Yesterday was New Year’s Day, and my husband and I were expecting company: three couples, some old friends, some new friends, and the plan was that the adults would laze about the living room and dining table and eat and drink while our children crashed around upstairs. To achieve this goal, we set up a basic menu of options and then guests brought items to add as they saw fit. One of the things I prepared for the party was a birthday cake, because, as it happened, one of the guest’s 50th birthday was December 31st, and I was fairly sure it hadn’t been formally acknowledged.
So the cake. My friend’s wife provided me few clues to go on, and I’m not even sure how accurate they were, but I figured I couldn’t go too far wrong. “He likes vanilla,” she told me. “I know, it’s weird, but — vanilla.”
I found a rich-sounding vanilla cake recipe and banged out two layers, thinking, “I will make a caramel frosting to go with this.” I gave myself plenty of time to work on this. I made the cake layers on Monday and put them in the freezer. Tuesday morning, my daughter announced she wanted to have three egg yolks on toast for breakfast, and I said I’d give them to her if she’d help me make meringue in the afternoon. She didn’t agree to help, so I didn’t cook three egg yolks for her, but I made brown sugar meringue anyhow: a pan of cookies, sure, but also a nice layer 9″ across, in a cake pan, to use as a middle layer in the birthday cake. I also made the caramel on Tuesday afternoon — a bad idea; I’m never really at my best by late afternoon. I decided to overshoot my skills significantly and make a dry caramel — that is, start with plain sugar and no water in the pan — which led (predictably, I suppose) to my burning the stuff, but I forged onward anyhow, believing that the slight bitterness would be offset by the vast amount of sugar that would be involved with making frosting. (I turned out to be correct.)
Equipped with the basic components of the cake, on Thursday morning I assembled the cake. My husband watched with a combination of horror and awe as I got to work. I put four pieces of parchment on my cake stand and unwrapped one (thawed) cake layer and placed it just so. Then I creamed butter and added caramel and sugar and heavy cream to make an intensely caramelly frosting; half of this, I spread on the first layer of cake. Then I sprinkled on the frosting some leftover cooky-crumb streusel I had sitting around (chocolate cooky crumbs, brown sugar, pecans, ground together). I placed the meringue layer, crackling-apart top side facing DOWN, atop the chocolate streusel. (To put the crackly side up would have meant that putting frosting on it would be a fucking MESS; the smooth side, though, would be a piece of cake, and it was — the second half of the intense frosting in the mixer bowl was spread atop it, and more streusel applied; and then the final cake layer was put on top of that.
At this point, the cake was already, let’s say, a little ongepotchket. My husband, a man who will gild a lily as soon as hand you a kleenex, said, “jesus christ, what is going on here?” By this point, I was already working on the next batch of frosting, which would cover the whole shebang. “What,” I said. “It’s a birthday cake.”
But even I could see this was a little insane.
I doubled the amount of frosting this time around. An entire stick of butter. I don’t even know how many cups of confectioner’s sugar. Probably 3/4 of a cup of caramel. Cream. All whipped together. And then I started slathering it on. I thanked god that my aunt had given me a cake stand back in September, because I don’t know how I’d’ve got this job finished without being able to turn the cake constantly. (Seriously, why did I not acquire a cake stand fifteen years ago? So much agony I could have saved myself.) The finished product, which I put four meringue cookies on top of, simply because I HAD them sitting around, was stupidly tall. It looked like something you’d find at a county fair in Alabama. It had no dignity whatsoever. “I think I may have overdone it a little,” I said cheerfully as I carried the cake to the counter from which it would be served.
“I don’t know,” my husband said. “I think it needs something. A little duck bacon, maybe? Some peacock feathers?”
Well, folks, people ate the cake. It wasn’t as hard to cut as I’d feared it might be, but there are only about three small slices leftover, and I fully expect those will be gone daddy gone by the end of Friday night dinner tonight.
is the vanilla cake recipe I used, by the way. I recommend it highly and plan to bake it again. Oh yes.
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