The first birthday cake I ever made was for my friend Jen’s thirtieth birthday. I’m not sure where I found the confidence to make that first cake, but Jen had just given me a scale for my birthday, and that, along with The King Arthur Baking Companion she’d given me for the birthday before, made me feel equipped. She chose a recipe for a chocolate mint cake that became my standard chocolate birthday cake, and over the years I’ve morphed and changed it in so many directions. Last week, I made a cake for her 37th, and sure enough, it was based on the framework of that same recipe.
This year on Jen’s birthday, it snowed (like almost every day before and since). And although I had intended to have this cake ready and beautiful and photographed when Jen stomped off her boots in the mudroom, the reality was (as always, especially in the case of cake) different. The cake was undressed, unassembled, and scattered around the kitchen when she arrived. The light, still short, had nearly left the kitchen, and the kids all went sledding in the field while we drank vodka and blood oranges and St. Germain. The kitchen got darker, I lost hope for a photography, and I got less picky and stressed about a beautiful and finished cake.
I say all this as if it’s a different story than usual. In truth, I assemble most of my cakes quickly in a dark corner of a party. I am always less careful, less skilled, and less agile with the pastry bag than I promise myself I’ll be. Years ago (four this week, to be exact), I even made a wedding cake for a dear friend, and although I drove it up to New Hampshire along with my KitchenAid and my candy thermometer, made real Italian Meringue Buttercream, and dreamed about frosting the cake for days, in the end it was the rose petals that saved it from being a mess. (Roses will can often save any cake, as long as the inside tastes good.) Last year I made a white cake with mango curd and whipped cream for Joey’s birthday, and I got cocky and improvisational and ran out of time. One layer slipped off the other, and we had to call it a trifle. I’m not kidding. I can make one messy birthday cake.
But last week, standing across the island from Jen, just feeling lucky to get to be with her on her birthday, I stacked the cake without even thinking about it. Jen has had a really hard month, and I got my first laugh from her in quite a while when I poured the glaze overtop the cake. Once the glaze was there, it was easy to see how unapologetically lopsided the whole thing was. From there, I gave up on prettiness entirely, and I pushed ricotta mousse out of the pastry bag with my signature lack of finesse.
Birthday cake making is a particular exercise in vulnerability. Of course there are the questions of structure and engineering–will it stand? Or will it slide? There’s the taste, perhaps most important of all, sweet but not too sweet, hopefully perfectly suited to the recipient. But really, when else do we create food that holds the wishes of the people we love? We set it on fire, sing our birthday prayer, set it in front of them. Then they close their eyes and wish! This year… this year will be filled with so many good things. And next year, if we have the good fortune to pass another year together, I will make you another cake.
Chocolate Ricotta Fudge Cake (A little sweet, a little spicy)
makes 1 double-layer 9-inch cake
inspired by a recipe from The King Arthur Baker’s Companion
For the cake:
1 1/4 cups sugar
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 scant cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
2 large eggs
1/2 cup safflower oil
3/4 cup buttermilk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup hot water
For the filling:
6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, roughly chopped
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 1/2 pounds whole milk ricotta
For the glaze:
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons maple syrup
6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, roughly chopped
1. Make the cake: Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter 2 9-inch cake pans, line the bottoms with parchment, and butter the parchment.
2. Combine the sugar, flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cayenne in the bowl of a stand mixer fit with the paddle attachment. Run the mixer for a moment just to combine. Add the eggs, oil, buttermilk, and vanilla to the bowl. Run the mixer on medium speed for about 2 minutes, stopping to scrape down the bowl. Add the hot water, and run the mixer for another 10 to 20 seconds, until the mixture is thin, smooth and glossy. Divide the batter between the two pans and bake until a toothpick comes out clean when you test the center of the cake, about 30 minutes. Allow the cakes to cool in their pans on a wire rack for about 30 minutes–then gently turn them out of their pans to cool completely.
3. While the cakes bake, make the mousse. Melt the chocolate in a double boiler (in my kitchen, that’s a metal bowl tucked into a pot). Combine the melted chocolate, cinnamon, and ricotta in the bowl of a food processor and process until smooth. Transfer to a container and refrigerate for at least an hour. Wash out your double boiler and keep it out for the next step.
4. When you’re ready to assemble the cake, make the glaze. Combine the cream, maple syrup, and chocolate in the bowl of the double boiler. Set it over low heat, and stir to combine as it all melts and comes together in a thick, smooth glaze. Remove from heat.
5. To assemble the cake, place one cake (rounder side up) on a platter or cake stand with a lip. Spread about two-thirds of the mousse on top of the cake (but not on the sides). Place the second cake on top of the mousse, round side down so the two round sides kiss. Fill in the space between with mousse and smooth out the sides so that the cake is sturdy and relatively straight. Pour the glaze over the cake, letting it pool in around the sides of the cake (and perhaps drip right off the plate). Put the rest of the mousse into a pastry bag and pipe the mousse on the top of the cake.