 3-5 minutes.
May store frosting in airtight container in refrigerator for up to 10 days. Bring to room temperature before remixing.
To frost cakes, place 1 layer on a cake plate. With an offset spatula, spread top with 1/2 cup frosting. Repeat with second layer. Stir the crushed Oreo cookies into the remaining frosting until well-combined. Place the third layer on top of cake, centering it, and spread the remaining frosting evenly over top and sides of cake. You will have extra frosting, so reserve it for another use.