I have earned an entirely undeserved reputation as someone who can walk into the kitchen and emerge two or three hours later, unflapped and holding aloft a pretty decent cake. This is why I am relied upon to come up with birthday cakes and cakes for festive occasions. What people don’t realize is that the disasters they feel I am exempt from are, in fact, just as likely to befall me as them — the difference is, I think, that I allow for such disasters in terms of timing. In other words, it’s not a measure twice cut once situation: it’s a measure, mix, bake, and see if it works, and make sure you’re working with enough time such that if it doesn’t work, you can do a second measure, mix, and bake. Because the odds that disaster will strike twice are, truly, pretty slim.
Let us consider, for example, last Friday. We were expecting family to visit in honor of my husband’s birthday. I knew my husband would want some kind of fancy iced cake, and since I happened to be aware of our houseguest’s love of Boston Cream Pie, I decided that the thing to do was make a Boston Cream Pie. My husband is not against Boston Cream Pie, either, so really, it seemed like a safe bet, in terms of “will people be happy with this.”
Now, normally I would view this as too much of a pain in the ass to take on, but there were some extenuating circumstances. One: birthday. Two: I already had a jar of fudge in the fridge which would work very well as the chocolate icing. Three: I have a tub of Bird’s Custard in the sweet drawer, which means I thought I wouldn’t have to fuss with making a real pastry cream (something I’m sure I could do, but didn’t want to start experimenting with just then).
“No problem,” I said to myself, and I stared at a Nigella Lawson recipe for Victoria sponge and thought, “Perfect.” I whipped up my Victoria sponge batter, it looked great, I bunged it into the pans precisely as instructed, and when I went to examine the cooled layers an hour later I saw that my nice cake layers had undeniably crashed. What I had was two lovely vanilla pancakes. “Okay,” I said to myself, looking at the clock. “This sucks. BUT. Onward.” I had two hours in which to bake a second cake, and I managed to get two very nice Golden Vanilla cake layers out of the oven in good time (God bless King Arthur Flour for that recipe, along with everything else they do).
I had hoped — naively — that I would have the entire cake assembled before my husband came home from work, but it was not to be. Instead, come 5.30 Friday evening, while he stood around the kitchen having a beer with our houseguest, I worked on the custard filling. Which failed. This isn’t fair: it was Bird’s, there was nothing to fail, exactly; the problem was that I abused the product and overcooked it and wound up with something I could not use as a cake filling. I had to throw out a panful of rubbery custard and start over. The second time around, I managed to get it more or less right, and I forced the necessary cooling by dunking the pan in an ice bath (worked pretty well! whisk hard all the while you’re doing this, though, lest the custard get weird on you). My husband tried to not watch me and tried to stay out of my way, aware that as I swore and gritted my teeth, I was doing all of this ostensibly for his benefit (though it’s really both for his benefit and out of my own sense of obligation because this is something I should be able to do). “You realize,” I snarled at once point, “that this is actually the second cake I’ve baked today.” He got a look of horror on his face — suddenly understanding that the frustration he was witnessing over the custard was really just the tip of the iceberg. “It’ll be fine,” I said, “I’ve got the chocolate layer taken care of anyhow.” This thought was, in fact, comforting, and I cooled as the custard did, feeling like I could get this done without throwing anything against a wall.
I did have to whip up a little more hot fudge sauce, in the end, because it turned out the jar of sauce I had in the fridge wasn’t quite enough to cover the job — but making hot fudge sauce is, I swear on all that’s holy (the Joy of Cooking, for example) that making hot fudge sauce is infinitely easier than making a cake or custard. Making hot fudge sauce is like this: you take about 1/4 cup brown sugar, 1/2 cup corn syrup, 1/2 cup cocoa powder, a couple tablespoons of butter, and some whole milk or cream or even evaporated milk (maybe 2/3 of a cup), and you whisk it together over medium heat. Bring it to a boil and let it simmer for three or four minutes. You could put in a dash of salt if you wanted. Cook and stir — do not stop stirring, ever — and after a few minutes take it off the heat. Sprinkle in about 1/2 cup chocolate chips and a dash of vanilla and stir until the chocolate chips have melted. Depressingly, this is all it takes to make hot fudge sauce that is perfect on ice cream but is even better to eat by the spoonful straight from the jar. It also makes a perfect topping for a Boston Cream Pie; the corn syrup makes it nice and glossy and you can do things like what I did, and use a spatula to swirl the birthday boy’s initial into the chocolate, just for kicks.
My husband missed seeing me make the extra hot fudge sauce, because he was out picking up the Chinese food we’d ordered for dinner (his choice! not a matter of my being unwilling to cook!). If he had witnessed it being made, he might be less impressed by it. However, the upside of his having gone to get dinner was that by the time he got home, I had assembled the Boston Cream Pie and knew it would be a humdinger.
Yes, there are things I’d do differently next time. Next time, for one thing, I think I’ll attempt a real pastry cream, with actual eggs, and I’ll make a lot of it so that I can have a really nice, thick layer of it between the cake layers — I was a bit stingy with filling this cake. For another thing — well, come to think of it, there isn’t another thing. This cake was otherwise perfect. The cake itself was wonderful, the chocolate was excellent, and we ate all of it up by the end of Sunday.
Which is lucky, because my husband’s actual birthday is this week, and we need to make room for the lemon cake he’s asked me to make him. I’ve never made a lemon cake before, so the truth is, this will be an adventure as well… but what could go wrong?