Last night, we celebrated the birthday of Pam, one of my very best friends. Before I tell you about her cake, I want to tell you about why I adore her. Pam and I met when we lived in the same dorm in our freshman year at UCLA. She was a bad ass New Yorker with a tattoo and an attitude. I was gawky and insecure, blushing when a stranger talked to me. But we had the same razor-shag blonde haircut, she was always nice to me, and we became unlikely pals. After freshman year, Pam moved into the best apartment in Westwood. All of our friends took turns living in the second bedroom, and I spent a summer there. Pam had every episode of Friends on her computer, and she always let me borrow her fancy ceramic flat iron. It didn't hurt that she had a hunky neighbor who was literally an Abercrombie and Fitch model. Yum... I digress.
Eight years later, we have the kind of friendship that only exists with someone who's seen you through the ridiculousness of your early 20's. The party nights, spray tans, random boys and vacations, along with the hard stuff, fighting, breakups, and messes. She's the first one to take you to a four-star dinner on your birthday, or let you borrow her coziest sweats during a marathon session of So You Think You Can Dance. She has a sick shoe collection, and she'll tell you if have something in your teeth, and she'll tell you when you look beautiful. And her kitchen is always stocked with cheese, crackers, and a chilled bottle of chard. Friends like that don't come along every day.
Pam wears a lot of black and white, so I thought a marble cake would be a clever choice. Marble cake has an amazing "easy to fancy ratio". I just made that term up, maybe I'll put it in my Food Network tape. Anyway, instead of making two different batters, you make a vanilla batter, then take out a small amount and mix in some cocoa powder. Then spoon the batters into the pan in a checkerboard pattern, and swirl away with a butter knife. Look how fancy you are!
When I want a cake to look really pretty, I cover it in fondant. Fondant is a lot like pie dough in that many of us are afraid of it (as an aside, are we just afraid of using rolling pins? Someone research this.). I'm no pro at this. My fondant cakes are usually lumpy, with some cracks, fingerprints, and weirdness. But it's the effort that counts, and people are always impressed when they see a gorgeous fondant-covered cake. It really helps to cover the surface with powdered sugar or cornstarch, and use a bench scraper to make sure that it doesn't stick.
I am artistically challenged, so rather than try to pipe a decoration, I used a damask stencil to cut out pieces of black fondant. With just a bit of water, the decorative pieces easily stick to the cake. I did this during The Bachelorette finale. I liked Roberto from day 1, I hope that he and Ali make it and live happily ever after.
A "happy birthday" in buttercream, and you're done! Happy birthday Pammy!
2/3 cup milk, room temperature
2/3 cup heavy cream, room temperature
2 cups sugar
6 large eggs
2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2/3 cup best-quality unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 cup boiling water
1/4 cup instant espresso powder, for mocha layers
Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Butter pans and line with parchment paper. Butter lining; dust with flour, tapping out excess. Set aside. Sift together cake flour, baking powder, and salt; set aside.
Combine milk and cream in a small bowl; set aside. Cream butter and sugar on medium speed in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk until pale and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Add eggs one at a time; mix well after each addition. Mix in vanilla. Add flour mixture in three batches, alternating with the milk mixture and beginning and ending with flour.
Combine cocoa and the boiling water in a medium bowl; for mocha cake, add espresso powder. Stir in 2 cups cake batter.
Fill prepared pans with spoonfuls of vanilla and chocolate batter to form a checkerboard pattern. Run the tip of a paring knife or a wooden skewer through batter in a figure-eight motion to make swirls. Bake until tops are golden, and a cake tester inserted in centers comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes. Let cakes cool completely in pans on wire racks. Flip the layers out of the pans, and chill them in the freezer for 30 minutes (until the outside is hard).
Quick Vanilla Buttercream
by Gale Gand
Note: I owe Gale Gand my first born for this recipe. This is the only buttercream recipe you will ever need. It is aaaahhhmazing.
6 cups confectioners' sugar
2 cups butter
2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 to 4 tablespoons whipping cream
In a standing mixer fitted with a whisk, mix together sugar and butter. Mix on low speed until well blended and then increase speed to medium and beat for another 3 minutes.
Add vanilla and cream and continue to beat on medium speed for 1 minute more, adding more cream if needed for spreading consistency.
Remove cake layers from the freezer. If they are rounded in the center, use a serrated bread knife to cut the round top off the layer (you want the flattest surface possible) Place parchment strips around the base of the cake to keep your cake plate clean. Frost the flat surface of the first layer, then place the second layer on top. Slice the top off the next layer, ice, and repeat. Cover the whole cake in buttercream using an offset spatula, and decorate as you wish.