A LITTLE BIRTHDAY CELEBRATION
I don’t remember any of my childhood or teen birthdays. There were no parties, not a one, no streamers, no pointed cone party hats, no cakes piled high with gaudy neon-colored roses with Jamie written elegantly across glossy white icing. No surprise parties as far back as I can remember, no friends hiding in darkened rooms behind sofas and armchairs smothering giggles, no gifts piled high awaiting the astonished scream tumbling into laughter from the lips of this birthday girl. No teen dances in the back room of my parents’ house, pouring over the boys’ names on the invitation list with a best girlfriend, wondering which would want to dance with me. No memories of spin the bottle or sneaking mouthfuls of liqueur from behind the bar dot my adolescence, no snapshots of those unforgiving gawkiest of years. No, birthdays were always simple and low key, maybe a family celebration at a favorite restaurant, a gift or two, and a day like any other. Nothing at all to mark the event from one year to the next, so nothing special stands out in my memories.
I remember the first birthday party that I was invited to, memories tinged with the old jealousy I felt back then. She was the prettiest girl in both my Sunday School and my kindergarten class, a princess who lived in what to my 5-year-old eyes was a castle fitting her beauty and grace; she had her very own bedroom despite having sisters, a bedroom full of feminine ruffles, a fairytale canopied bed and life-sized stuffed animals. And her birthday party was everything I had always dreamed of out by the pool. Yes, even at that tender age I had gone to that party accompanied by the green-eyed monster wondering why I didn’t have it all as well?
I remember Shay’s birthday party somewhere around the 4th grade, lovely Shay, the middle of three very glamorous sisters, my best friend. I remember her mom leading the games in the front yard as we all kneeled and bowed down to an imaginary King, shouting “Owa taygoo Siam” over and over again, faster and faster, louder and louder until, one by one, with much embarrassment and 4th-grade giggles, we realized that we had been shouting “Oh what a goose I am!” and the joke was on us! I remember Willie’s birthday party in that poor little corner house near where my brother now lives and my very first game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey and my wonder that if his parents could give him a party then why couldn’t mine? I remember my friend Chris’ older sister Julie’s (my brother’s friend) birthday party in the oh so cool house across the street with the piñata strung up on a tree in their backyard and the kids whacking at that brightly-colored paper maché horse until it burst open, candy flying everywhere, kids diving to gather it up. And how I wanted a birthday party like that!
But I still never had a birthday party. Year after year, that shy, nervous schoolgirl that I was accepted the quiet celebrations and jealously dreamed of parties. So it would seem strange, then, that I simply adore my birthdays. But now I am surrounded by men who, although they don’t organize parties for me, surprise or otherwise, spoil and pamper me with wonderful restaurants and utterly impractical, fabulously girly gifts. This year was no different – except that Simon was not here with us. JP and Clem whisked me off to the best restaurant in town and, as we were waiting for our first course, slipped my lovely, perfect gift discreetly into my hand.
And every year I make my own birthday cake. Yes, I could ask my men to pop into any pastry shop and choose one for me, or I could do that myself. How easy to bring home a luscious tart or bavaroise, some creamy concoction that the French know how to create with such perfection, beautifully, elegantly layered and decorated with swirls and curls and sugar gewgaws. But I love to make it myself, creating a dense American-style layer cake in whatever flavors I crave. No, it is never as pretty or as perfect in shape and form as those found in the pastry shops, but every single year I make myself my perfect cake. Usually, I make a fabulous Chestnut Layer Cake with rich Chocolate Buttercream Frosting but lately I’ve changed the tradition. Last year I simply made decadent chocolate brownies and wonderful Lemon Soufflé Puddings, a complete break from the usual cake. Two years ago I made a favorite Chocolate Cake, dense, moist and very chocolaty, filled with Coffee-flavored Whipped Cream and slathered rather haphazardly with a thick layer of Chocolate Buttercream. And this year, the Coffee and Chocolate theme was continued with an entirely new concoction, an Espresso-Chocolate Layer Cake with a Mocha Mascarpone Frosting.
Two years ago, I flew to New York where I spent 3 tiring, sad weeks with my elder brother, helping him, taking care of him, the last I spent time with him. As I waited for my flight at JFK airport, the flight that would take me away from my beloved brother and back into the arms of husband and sons, I decided to splurge and treat myself to an armful of cooking magazines, an expensive luxury during more normal times. I selected, among others, an issue of bon appétit and as I flipped through the pages, my attention was arrested by a fabulous, mouthwatering array of cakes spread out over page after page. And I longed to make one or the other. Over the past two years, I have pulled out the magazine several times and each time I find myself staring at, ogling, dreaming of this gorgeous selection of cakes. I stumbled across the magazine once again, quite by accident, a couple weeks before my birthday and the photograph of a stunning dark chocolate and coffee layer cake jumped out at me and this time it had BIRTHDAY written all over it. And as I ran my hand across the glossy page, caressing the beauty of this confection, I happened to catch a glimpse of the artist who created the recipes in this spread and I excitedly realized that I know her! My lovely friend Abby Dodge, author of Desserts 4 Today that I recently reviewed. That sealed it and this wonderful, rich, dense, gorgeous chocolate cake with the perfect hint of espresso and the delicious mocha frosting was the crowning glory of this year’s birthday festivities.
You don't have to wait for a birthday to make and enjoy this fabulous cake. Everyone: me, JP, Clem and all the young dudes, absolutely went wild for this dessert! A rather easy recipe to put together, the Espresso Chocolate Layer Cake is so chocolatey, the coffee infusing a warm richness and highlighting the chocolate without drowning it out and the luxurious whipped frosting was one of the best I've ever tasted: creamy smooth, a perfect mocha flavor. This cake got a double thumbs up all around and it has moved onto the list of our favorite desserts, birthday, holiday, any day.
I would love to submit this to Magazine Mondays created and hosted by Ivonne of Cream Puffs in Venice!
ESPRESSO CHOCOLATE LAYER CAKE with MOCHA MASCARPONE FROSTING
Recipe created by Abigail Johnson Dodge for the April 2009 issue of bon appétit magazine
ESPRESSO CHOCOLATE LAYER CAKE
2 cups cake flour
¾ cup natural unsweetened cocoa powder
1 ½ tsp baking soda
¾ tsp salt
¾ cup (1 ½ sticks) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
2 cups packed golden brown sugar
3 large eggs
1 ½ tsps vanilla
1 cup buttermilk
4 tsps instant espresso powder dissolved in ¾ cup hot water
Preheat the oven to 325°F (160°C) and position the rack in the middle of the oven. Generously butter two 9-inch round x 2-inch high cake pans, dust with flour, shake out the excess and then line the bottoms with parchment paper.
Sift the 2 cups cake flour, the cocoa powder, baking soda and salt into a bowl. Place the softened butter in a large mixing bowl and, using electric beaters, beat the butter until smooth. Add the brown sugar and beat until well blended and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time beating well after each addition. Blend in the vanilla. Scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed.
Beat in the dry ingredients on low speed in 3 additions alternating with the buttermilk in 2 additions, beating just until blended after each addition. Gradually add the hot water espresso, beating until smooth. Increase beater speed to medium and just whip very briefly until smooth and fluffy.
Divide the batter evenly between the 2 prepared cake pans and bake for about 40 minutes or until a tester inserted in the center of the layers comes out clean. Remove the cakes from the oven and allow to cool for 15 minutes on cooling racks. Run a knife around the edges of the pans to loosen the cakes, invert the cakes onto the racks, lift off the pans and peel off the parchment paper. Invert the layers again so the top sides are up and allow to cool completely.
You can make the cake layers a day ahead; simply wrap each layer individually in plastic wrap and leave at room temperature.
MOCHA MASCARPONE FROSTING
Must be prepared ahead to allow for chilling
1/3 cup natural unsweetened cocoa powder
1 Tbs instant espresso powder
1 ½ cups chilled heavy whipping cream, divided
1 1/3 cups sugar
2 8-oz containers chilled mascarpone
Sift the cocoa powder into a large bowl. Add the espresso powder. Bring 1 cup of the heavy cream just to a boil in a small saucepan then slowly pour over the cocoa and espresso, whisking until the cocoa is completely dissolved, about 1 minute. Add the remaining cold ½ cup cream and the sugar and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Chill in the refrigerator until cold, at least 2 hours. Or do this the day before and chill overnight.
Place the mascarpone in a large mixing bowl and beat until loosened and fluffy. Add the chilled cocoa mixture and, on low speed, beat until blended and smooth. Increase speed to medium-high and beat until the frosting is thick and medium-firm peaks hold, about 2 minutes. Do not overbeat or the frosting may curdle.
Assemble the cake:
Using a pastry brush, brush off crumbs from the cake layers. Place one cake layer, top side up, on the serving platter. Spoon 1 ¾ cup frosting on the cake and spread evenly over the layer all the way to the edges. Top with the second cake layer, top side up, pressing to adhere. Spread thin layer of frosting over top and sides of cake. Chill for 10 minutes. Spread the remaining frosting over the sides and top of the cake, swirling decoratively.