Turning 25 + Deb’s Yellow Birthday Cake

Happy New Year! It’s only been a week so far, and some things already hit the ground running. Back when I was a kid, I hated my birthday because it was so close to New Year’s. I still kind of hate that but I’m growing to love it because I get to start fresh at the same time everyone else does. Looking at it like that makes it seem less special but it is to me.

Looking back, my 24th year was pretty eventful. I started out 2014 at probably one of my lowest points. Sad but true. Everyone in my house was unemployed and miserable. The holidays that year was one of the worst, aided by the fact that Christmas didn’t even feel like Christmas. It just sucked. When my birthday rolled around, I hoped for a change in all of our lives. Despite whatever was going on, I was determined to keep it positive.

2014 birthday throwback! Remember this?

2014 birthday throwback! Remember this?

Fast forward to March. We’re still all kinda miserable and unemployed. Through my efforts on the internet, I was able to apply to some jobs for my mom. She was desperate for a career change, and I did my best to help her out. She loves kids and used to babysit when my sister and I were younger. She wanted to get back into that so I did what I could. Through one of those caretaking websites, I applied for her to one post that caught my eye from day 1. The poster replied back to me, which I honestly wasn’t expecting. Once I cleared up I was the one who applied for my mom, she insisted on meeting the both of us. Taken aback, my mom and I went and the rest is history. My mom now takes care of the cutest and smartest little baby girl. They welcomed my mom into their family, just as we did to them. My mom, the baby, and her family are all happy. That alone put me at ease, despite the fact I was still unemployed and unsure of my future.

For me, things didn’t start changing until maybe June or July. I got an email from my former professor, to whom I reached out because I was desperate for a job. Graduating into a recession is the worst thing ever because no one wants to hire a graduate. In that email was an application to a startup non-profit organization, called CO*OP, that focused on helping graduates find their footing in the industry. This sounded like what I needed so I applied. This was the best decision I had made in the entire year. It was the biggest blessing for me because it was exactly what I desperately needed. Not only did I learn a bunch of new skills, I got a group of friends (including a few special ones) that I never thought I’d have, and sort of had a new job. The founder of the program hired me this past December, so exciting things are happening!

Look who's on the front page of the website!

Look who’s on the front page of the website!

Thanks to CO*OP, I changed so much as a person. I figured out why I am the way that I am, and how to amplify my greatest skills. I became more outgoing and a little more confident in myself and the things I do. Still a work in progress! My new friends became my support system and they helped bring out the best in me; for that alone I’m grateful. I can’t wait to see what happens in my life this year but I’m hoping for some surprises, some love (ahem!), and stability.

Now, let’s talk birthday celebrations. I celebrated my 25th birthday this past Friday. As usual, I baked my own cake but before I get to that, let me tell you how I celebrated.

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My sister took me out to dinner at Cafeteria, a cool restaurant here in the city. I’d never been, so I was excited. I’m not one to go out to dinner for birthdays, mostly because that’s not something my family did frequently. I was dying to go out so my sister did me the honors.

Dinner was fantastic! For appetizers, we had mac and cheese spring rolls. As an entree, I had my usual cheeseburger with fries. I get that basically everywhere I go but this was the first time I had one medium rare; it was delish. My sister had a roasted chicken sandwich. I also had a “liquid passion” cocktail, which was a champagne cocktail with passion fruit. For dessert, we had deep fried Oreos that came with a mini milkshake and a scoop of mint chip ice cream with crumbled Oreos in the middle. Everything was amazing and my sister and I were beyond full.

From L to R: mac and cheese spring rolls, liquid passion cocktail, cheeseburger with fries, and deep fried Oreos

From L to R: mac and cheese spring rolls, liquid passion cocktail, cheeseburger with fries, and deep fried Oreos

We also had a mini adventure because every year, I dress up really nice for my birthday. I got myself a pair of heels to go with my pretty dress this year. The problem is that I don’t usually wear heels so my feet were killing me before we even made it to the restaurant! I had to go to the pharmacy and pick up a pair of those fast flats. After dinner, we walked to the nearest Marshall’s where I bought a pair of real flats. Let me just say, the judgmental looks I got from my little leopard print sock like flats were unreal but super entertaining.

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When we got back home, it was time for cake. Now, this year, I opted to make my cake the day before to save myself some of the hassle the day of. This was mostly a good idea except I ended up with kind of a huge cake fail. The cake itself worked beautifully. I made Deb’s recipe for yellow birthday cake, which is becoming a favorite now. However, due to poor planning, I never figured out how I wanted it flavored in terms of frosting, so I decided to give Swiss meringue buttercream a shot. This is where I messed up, big time.

I gave the buttercream a go the day before as well. When I was making it, I knew something was wrong but trucked on anyway. My meringue wasn’t as fluffy as it should’ve been so the texture was off. Using the instructions to troubleshoot the buttercream, I added more butter. It looked right, so I stopped there and put it in the fridge for the next day. To assemble the cake, I forgot to let the buttercream come to room temp. Another huge mistake right here, as my rushing messed up the buttercream completely. I tried adding more butter to fix it but it ruined the texture of the frosting and made things worse. I wasn’t about to whip up a new batch, as my butter supply is dangerously low, so I rolled with it anyway. Not my best or proudest cake but I couldn’t have a birthday without my cake.

25th Birthday 5

Despite the buttercream coming out way less than perfect, the cake itself was amazing. It was so soft and tender. Deb likens the recipe to her favorite Duncan Hines box mix and she’s definitely right about that. It totally brought back those feelings from when my dad used to bake us cake mixes. That alone was enough to complete my birthday. Even though the texture was off, the taste was still there, so my birthday cake was still somewhat of a winner.

I hope that the couple missteps I’ve had this past week aren’t any indication of how my year is looking. I didn’t quite start on the right foot (which I’ll talk about another time), but I handled it in an adult way. I guess this means I really am an adult? Either way, I hope this year is as successful and eventful as the last half of my 24th.

25th Birthday 8

Deb’s Yellow Birthday Cake – adapted from Smitten Kitchen

Makes 2 8″ round cake, plus 3-4 cupcakes

  • 4 cups plus 2 tablespoons (530 grams) cake flour, sifted
  • 2 teaspoons (10 grams) baking powder
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon (5 grams) table salt
  • 2 sticks (1 cup, 1/2 pound or 225 grams) unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 cups (400 grams) sugar
  • 2 teaspoons (10 ml) pure vanilla extract
  • 4 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 2 cups buttermilk (475 ml), well-shaken

Directions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350F. Butter and line two 8″ round cake pans with parchment, buttering the parchment as well. While you’re at it, line a couple of cupcake wells with cupcake liners. Set aside.
  2. Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl. In another large bowl, cream the softened butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Add in the vanilla. Add the eggs one at a time, making sure each egg is incorporated before adding the next one. At a low speed, add the buttermilk. The mix will look curdled but it’s right; keep going.
  3. Add the flour mixture in three batches, making sure each batch is incorporated into the batter before adding the next one. Divide the batter among the cake pans, filling them about halfway. Use the remaining batter to make a couple cupcakes. Rap the cake pans on the table a couple times to get rid of air bubbles. Bake the cakes for 35-50 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.
  4. Cool the cakes in the pan on a wire rack for 10 minutes before removing the cakes out of the pans and onto the rack to cool completely.

Lucy’s Tips: 

  • The cake recipe is originally for two 9″ rounds. I only have two 8″ rounds, which is why there’s extra batter for cupcakes.
  • I forgot the ‘rap the pan’ part, which is why you can see the giant air bubbles. Not too pleasing to look at but still delicious. 
  • The buttercream recipe is obviously missing. I won’t post it till I get it right!
  • If you’re making the cake a day ahead, wait until it is completely cool before wrapping in several layers of plastic wrap. You can refrigerate it or keep it room temp after that. For a firmer cake that’s easier to level and work with, I suggest refrigerating.

 

Yellow Cupcakes with Chocolate Frosting

Every baker has their own arsenal of classic recipes. They all have their preferred versions of almost anything, but not many discuss how long it took them to get to that choice of a recipe. I’m still very much a beginner baker, and as I try to build my own arsenal, there’s tons of trial and error in choosing recipes, testing, and tasting.

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I’ve been searching for the perfect yellow cake recipe for a couple of years now. It’s complicated because the recipe stratosphere is crowded with hundreds of variations of the same thing. There’s no way to test them all, and there’s no way to tell which one’s the best. As I go through many of these recipes, I ask myself what it is I’m looking for exactly. Criteria is important because how else will you know if a certain recipe is “it?” For me, it has to do with what I grew up with.

As a kid, I grew up with Dominican cakes; which consist of two yellow cake layers, a middle layer of some sort of filling, all covered in meringue frosting (similar to 7 minute frosting). My entire cake life revolved around this style of cake, and still kind of does. There’s only one bakery that does these cakes the “right” way (according to my mom, and everyone else we’ve introduced those cakes to),  but I have yet to find a recipe that resembles their yellow cake.

SO MANY

SO MANY

While that still haunts me from time to time, I set out on looking for a different kind of cake that still reminded me of my childhood. I’ve mentioned here before how my dad was the resident baker in my house way back in the day. I inherited his hand mixer, which we got at a garage sale, and consequently killed it last year (RIP green Presto mixer; you lived a long and productive life). He used it to make boxed cake mix for us every now and then. I watched him in the kitchen (obviously) when he made it because mixing powder with some eggs, oil, and milk into a real cake was mind blowing. It actually still is, more because I know how to make them from scratch now. He used to make them in a 9×13″ pan, which produced a golden brown pillow sized cake. I remember fighting with my sister over the who got the corner pieces, and arguing with my dad that cakes taste best warm so he’d let us eat it straight out of the oven.

Besides the awesome memories, I remember how the cake tasted. It was box mix, so it tasted exactly the same each and every time. It still tastes the same today, but I haven’t had box mix in forever. It tasted like perfection; like how all cakes should taste. There’s no other way to describe it. When I’m not trying to resemble those Dominican cakes, this is my standard. What cake recipe can resemble a box mix, without the box mix, and taste like what I remembered from when I was a kid?

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I had planned on making cupcakes a couple weeks ago for my class. I’m not back in school but am part of a program that requires a month of class. So, me and 11 other awesome grads hang out every night and learn about digital marketing, and other business skills we need to know. Since before classes started, I knew I wanted to use them as my guinea pigs for testing recipes. Sounds bad saying it like that, but I mean no harm! Anyway, I wanted to take some cupcakes in for two reasons; I hadn’t made any cupcakes in forever and because who doesn’t love cupcakes?! I thought about what flavor combinations I could use and came up with the classic yellow cake and chocolate frosting. I know most people grew up with this kind of cake for their birthdays. None of us are those people but the combo is such a classic, I wanted to go for it anyway.

Trust me when I tell you that this cake tastes like my childhood. It was ridiculously amazing. I’m still perplexed as to how I can bake a cake from scratch that tastes so similar to box mix! The cakes came out super soft and fluffy, with a hint of a golden brown hue from the oven. It was like a melt in your mouth kind of experience. Then coupled with chocolate frosting, it was just great. The frosting had a slight tang from the cream cheese and sour cream but still packed a chocolatey punch; thanks to the cocoa powder and semisweet chocolate in there. It also wasn’t overwhelmingly sweet, which happens with most frostings. I loved them, my folks loved them, and my class loved them too!

While this isn’t the recipe that resembles the cakes from birthdays past, it does take me back to being in the kitchen with my dad as I watched him transform a cake mix into a real cake. That right there is reason enough to put this one in my arsenal.

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Classic Yellow Cupcakes – adapted from Smitten Kitchen

Makes 30 cupcakes

  • 4 cups plus 2 tablespoons cake flour (sifted before measuring!)
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon table salt
  • 2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 4 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 2 cups buttermilk, well-shaken

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Place cupcake liners into your cupcake/muffin tins.
  2. Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl. In a large mixing bowl, beat butter and sugar with an electric mixer until pale and fluffy. Incorporate the vanilla, and add eggs 1 at a time, beating well and scraping down the bowl after each addition.
  3. At low speed, beat in buttermilk until just combined (mixture will look curdled and gross; do not be deterred!). Add flour mixture in three batches, mixing until each addition is just incorporated.
  4. Spoon batter into lined cups, 3/4 of the way up, then rap pan on counter several times to eliminate air bubbles. Bake until golden and a wooden pick inserted in center of cake comes out clean, 22 to 24 minutes. Cool in pan on a rack 10 minutes, then remove cupcakes from the pan to finish cooling on the racks. Cool completely before frosting.

Cream Cheese Sour Cream Chocolate Frosting – adapted from Martha Stewart

Makes enough to frost those 30 cupcakes (4 cups)

  • 2 1/4 cups powdered sugar
  • 1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • Pinch of salt
  • 6oz softened cream cheese, room temperature
  • 1 1/2 sticks of unsalted butter, softened
  • 9oz bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, melted and slightly cooled
  • 3/4 cups sour cream
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Directions:

  1. Over a double boiler, carefully melt the chocolate. Remove from heat and set aside.
  2. In a medium sized bowl, sift together the powdered sugar, cocoa powder, and salt.
  3. In a large bowl, cream together the softened butter and cream cheese until smooth. Gradually add the sugar/cocoa mix, scraping down the bowl after each addition.
  4. Pour in the melted chocolate until incorporated. Finally, beat in the sour cream and vanilla until combined.
  5. Frost cupcakes!

Lucy’s Tips:

  • Always, always, ALWAYS, sift your cake flour before measuring. Sift, and gently spoon into your measuring cups. Sift once more after measuring for added security. I know, it seems like a ton of work but trust me, it’s worth it!
  • The recipe calls for large eggs (as all recipes do; it’s the standard in baking) but I got away with using three jumbo eggs (my folks don’t believe in eggs that are smaller). Use what you have, just be mindful of the amount of moisture you’re adding vs. what’s needed. 
  • The frosting is pretty good but I feel like the sour cream can almost be optional. 
  • Deb lied to me in telling me this recipe made 22 to 24 cupcakes. I expected that many but ended up with 30. I usually have the opposite of that problem but just a heads up (not that 30 cupcakes is a bad thing; I’m happy I got more it’s just that I wasn’t ready to have my kitchen overtaken by cupcakes!)
  • To ensure the same amount of batter goes into every cupcake, use an ice cream scoop/disher to distribute the batter.