Icing on the …

By Sharon Kebschull Barrett
With our children’s birthdays 16 days apart, “Christmas in July” rings true in my house. The anticipation, especially for my now-4-year-old, builds for nearly a year; we’re almost as exciting as Santa. Last year’s party was a baseball one, and nearly as soon as it was over, my son began dreaming up themes for this one.
In the end, it was easy to settle; his train mania nearly rivals the baseball one, and since he couldn’t have two parties, he voted for Thomas the tank engine.
So we chugged our way through the early part of July happily dreaming up game, food, prize and piƱata ideas.

Happily, that is, but for the cake. You might think that I, as the owner (before kids) of a catering business called Dessert First, would especially enjoy baking and eating cakes. And I do, if they’re cheesecakes, or flourless chocolate, or chocolate-kahlua. But basic, usually dry birthday cakes rarely tempt me, seeming more of a bother than their taste is worth, second only to wedding cakes.
At least I can make a mean frosting. Few things are worse than a grocery-store cake, a bit dry and crumbly, smeared with that slightly gritty, horrifyingly sweet icing made of shortening and sugar. Maybe the current uproar over trans fats will spell the end of Crisco frostings. Even made with butter, though, these icings still give me a tongue-ache.
But frosting can carry your reputation only so far. Sooner or later, no matter how thick the roof, your guests will get to the foundation.
Cake cookbooks usually start with the classic “1-2-3-4” cake, so called because it uses 1 cup butter to 2 cups sugar to 3 cups flour to 4 eggs. If you’re lazy, you don’t separate the eggs, and the recipe goes together fast and fairly painlessly. Should you be stuck in an ill-equipped kitchen and need to bake a cake, this is the one to go for. You can remember the ingredients easily, and if you use the same cup for measuring each ingredient, you can get the proportions right.
This is a perfectly decent cake; it has a moist enough crumb and is what most people expect underneath the candles.
To go a bit fancier without going overboard, one of the best sources is “A Piece of Cake,” by Susan Purdy. Her recipes don’t knock you over with detail, as some cake “bibles” do, and they work, baking up moist, tasty cakes. I especially appreciate the batter yields she lists for each cake.
For my son’s birthday, I made a large chocolate buttermilk sheet cake topped with licorice train tracks, a lake (made by squeezing out lots of those annoying little tubes of shiny piping gel from a grocery’s baking aisle), and two trains partly made from strips cut off the sheet cake (plus trees, upside-down ice cream cones coated with green frosting). Using Purdy’s batter yields (along with her chart of how much batter various cake pans need) made it easy to choose a recipe that just needed doubling to fill the pan.
And if the cake is good enough, then a fabulous frosting is, well, icing on the cake. Look to Europe for inspiration; the classic is a French egg yolk buttercream. If you’re still ticked at the French, though, the Swiss come to the rescue.
A Swiss meringue buttercream takes barely more time than beating shortening and sugar together — and you’ll bask in the kudos for your rich, silky, not-too-sweet frosting that stands up to Southern humidity nearly as solidly as Crisco.
Still, when my birthday comes, I plan to skip all that. I want the cake of my pre-teen memories, a chocolate chip-mint ice cream cake with a pool of fudge on top. I’m not sure if I remember the whole birthday correctly — I think it was my 10th, and my friends and I got to go drool over John Travolta and dream of sounding like Olivia Newton-John in “Grease.” But I distinctly recall sitting in the dining room with them afterward and being presented with that speckled green slab. Cake doesn’t get much moister than that.

Recipe: Swiss Meringue Buttercream

First published in the Independent Weekly, August 6, 2003

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