Happy Birthday Cake! A super easy cake to make with kids (or yourself!)

Monday, June 10, 2013

This one goes out to Pinterest...

Sometimes a post will just get into my head on Pinterest and I'll basically become obsessed until I make it. Such was the case with Paula Deen's recipe for 1-2-3-4 Cake. Super, super easy using ingredients you should have on hand, you can literally whip this cake up in minutes. It's super versatile too -- you can basically match any frosting or filling you like to this basic vanilla recipe. Some ideas include coconut with passion fruit filling, raspberry frosting and berry preserve, even tiramisu with coffee-flavored frosting and freshly shaved chocolate all around. This is a great basic recipe to keep in your arsenal that you can play with and adjust for the occasion or season, or simply with what you've got on hand. If you find yourself with unexpected guests or need to pull a cake out of your ass on short notice for a party or school function, this is your Go To Cake Recipe.

Here is my version based on Paula's recipe. I add a little orange zest to the batter for a subtle bright fragrance and flavor that compliments the batter perfectly. And here's my recipe for a super easy non-chocolate-melting chocolate frosting. Again, comes together very, very fast with a standing or handheld mixer. 

Because I made this cake with the kiddos for my birthday this year, I'm calling it Happy Birthday Cake. They had a blast adding the simple ingredients and tasting as we went. I let them decorate the top -- note the thick layer of rainbow sprinkles. And of course, what birthday cake is complete without requisite candles?!

Happy Birthday Cake
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup milk, at room temperature
1 Tbsp vanilla extract
1 Tbsp orange zest
2 cups granulated sugar
3 cups sifted cake/self-rising flour*
4 eggs
recipe for chocolate frosting (follows)
rainbow sprinkles for topping (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter 3 (9 inch) cake pans and set aside.** Doing 3 cake pans will give you a fabulous, easy 3 layer cake (and cake will cook faster!).

Sift the flour and set aside.

Place the butter in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (conversely, you can certainly make with a handheld mixer using the beater attachments). Beat until butter is lighter in color and fluffy in texture. Add the sugar and continue to beat on medium-high speed until well incorporated and butter is fluffy, another 5 minutes or so.

Add the eggs, one at a time and beat on lower speed until egg is just combined. It's important to add each egg one at a time (not all at once) to ensure an even texture. Add the vanilla and orange zest and beat to combine. Add one cup of the flour and mix until just combined, then add half of the milk and beat, then another cup of flour, then the rest of the milk, then the last cup of flour. Each time you want to mix the ingredient in just until it's pretty much combined (about 90% is good) so as to not overmix the batter.

Divide the batter evenly into each pan and bake in oven until a tester comes out clean, and tops are just beginning to get golden. Bake time should be around 25 minutes, but will vary depending on your oven's strength. Again, you want to start checking the cake around 15-20 minutes for doneness; if it overbakes it will be dry. When you insert a toothpick in the center and it comes out clean (i.e., without batter goo on it), it's done!

Take out from oven and let stand to cool about 10 minutes in the pans. Invert onto a cooling rack -- place your cooking rack on top of the pan. Slide one hand under the pan (you may need to use an oven glove if the pan is still too warm for you) and place the other hand securely on top of the rack right over the top of the cake. Pick both up keeping them connected to each other, and flip it so the cake pan is now on top of the cooking rack. Set down on counter. Gently pop off the pan and voila! you have your cake layer! Repeat with each pan. Let these cool for an hour before frosting.

When ready to form cake, simply place one layer on a cake stand or platter. Add a little frosting on the top. Gently add another cake layer right on top, then frost, then add final cake layer. Frost the top and sides of the cake. I did a very rustic, easy large swirl pattern because I wanted my cake to look very homemade and casual; if you want to go nuts you can do a smooth finish or pipe a pattern or whatever your cake decorating heart desires. Add sprinkles if using and candles and serve!

Keep refrigerated until ready to serve; will keep well for about 3 days.

 *Cake flour aka "self-rising flour" is basically all purpose flour with baking powder added to it. You can be this mix in a box at the store, but a lot of people (including myself) don't because (a) it's expensive (about $4-5 a box!) and (b) the shelf-life is very, very short. Unless you plan to do cakes and cupcakes on a pretty regular basis, you don't really need to invest in it.

To make your own at home, all you need is regular all-purpose flour. I personally like King Arthur brand. And any baking powder will do. The simple ratio is:

 1.5 teaspoon baking powder: 1 cup flour.

So if you need more than 1 cup for a recipe, like for this cake recipe that calls for 3 cups of self-rising flour, you'd simply sift together in a bowl 4 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder with 3 cups of all purpose flour. You can also add salt if you like. For this cake recipe, you can add 1 teaspoon of salt if you wished.

**You want to be extra careful buttering your pans. Do not skimp here -- every single part of the pan needs to be generously slathered in the butter. This will help release the done cake easily from the pan. If you are sparse with the buttering then parts of the cake will stick to the pan when you try to remove it; this will break your layer and you'll end up with pieces. You can also use a baking spray (I recommend PAM's with butter and flour).

Quick No-Melt Chocolate Frosting
1/4 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3 cups powder sugar (aka confectioner's sugar)
2/3 cup good quality cocoa powder
4 Tbsp heavy cream
1 Tbsp vanilla extract
1 Tbsp freshly brewed coffee (room temperature is great)

Using a standing mixer or handheld mixer fitted with the paddle attachment/s, cream the butter for a minute or so. Add some of the sugar -- you don't have to be precise -- and mix on low speed until combined. Add the sugar and cocoa a little at a time -- a little of each -- and a tablespoon of cream at a time as you mix everything together. Go slowly -- the sugar and cocoa will puff in your face like a cloud if your speed is anything above the lowest speed when you're adding these ingredients. You don't have to be precise in measuring here -- the idea is to slowly add the sugar and cocoa to mix into the butter, and you use the cream to help smooth it out each time.

Once you've incorporated all of the sugar, cocoa, and cream into the frosting, start beating it on higher speed to give it body. The air from the higher speed is what will add volume to the frosting and make it fluff up, so don't be afraid to work on medium-high speeds here.

Once you've established a good frosting consistency, add the vanilla and beat in until combined, then the coffee and beat until combined. The vanilla helps to mellow out the bitterness in the cocoa while the coffee helps to bring out the sweetness in the frosting.

At this point it's ready to frost the cake -- you can go directly to frosting. If you're doing this in advance, wrap the frosting and keep in fridge. Bring it out at room temperature (about 20 minutes or so) to make it more spreadable and then frost your cake later. Always refrigerate unused frosting.

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