Toddler Birthday Cake

My little man recently turned three and I made him a birthday cake. My original plan was to use my kid’s birthday as an occasion to try out the Halekulani coconut cake recipe I found, but hubby pointed out that a three year old cannot have a plain, simple, all-white cake and the birthday cake needed to be something fun. Wanting to avoid colored frosting in a can and knowing my own limitations when it came to pastry bag decorating, I made the mistake of going on Pinterest, the place to go if you’re ever feeling like you need to feel inadequate in life. First of all, who are these people who make fondant at home!?! Also, it is ill-advised to go on Pinterest the day before an event.

After some searching, I found these “Easy Little Pandas” on a great baking blog called Bakerella and figured I can make mini chocolate cupcakes instead. I didn’t use the cupcake recipe from Bakerella but used the Barefoot Contessa’s chocolate ganache cupcake recipe instead.

Chocolate Ganache Cupcakes
From the Barefoot Contessa Parties Cookbook

  • 1 stick unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 4 large eggs at room temperature
  • 16 oz can of Hershey’s chocolate syrup
  • 1 tbsp pure vanilla extract
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time. Mix in chocolate syrup and vanilla. Add flour and mix just combined – do no overbeat. Pour batter into lined mini-muffin tins and bake for 30 min or until set in the middle. Let cool thoroughly in the pan.

While I usually frost these with chocolate ganache, for the pandas, I made the swiss buttercream recipe from Smitten Kitchen.

Swiss Buttercream
From Smitten Kitchen

  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2 large egg whites
  • 13 tbsp of unsalted butter softened (1 stick and 5 tbsp)
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Whisk egg whites and sugar together in a big metal bowl over a pot of simmering water. Whisk until you can’t feel the sugar granules when you rub the mixture between your fingers. Transfer mixture to a big bowl and whip until it turns white and about doubles in size. Mix in vanilla. Add the butter a stick at a time and whip for about 10-15 min until it reaches frosting consistency. During the whipping process, this frosting will look like it might curdle but just keep whipping and it will come together.

To decorate, I piped a glob of frosting onto the top of each cupcake. I did not having “sanding sugar” and found that unless you go to some specialty baking supply store or order it online, you cannot find such a thing at your local grocery store. Since this was a night-before-the-party kind of baking project, I used white sparkling sugar I found at Safeway and powder-fied it with a couple pulses in a coffee grinder. I also had a hard time finding edible ink pens so I used black frosting in a tube to create the eyes.

Panda Cupcakes

Although these were not completely impossible to recreate like most other things on Pinterest, between dividing out the white confetti pieces from the rest of the colors, separating out individual tiny flakes of chocolate jimmies and carefully placing the three parts that make up the panda eyes and mouths onto a million tiny cupcakes, I would not exactly call it “easy.”

In the end, I wanted little man to have a real cake so I made the Halekulani cake without the coconut. The sponge cake was light, springy and delicately flavored and the pastry cream was amazing. I frosted it with the whipped cream frosting from the recipe and used the same cupcake decorating technique to put two more panda faces on the cake.

Panda Birthday Cake

Little Miss came out to Davis to help celebrate and everyone had a choice of chocolate panda cupcake or a piece of delicious birthday cake or both. The birthday boy was beyond excited about his birthday cake and his little face when he saw the cake made all my fretting totally worth it.

Birthday Boy

Pumpkin Spice Cake

Editor’s note – catastrophe!!  I had all these great pictures of the cake, and the kids in their costumes (see below), but then my camera freaked out and somehow has eaten the pictures.  It also won’t take any new pictures.  Something about the memory card maybe?  Either way, not awesome.

After having a brief mini-meltdown, I made a double batch of consolation pumpkin muffins (recipe needs work, stay tuned) and decided to post this anyway.  The cake was delicious and the recipe was already typed out, so up it goes.  GOONIES NEVER SAY DIE!  Apologies for the photoless post.  Anyone know anything about digital camera repair?

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Now, I love making layer cakes, but you don’t really come across that many reasons to make them in everyday life.  So I had to take advantage of the office Halloween potluck.  We’re pretty serious about our potlucks.  Three big tables of food, decorations, little kids in costumes trick-or-treating around the office, the whole nine yards.  The perfect excuse for a cake!

I don’t have one of those cake carriers, so I brought the cakes, frosting, and plate separately and assembled the cake there.  It worked out pretty well, and my friend Sasha helped me decorate it, but note to self: get one of those!  It turned out really cute.  Wish you could see it . . .  =(

Pumpkin Spice Cake
adapted from Bon Appetit

  • 3 cups all purpose flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 2 Tbsp ground cinnamon
  • 3 tsp ground ginger
  • 3 tsp ground allspice
  • 1 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 cup (packed) brown sugar (whichever kind you have)
  • 1 cup canola or vegetable oil
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1 15-oz can pure pumpkin
  • 1 Tbsp vanilla extract
  • 1 Tbsp orange zest

Put the oven rack in the center and preheat to 350.  Butter 2 9-inch cake pans, line the bottoms with parchment, butter the parchment, and flour the pans.  (Save the parchment scraps!  They will come in handy for frosting.)  Sift the flour, baking powder and soda, and salt into a medium bowl.

In a small bowl, mix the spices together.  Reserve one teaspoon for the frosting, then add to the rest of the dry ingredients.  With an electric mixer or in a standing mixer with paddle attachment, mix sugars and oil in a large bowl – it will be grainy.  Add the eggs one at a time, mixing in well after each one.  Add pumpkin, vanilla, and orange zest, and mix well.  Add flour and mix until just incorporated.

Divide batter evenly between prepared pans, and smooth out the tops.  Bake for 30 minutes or until a toothpick stuck in the middle comes out clean.  Cool completely in the pans on a rack.  When cool, loosen the edges with a table knife and invert the cakes onto a rack or a plate.  Peel off the parchment.  If the cakes are really round on top, you can flip them over and trim down the domes using a serrated bread knife.  Since that’s the cook’s treat, you’re really hoping for domed cakes…

Orange Cream Cheese Frosting
adapted from Cooks Illustrated

  • 10 Tbsp unsalted butter, cut into 10 pieces, softened
  • 2 1/2 cups confectioners sugar
  • 16 oz (2 pkgs) cream cheese, cut into 4 pieces each, softened
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • zest of one orange

Using either a standing mixer with paddle attachment or an electric hand mixer, beat butter, sugar, and reserved spice mix until light and fluffy, 1-2 minutes.  Add cream cheese, one piece at a time, beating well after each addition.  Add vanilla and orange zest, and beat until no lumps remain, about 30 seconds.

Place one cake right-side-up on your serving plate.  Tuck parchment scraps leftover from baking under the edges of the cake, to catch stray frosting.  Plop a big dollop of frosting in the middle, and use an offset spatula or a table knife to spread the frosting evenly toward the edges, stopping just a little short of the edge.  Put as much or as little as you want in there, but remember you still need to frost the outside!  Keep a glass of hot water nearby, and if your knife is sticking to the frosting, give it a quick dunk into the water every now and then.

Place the second cake top-down on top of the frosting, making sure it’s centered and even.  Frost the top, again from the center out.  Now the sides.  I like to go around, section by section, just to slap enough on there to cover – don’t worry about neatness yet.  Just get enough on there so the dark cake doesn’t show through.

When the cake is evenly and fully covered, take the spatula or the flat side of the knife and smooth out the top and sides of the cake.  I (actually Sasha) decorated mine with halloween candy we had sitting around, but candied orange peel or candied pecans would look really nice.  When you’re all done, gently pull out the parchment scraps from under the cake and your plate should be nice and clean!

Now, imagine that there’s a picture of a moist, rich, fluffy, autumny cake right here.  Sigh.

When in Napa. . .

. . . go to Bouchon Bakery!  Their baguettes are perfect, their macarons are enormous, and everything is delicious and lovely.  After finishing a conference in Napa (rough life, I know), I detoured up the road for pastries and some lunch.  This little fig tart was light and bright, though it could have been a little figgier for my taste.  Nevertheless, beautiful enough to share.

Little Miss Birthday

Little Miss recently celebrated three decades of existence and Yuan threw a shindig for the most joyous occasion. For me, no celebration is complete without a feast and no feast is complete without a carcass! But first, we spent an afternoon people-watching, drinking cowboy margaritas, and munching on filet mignon, gorgonzola, watercress sandwiches in Dolores Park. It was a beautiful afternoon, there were many cute doggies I wanted to dognap and some sibling bickering following a couple cowboy margaritas.

As the sun went down, we migrated to Yuan’s apartment where Yuan had prepped a dinner of all of Little Miss’s Favorite Foods. Yuan fired up his mini-grill and grilled up five varieties of sausage – Wild Boar & Beer Sausage, Duck & Pork Sausage, Toulouse Sausage, NFL Buffalo Wing Chicken Sausage, and Merquez Spicy Lamb Sausage.

Yuan also grilled ribs and I made some dungeness crab potato salad and a two-layer birthday cake.

And of course, a meal feting Little Miss would be amiss without our wondrous crustacean friend lobster… especially when he has been grilled and slathered with truffle butter.

After everyone else was done eating and cleaning up to prepare for dessert, Little Miss and I decided that we would not let Mr. Lobster die without enjoying every tiny morsel of his truffle butter soaked succulent self. The two of us brought the platter closer and did our duty as Asians and lovers of New England seafood. It was the least we could do to thank Pinchy for his ultimate sacrifice. He would’ve wanted it this way.

We finished off with cake – another one of my recent baking experiments. One layer of the sponge cake was quite good (Gourmet magazine recipe), the other dry and not so good (Joy of Cooking recipe), but I got to play with some frosting and it was fun to make. Next time I will use just one recipe and it will be more delicious.

Little Miss blew out her candles and we had a night out on the town. Fun day and great dinner with good friends and family are what celebrating birthdays are all about.