Sometimes I don’t feel like a grown-up with grown-up abilities. Everyone on all the food blogs out there (including pseudomona on this one) has such lovely photos of their cooking process. Their butter is creamy, their mixing bowls are shiny, and above all, their kitchens are CLEAN. When I bake, I usually end up with crumbs affixed to every surface (including my face) and foot-shaped smears of butter on the floor. How do these lovely people on the internet manage to be so clean and well-decorated? Was there a class in college that I slept through? Was it earlier on? Kindergarten? I bet it was kindergarten. There was that one week that I missed when I had the chicken pox, and surely that was the week that everyone learned to be tidy and take tidy pictures. Also I suck at taking pictures.
What I am trying to say with that long-winded paragraph is that there won’t be very many images in my posts (for now, at least). And — are people ever afraid that something unflattering will be reflected in the shiny kitchen surfaces? I’m thinking of that guy who was selling the metal teapot on eBay. He took a picture of it while standing naked in his kitchen. And we know he was standing naked in his kitchen because his naked reflection gleamed bright on the teapot’s shiny surface, bloated and distorted by the teapot’s roundness. Perhaps I should start dressing up whenever I bake, just in case.
But I digress.
Last year, we started celebrating birthdays in my group with cake at group meetings. We call these group meetings “speakeasies” for some reason that is lost to the annals of NASA history. New collaboration members and visitors are always disappointed when they learn that our speakeasies are not, in fact, wild bacchanalian revelries where cigar smoke fills the air and whiskey flows like water. (Is that what speakeasies were like? I learned my history from Simpsons episodes.) Fortunately, they are usually appeased by the promise of cake.
A solitary person would find him/herself hard-pressed to bake a cake for everyone’s birthday, so we formed a cake-baking committee. We call ourselves the Fermi At NASA Goddard Entertainment Division: CAke Baking for Birthdays At GLAST Endeavor (FANGED CABBAGE). Background info: Fermi is the name of our satellite, we are the branch at Goddard, and the pre-launch name for Fermi was GLAST. (It’s like how the Wii used to be called the Nintendo Revolution.) Full disclosure: I prefer to refer to us as the Fermi At NASA GODDArd Monumentalization of Natal’Days: CAke Baking etc. etc., or the FAT GODDAMN’D CABBAGE. Except that one of our senior scientists is on the committee, and you can’t very well tell him that he’s on the FAT GODDAMN’D CABBAGE, as much as I would like to.
There is also a FANGED BREAD, where BREAD = Bar REsearch And Development. FANGED BREAD organizes happy hours and weekend excursions. You see, we astro folks really love our acronyms (or initializations, for the pedantic among us). The more nested, the better. The holy grail is the recursive acronym.
It is my very unscientific anecdotal observation that ever since we formed the FANGED CABBAGE, our speakeasies have been better attended. We bond over sweet treats, discuss the projects we are working on, and place bets on which European post-doc won’t make it back from the conference alive. J and I keep a list of people’s birthdays, and every couple of weeks, we give a heads up to the rest of the FANGED CABBAGE and someone brings in a cake. This week, it was M’s birthday. She said she wanted something with chocolate.
My go-to chocolate cake is chocolate layers + ganache + white chocolate whipped cream, but I had already made it for someone else’s birthday a few months earlier. Instead, I decided on a chocolate cake with caramel buttercream and almond toffee. I used a chocolate cake recipe from Karen Baker’s book, which I absolutely love because many of her recipes turn out lovely desserts that are much less tooth-achingly sweet than the standard fare. There are many excellent chocolate cake recipes out there, however, so pick your favorite.
Unfortunately, I have zero pictures of the actual cake mixing / baking process. I was in a rush to see some friends (that’s a lie, I have no friends) so I completely forgot to set up things all prettily and take pictures. Instead, here is a picture of my family’s dog, chilling at the kitchen table as she is wont to do.
She really wishes she could help you bake, but she’s got a lot on her plate right now, and she’d appreciate if you stopped calling her at all hours of the night. She’ll call you when she’s ready.
For the frosting, I basically used the salted caramel buttercream recipe I found here, but blended the caramel sauce into an Italian buttercream instead of a simple buttercream. I prefer meringue buttercreams as being much less sweet, which was especially important for this cake as I was going to cover the entire thing in toffee bits and didn’t want people going immediately into diabetic shock after eating a single bite. Oh! And I finally learned the difference between the Italian and Swiss buttercreams: both use a meringue base, but the Swiss version directly heats the egg whites + sugar to a safe temperature (240° F) over a water bath whereas the Italian version involves first heating a sugar syrup to the appropriate temperature and then mixing it quickly into beaten egg whites. There is also a French version of a meringue buttercream; this does not cook the eggs at all, so it is only for the bravest souls among us! The French meringue buttercream is not to be confused with French buttercream (without the meringue), which uses egg yolks. God I love Wikipedia.
I also love my stand mixer. I love how it whips egg whites + sugar syrup so easily. Every night, I cradle it in my arms and whisper sweet nothings into its motor, but all it can do is whirrr in response. Such is the nature of my unrequited love.
This is the buttercream recipe I used. I halved it to cover a three-layer 8-inch cake. I found that the finished product was a bit too rich, too heavy, too buttery for my tastes, so perhaps in the future I will cut down on the amount of butter used. HOWEVER — I also committed the grave sin of having my butter not be room temperature when I added it to the egg whites. I was in a rush when I made the frosting this morning, and since having a temperature difference in my ingredients makes me feel so alive, I just tossed in chunks of cooler-than-room-temperature butter. Now, this YouTube video has informed me that if my butter is too cold, my buttercream will look lumpy and curdled like cottage cheese. It also informed me (and it took 7 whole minutes to do so!) that the solution is to just keep whipping it, as the buttercream will become smooth again once the temperature difference drops and the chunks of butter become incorporated into the mixture. This, I already knew. What I did not know is that buttercream that has “broken” and has to be “fixed” has an inferior texture. I can’t tell you my opinion on this because I have personally never made a buttercream that hasn’t broken. Then again, I haven’t made that much buttercream in my life. (Clearly I need to work on this!)
This is what “broken” buttercream looks like:
Mmmm. Lumpy. If for some strange reason you are not a fan of having little nodules in your frosting (and who isn’t??), if you keep whipping, your buttercream should end up silky smooth:
I then mixed in the salted caramel sauce, which gave the buttercream a darker color and a light caramel taste, and set to work frosting the sucker. I’m usually too lazy to use a crumb coat, but the cake layers were airy enough that crumbs fell off of it in droves. (Do things fall in droves? I am insisting that they do.)
If you purchase only one baking accessory this year, let it be a rotating cake stand. (I mean, I’d say you should purchase a stand mixer, but rotating cake stands are an order of magnitude less expensive than stand mixers, so.) I used to place cakes on plates and forcefully rotate the plates on the table like some kind of plate-rotating chump, and I don’t want any of you guys to have to be that chump. Please, for the sake of your unborn children, get a rotating cake stand. (They’re also great for making babies dizzy.)
I popped the cake into the freezer for a few minutes to make it a bit sturdier and to freeze in the rascally crumbs. Chilling the frosting also makes it easier to get nice sharp edges, which absolutely thrills the obsessive part of me.
I slapped on another layer of buttercream, then sprinkled toffee bits on top. I also pressed toffee chunks along the side. In retrospect, this was unnecessary (plus they all fell off as soon as we cut into the cake), but at the time all I could think was “I have got to get more of this toffee onto the cake before I eat it all,” for I am not very good at moderation, you see. (Oh no you can almost see part of my torso reflected in the bowl! Luckily I had put on clothing by this time.) The toffee I had made a few nights before, with a recipe from The Professional Pastry Chef. Any ol’ toffee recipe will do! Toffee is surprisingly uncomplicated. There is some variation as to crunchiness, but toffee is basically just butter and sugar, and therefore all toffee is delicious. QED.
And now, I bid you adieu, fair reader, for it is getting late and there are dishes to be washed. Oh god there are soooo many dishes to be washed.