I didn't make a cake for Pat's birthday, because we were supposed to go out and celebrate it tonight, but we rescheduled at the last moment to celebrate on Wednesday so that we could include brother Dave and Jes (who are camping today). After being assured several times that "they have excellent desserts" (and they did), I sensed a pattern. People wanted tiramisu, real New York cheesecake without more than a hint of sweetness, chocolate torte so dark light could not escape it, cannoli, carrot cake... the freedom of choice.
However, I am doing something that means I need to make a cake for belated celebration. I am doing a happiness project. So far, I am doing it solo, but I will open the floor soon and I hope I entice you to start your own happiness projects, either singly or in groups.
I LOVE to bake, from scratch. Bread, cake, scones, brownies, anything. Of course, this carb overload is not what I should be doing, if I want to lose weight (or at least I should partake sparingly); it is, however, great for my mental health. I am happy to brag that I have a knack for it ... which, I think, reflects only a lack of fear.
This weekend we are going to watch a movie and eat with Mom, and play some Scrabble (which Pat always wins) or Gin Rummy (which Mom always wins). One thing that all four of us love is coconut cake, so it's a no-brainer that I should want to tackle that queen of beautiful, tooth-achingly sweet Southern confections.
I didn't have a trustworthy old Southern recipe, so I turned to Alton Brown's delectable looking recipe (except that I knew I didn't have the guts to grate my own coconut). After reading a few reviews, it became clear to me that about half of the people who were making the recipe weren't having luck with the cake recipe itself... and I chickened out. I did keep his recipe for seven-minute frosting, which I will use (tonight) to frost this thing so that we can devour it tomorrow. Seven-minute frosting is the genuine article and if you have never made it, for God's sake, do. We don't make enough old-fashioned icings anymore, and we should; properly made icing should require a candy-maker's skill and methods. If you are able to simply stir A into B with your recipe, you are missing out.
Last night, I made cake (using Ina Garten's somewhat more favorably reviewed cake, with a few minor tweaks to bring it more in line with my ideas of coconut cake -- Chaokoh's coconut milk instead of milk, a whisper of coconut extract, cake flour instead of all-purpose).
I dusted off my stand mixer (a luxury that was an AMAZING Christmas present from my mother, which I do not use nearly often enough) and dropped butter and sugar into the bowl. When they were incorporated and fluffy yellow, I added eggs, one at a time, and watched as the mixture amalgamated into a thick creamy emulsion. Then I shook in the dry ingredients and coconut milk doctored with coconut essence* in stages, folded in the coconut, and put it in to bake. The batter was wonderfully thick, and when I piled it into greased and floured tins (I was out of parchment paper), it had to be smoothed down in order to make it lay flat. Heaven. If you can pour cake batter, you are doing it wrong.
After baking, the cake had risen nicely and no moisture remained on the pick when I tested it for doneness. I let it cool for a half hour in the tins and then inverted it onto a rack... and uh oh, it stuck just a wee bit (because the sugar/butter mix was not perfectly incorporated with the other elements and made small, chewy caramel drops here and there in the cake). I took a pencil-eraser-sized nibble of the stuck cake before trying to fit it into the main cake. It was like a light, fluffy version of a macaroon. Delicious.
I gave Pat a nibble when he got home, and he concurs.
There's nothing wrong with cake mixes (except strange off-tastes and trans fats, actually, there's a lot wrong with them), but I urge you, if you haven't done it in a while, to bake something from scratch. Lose yourself in creating the velvety, thick, spoonable batter, and in candymaking an old-fashioned icing from scratch. You will not be disappointed, and there is a Zen-like joy in the process.
Might I recommend Alton Brown's foolproof "Cocoa Brownies" recipe, or Ina Garten's coconut cake? Both are lovely. I am also partial to the Fannie Farmer cookbook's recipe for gingerbread. Hershey's Deep Dark Chocolate Cake (and yes, make THEIR icing recipe) is absolutely wonderful, too. Or choose your own poison, but by all means, trust the reviews of other bakers if you do your searching online (so long as they make sense).
*regarding coconut essence: boy, what a disappointment essences are after a little practice in perfumery. Low-quality vodka mixed with artificial flavorings and preservatives, yuck! The homemade vanilla essence I have made from bourbon and vanilla beans, or the organic, genuine almond essence I used, are far and away a different thing. I think I am going to make a few homemade essences, or at least seek out natural flavorings only.