Can there be any greater joy or expression of love than baking a birthday cake for your friend or loved one? A birthday cake allows the baker to create a one-of-a-kind gift (Even if it is someone else’s recipe, it’s still your special touch!) that is generally shared in celebration with friends and family. It’s both privilege and responsibility, rolled into a sponge and frosting delight.
Recently, I had such a privilege when my environmental buddies planned a little surprise birthday celebration for our dear friend Elizabeth. Designated the official birthday cake baker, I set to work nearly a month ahead to perfect just the right cake for this incredibly kind and talented person. Needless-to-say, Don and a few friends were quick to volunteer as testers. And there was quite a bit of testing, since two versions of this cake—though tasty and moist—were not what I was after. We still have cake layers in the freezer….so come on by!
The cake I wanted to create blended Elizabeth’s love of chocolate and coffee, and this led me down my own memory lane to a quaint coffee shop called Café Royale up north in Urbana, IL. I worked for the University of Illinois for many years, mostly in the College of Agriculture. And right down the street from my office in Mumford Hall was Café Royale, an old stone and glass corner hangout with a true beatnik feel—stone arches and floors, dark corners in the back, mismatched tables and chairs, flyers and theatre bills waiving from pegboards, ragged community books and newspapers, large windows that let the sidewalk scene play by, and the BEST coffee on campus. My favorite was a Borgia, yes, sharing the name of the family in Italy who poisoned all their enemies and some of their friends. But there was no resemblance to this infamous family in my steamy cup of frothed cream, strong coffee, melted chocolate and orange syrup. It was my big splurge at the end of long, hard days. So why couldn’t it be a cake?
Of course it could! After a few false starts and one excruciating disaster (The sad saga follows the recipe.), I had done it: Café Royal Borgia Cake. And you can do it, too….
- Two and one-quarter cups sifted cake flour (I recommend King Arthur unbleached cake flour.)
- One-half teaspoon baking powder
- One teaspoon baking soda
- One-half teaspoon fine sea salt
- One teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- One tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder (For this cake I used Penzey’s high fat cocoa powder with good results.)
- Zest from two large oranges (equal to about three tablespoons)
- Four ounces bittersweet baking chocolate, finely grated
- One-half cup strong black coffee
- One cup buttermilk (full fat, if you can find it)
- Seeds from one fresh vanilla bean or one teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- Two sticks unsalted butter, softened
- One and three-quarters cups sugar, such as fine organic evaporated cane juice, divided one and one-half cups and one-quarter cup
- Four large eggs, separated
- One-quarter teaspoon cream of tartar
- Have all ingredients at room temperature before you begin.
- Prepare three, nine-inch round cake pans: grease with unsalted butter, line the bottoms with parchment paper, grease the parchment paper and dust the pans with a bit of extra cake flour. Note that you will probably end up with one layer a bit smaller than the other two; I did. You can either make the smaller layer the middle layer of a three-layer cake, or you can create a two-layer cake and place the smaller layer in the freezer for good times to come.
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
- Sift together the dry ingredients: sifted cake flour, baking powder, baking soda, sea salt, nutmeg and cocoa powder. Whisk in the orange zest. Set aside.
- Put the grated chocolate in a small heatproof glass bowl. Bring the half cup of coffee to a steady boil; then, pour it over the grated chocolate, whisking constantly until the chocolate is melted and smooth. Set aside so it cools a bit before going into the cake batter.
- Combine the buttermilk and vanilla. Set aside.
- In the large bowl of a stand mixer, beat the butter until light and fluffy. Add one and one-half cups of the sugar and continue beating on high until the mixture is pale colored and fluffy. About three to four minutes. Scrape the sides of the bowl and the beater with a rubber spatula, as necessary.
- Add the egg yolks one at a time, beating after each addition. Add the melted chocolate and continue beating until everything is combined and smooth, about a minute more.
- Alternating the addition of dry and wet ingredients at low speed, begin adding the flour mixture then the buttermilk mixture: that's three parts dry to two parts liquid. Again, you may need to stop and scrape the sides of your bowl at some point. You’ll end alternating with the last of the flour, which I find is a good time to turn the mixer off and incorporate the final addition of flour by hand, using a rubber spatula. You will run less risk of overworking the flour and developing an undesirable chewy texture.
- Next, in a clean bowl and using a clean whisk attachment, beat the egg whites with the cream of tartar on medium speed until soft peaks form. Gradually add the quarter-cup of sugar, continuing to beat until stiff peaks form. Take care not to beat them past stiff peaks to a dry consistency—a fine line.
- Fold one-quarter of the egg whites into the cake batter, using a rubber spatula. Use uplifting strokes to avoid deflating the egg whites. Once that is incorporated, fold in the rest of the egg whites in the same manner.
- Divide the batter among the three cake pans—remember, one won’t be quite as full. Spread evenly and soundly tap the pans on the table or countertop to eliminate bubbles.
- Bake for 25 to 30 minutes. The toothpick test worked pretty well here. Let the cake layers cool in the pans 10 minutes and then unmold (You might need to slide a knife around the sides, but I didn’t.), remove the parchment paper and cool completely on baking racks.
- Frost with your favorite vanilla frosting. For my new frosting favorite, see my discussion below in the post.
Servings are based on a double-layer cake. If you add the smaller third layer, you will increase the servings to about 10 to 12, unless Don is your husband.
The End of a Love Affair
Well we’ve all been there at some time. The person we thought we’d love forever, the relationship we thought couldn’t be severed. But then…it’s over. This is sort of what happened during the making of this cake: In the end, I tossed my longtime love affair with old fashioned, true buttercream frosting into the broken hearts bin and moved on.
For years, true buttercream was the only frosting I thought worth putting on a cake. Made from soft-ball stage sugar syrup, perfectly tempered egg yolks and tons of butter, true buttercream is not super sweet, but it is super rich and decadent. I’ve flavored it with everything from vanilla bean seeds to Jamaican rum. And when it comes together in perfectly balanced creamy mounds, it is beyond delicious.
Unfortunately, true buttercream has been a fickle lover—sometimes it’s been there for me and sometimes it has just curdled into a gooey expensive mess that ended up in the garbage. I’ve tried to work with it a million ways in order to guarantee its devotion. But no. It does what it wants regardless of my feelings. It has broken my heart and tried my nerves more times than it has showered me with sugary kisses. So… we are through.
Will I always remember the good times, the perfect mounds of fluffy fondant? Of course. Do I wish other cooks well with their buttercream trysts? Sure. But I am moving on to a new love, a frosting not as elegant, perhaps, as my old buttercream, but one that is yummy, loyal and from good stock—meet Buttercream Frosting by Erin Patinkin and Agatha Kulaga the owners of Ovenly, an award-winning bakery in New York City.
Pastry geniuses Patinkin and Kulaga are also the authors of a cookbook that I own: Ovenly (just like their shop and what a catchy name!). In its pages I found Buttercream Frosting: the basic recipe. Smitten!
Ovenly’s buttercream is a simple straightforward approach to frosting that yields an amazing result without all the headache and labor that were involved in my relationship with my first buttercream affair. Though definitely sweeter than old-fashioned buttercream (has something to do with seven cups of powdered sugar, I suspect), Ovenly buttercream is rich, spreadable, perfect for your pastry bag and versatile. There are eight variations in the cookbook, and really that just scratches the cake surface of what might be possible with a bit of creativity and bravery.
So I’m in love once again. And not just with this recipe, but with these two amazing women, their successful bakery business in the cutthroat Big Apple and their commitment to positively impact the world around them.
I’m happy to share the love with you, hoping to encourage you to seek out a copy of Ovenly for yourself. I promise it will be the beginning of a beautiful love affair. By the way, once my vanilla buttercream was complete, I whisked in two tablespoons of Grand Mariner…just to keep this a Borgia cake, you know.