Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Mom's Birthday Cake: A History

To start with, here's two very different birthday songs:
The first, "Birthday Cake." is from avant-garde Japanese hip-hop duo Cibo Matto's 1997 album Viva la Woman! (the band's name, Italian for "Food Madness" turns on '70s Italian movie Sessomatto, "Sex Madness"). I find it strangely addictive, but listening to a Japanese woman yell over a dirty bassline doesn't work for everyone. The second is from Soviet stop-motion series Чебурашка (Cheburashka), about the adventures of a the titular cute little animal, his accordion-playing crocodile pal, and a rotating cast of others. This song is one of the primary Russian birthday songs.

Now, on to the food. Our Mom's birthday was last week, along with all of the hullabaloo surrounding her grad school commencement (she is now a Master of Social Work, hood and all). Before she went to social work school, Mom had a long career as a baker, and is pretty well to blame (in the best possible way) for our own cibo matto.

She encourages our more out-there creative sensibilities, so her birthday cakes turn into notable creations. This year, her birthday was supposed to take place at a local drag bingo night, so our challenge was to come up with a confection equally stylish. The working description was "Disco Cupcakes." As it turned out, the bar advertising drag bingo was no longer holding it, and hadn't changed it on their website, but we had a grand time of it anyway. However, the celebratory dessert we came up with held up its end of the stylistic bargain, with both the cake and decorations (the large ones at least) styled after a tropical drink. To accommodate all of the folks coming along, we turned half the batter into more simply styled mini-cupcakes.

What's actually in the cupcakes is going to have to stay a mystery for now. I often say that our family recipe secret is that we don't keep recipes secret. And that's still true - it will be revealed later as part of a larger project Maria's working on.

So, to quench your thirst until then, here's a more detailed description of Mom's birthday cake from a few years ago, another one we're pretty proud of conceptually: the Chocolate Pesto Cake.

The actual meal she requested was a picnic that would assist her in her quest for the perfect cucumber sandwich. Maria and I each also took on salad, hers a corn and black bean salad, mine a Med-inspired roasted veggie one, to which the Extra Happy Theory applied. In any event, there wasn't a whole lot of room for us to go batshit crazy experimental in the cucumber sandwich request.

So we turned our experimental streak on the cake. It's a little-known fact that bittersweet chocolate (the darker, the better) and fresh basil are an amazing combination, a discovery I actually made with my mom. Mom being such a chocolate fan, and it being basil season, I really wanted the cake to play into this.

Maria and I spent a long while discussing how the "pesto" concept could be best expressed in a sweet form. We decided on buzzing fresh basil and toasted pine nuts in the food processor, and stirring it into a simple pastry cream, so as to keep the basil flavor as fresh as possible. It looks pretty ugly, but tastes great. However, if I was going to do it again, I'd use ricotta or mascarpone cheese as the base, not that it would make it any prettier.

The other tough part was the cake. We wanted a dense, dark chocolate cake, but none of the recipes we looked at seemed to approach it quite right. So we took a simple cake recipe and adapted it to have 3 oz. melted unsweetened chocolate, and replaced about ⅓ c. of the flour with cocoa powder. We also used strong coffee to bring out the dark, bitter flavor. Along the way we discovered that the blend we ended up using for liquid (strong coffee, blackberry brandy, and evaporated milk) is pretty damn tasty in its own right. The cake didn't come out quite right. Maria and I realized that we'd come pretty close to brownie batter somewhere along the way, and had to add in more eggs (separated, whites beaten up and folded in) at the end. Next time, less flour, and maybe not making up cake recipes on the fly at 3 AM. Still pretty good though.

For on top, we decided just to do a superdark ganache. Ghirardelli is now selling 100% cocoa liquor bars in stores, which is awesome because I don't think anyone else has been doing that in the general market, and since Mom isn't a baker anymore, I can't snitch hers. We did basically equal parts that and their 60% bittersweet chips, with milk and a pinch of chili. We didn't realize at first how much liquid chocolate this dark eats up though, and on the first round thought it was binding something wicked, to the point where we poured it out and started over (and then proceeded to pick at it all weekend. Maria tells me she melted it later, added more milk, and it smoothed out nicely).

Decorating-wise, we went back out to the garden, put the whole thing on a bed of nasturtium leaves, then topped the cake with blackberries, more fresh basil, and orange nasturtiums.

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