Friday, March 06, 2009

It's Aqualad's Birthday

And so, in memory of Leah, I made a cake.

I've done this three years running now, and I hope to manage it every year. Last year I posted some pictures of the finished cake, but didn't go into detail on how I made it, like I did in 2007. This year I feel like a little detail.

I'm going to digress for a bit here and tell you about my baking experiences. My mother is a fantastic cook. She cooked amazing meals for seven children, although there was always at least one child that "hated" whatever she made. In addition, she taught a cultural class while I was growing up that inspired her to make dishes from other countries... but before she'd serve them to the class, she'd try them out on her children. So I was exposed to a lot of different cuisine early in life, and to cooking and baking techniques from childhood as we all got to pitch in on occasion. So it's not my mom's fault that I can't cook. She tried.

The problem for me was the insane measuring system that I simply could not wrap my head around. I just could not "get" a pint or a cup or a teaspoon. It didn't (and still doesn't) make any sense. When I saw tsp written in a recipe, I had to ask what it meant... every single time. There was a time that I decided to just go for it and make Nestle Toll House cookies all by myself. I mean, c'mon, Toll House cookies... I can't mess that up, right? HA. I confused Baking Soda and Baking Powder and apparently confused tablespoon with teaspoon for good measure and ended up with rock hard chocolate studded lithobiscuits that not even the dog would eat.

That pretty much scared me away from baking for a very very long time. The waste of chocolate chips alone was devastating!

I didn't take up baking again with any seriousness until... well, until I realized I had to keep Leah's tradition of baking a cake for Aqualad alive. So in 2007 and 2008 I used boxed mixes and made pretty normal if lopsided birthday cakes in memory of Leah (and Paul Norris, creator of Aquaman). In between, I started making a few more little items of baked variety here and there, and trying new things and old recipes I hadn't tried in a long time. I started to expand my knowledge, in other words, and I had some success.

I didn't realize until Monday that the anniversary was coming up, so I didn't pick up a cake mix at the store on Sunday. When I realized I'd forgotten, I decided to hit the store as soon as I could and get my cake mix so I could make the cake... but I wished I could only make half the box, because we really didn't need a two-layer cake. A single round would be more than enough for hubby-Eric and I. As I thought about it more and more, I wondered if I could make a cake from scratch. I haven't done that, ever. I have made a biscuit pizza crust from scratch, and done so recently. But a cake... so much more difficult. I remembered the lithobiscuits, but decided that I had to give it a go.

First difficulty was finding a recipe. I found in our recipe books alone five different recipes for a basic yellow cake... each completely different. Ack. Which one do I trust? I went online. I started reading recipes for yellow cake and ... every one seemed completely different. How can there be so many ways to make the most basic of basic cakes?!?? I have a logical mind at the best of times, so I started to note what the recipes had in common. First: the majority of the recipes agreed that the eggs and butter should be at room temperature when you start. The pans should be greased and floured. The normal cooking temperature was 350 degrees F. Almost all recipes included flour, sugar, butter/shortening/oil, milk and eggs. There are two distinct mixing methods: 1) cream butter and sugar first, and 2) dry ingredients first with egg last. Method 2 requires only one bowl.

I finally decided on this recipe based partly on the reviews, and also on the fact that it has a handy calculator so I could halve the recipe easily. Which I did. I planned on one 9 inch round for my cake.

When I got up this morning, I set out the butter and egg to get to room temperature.

Egg and Butter

After I was sure they weren't cold, I put my dry ingredients in my bowl, then put in the butter and milk and vanilla and mixed and rediscovered that flour flies all over when you use an electric mixer on it like that. I added the egg a little more carefully, and got a strange colored batter when it was fully mixed.

The Mix

My addition to the recipe was half a bag of chocolate chip cookies, which I just felt were needed for this particular cake.

Chocolate Chips

And so I mixed them in and poured into the waited greased and floured pan.

Mix with ChocolateInto the Pan

All my anxieties came rushing back as I waited for the cake to bake. No way could it turn out good. But looking at it in the oven, it seemed to be baking just fine.

In the Oven

Jumping the gun a little, I got out our meager supply of decorating icing and candles, and decided that I had enough. I planned to make a nice buttercream frosting, also from scratch, to go with the cake.


After 25 minutes, I tested to see if the cake was done. It sure LOOKED good, nice color and the smell... oh, what a great smell for a cake! Wow! However, some batter still stuck to the toothpick, so it went back in for another two minutes.

First Test

After two more minutes, the toothpick came out clean, so I set the cake to cool while I did other housey stuff.

Cooling down

Annoyingly, I apparently left it to cool in the pan too long, because when I came back to take it out, the cake stuck rather firmly. Because I had read that leaving it in the pan was bad, I'll put this one down to my own mistake and not an error in the recipe. The damage is going to make this cake really hard to ice... but the chunks that came out allowed me to get a taste of the cake and it's really good!

Broken Cake

After I was sure the cake was cool, I started on the buttercream icing. First time I'd done this icing, it's simply powdered sugar, butter, milk and a little vanilla mixed together. Unfortunately, it seemed to be a tad lumpy.

Buttercream Icing

Forging ahead, I added the blue food coloring to make a blue icing. Ah, food coloring! Allowing us to make foods with colors that shouldn't exist in nature!

Blue Icing

Icing the cake was a little too easy. The icing turned out slightly runny and very lumpy. Ah well, if I wanted to make a perfect cake, I would actually practice and train with a baker. As it is, this one just has to satisfy me.

Blue Cake

The decorating icing turned out to be MUCH harder to use than I expected, and the nice "Happy Birthday Aqualad!" and "In memory of Leah" turned into something very simple. Someday I will take a cake decorating class and learn how to actually use these things. For the moment, this cake will have to do.

Finished Cake

I don't think I'll be able to find any Swedish fish to put on the cake this year. So this is the very simple cake hubby-Eric and I will enjoy after dinner tonight. In the meantime... Happy birthday Aqualad, and I miss you Leah.