Friday, February 26, 2010

SP's Birthday Cake Disaster

Today is SP's birthday! I wanted to bake him a cake. Since the cleaning lady is coming on his birthday, I decided to bake it a day early (on Thursday) and surprise him Thursday evening.

I spent a not insignificant amount of time on Wednesday trying to decide what kind of cake to bake. Last year I baked his favorite cake, carrot cake, and made cream cheese icing for it. I looked at pumpkin cake recipes, gingerbread cake recipes, paged through all our recipe books, read blogs, looked up cake recipes online, checked our ingredients supplies, and in the end, I decided to make a simple Citrus Yellow Cake from Better Homes & Gardens New Cookbook.

Thursday morning I gathered my ingredients:
The cake:

3 cups all purpose flour
2 cups sugar
1 tbsp baking powder
1.5 cups milk
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 tsp lemon peel
1.5 tsp vanilla
2 eggs

What I really liked about this cake is that the dry ingredients are combined in a bowl and then, except for the eggs, all the other ingredients are added to the bowl and it's mixed together. Sort of like making muffins - put in all the dry ingredients, make a well, add the wet ingredients.The ingredients are beaten on low until combined then beaten on high speed for 2 minutes. Next, add the eggs, beat another 2 minutes, pour into greased & floured 9 inch cake pans, and bake at 375 for 25-30 minutes.Soon the house was filled with a lovely lemony baked good smell. I baked the cakes for the full 30 minutes.The cookbook suggests filling the cake with Lemon Filling and frosting with Lemon Butter Frosting, so that's what I decided to do. The Lemon Filling made me think of lemon curd and I thought that would be a nice surprise between the layers instead of just frosting.

While the cakes cooled, I made the Lemon Filling:3/4 cup sugar
2 tbsp cornstarch
1/2 cup water
2 beaten egg yolks
1 tsp grated lemon peel
3 tbsp lemon juice
1 tbsp butter

This is quite easy: mix the sugar and cornstarch together in a small saucepan. Stir in the water. Add the egg yolks, lemon peel, and lemon juice. Cook and stir over medium heat until bubbly. Cooke for 2 minutes more. Stir in the butter until it is melted. Cover the surface with plastic wrap and cool. Makes about 1 cup.

I was very careful to constantly stir! I feared it might curdle. When I was finished, it looked like lemon curd, but I didn't taste it while it was warm. I set it aside and made lunch!

After lunch, I made the frosting:1/3 cup butter
4.5 cups sifted powdered sugar
1.5 tsp vanilla
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/2 tsp grated lemon peel

Beat the butter until fluffy. This really didn't take long - 1/3 cup is 5 and 1/3 tbsp so not even a whole stick. Next, gradually add 2 cups powdered sugar. I don't sift my powdered sugar ahead of time; I measure it into bowls and then sift directly into the frosting bowl. The 1/3 cup butter didn't seem to be able to absorb the initial 2 cups of powdered sugar plus I was using a hand mixer so I got annoyed and impatient and decided to skip ahead! I added the lemon juice, vanilla, and lemon peel before the first 2 cups of powdered sugar were completely beaten into the butter. This helped things speed along! And made things easier! Next, I gradually sifted in another 2.5 cups of flour. I ended up adding a bit more lemon juice and decided to tint the frosting with yellow food coloring, as suggested.

Time to assemble the cake - and here's where things rapidly went downhill.

In retrospect, it seems obvious that I should have cut off the slightly raised center of the bottom layer to flatten it out. But I didn't. Why? Probably because I have never before done so. Usually, the frosting anchors the top layer in place and I just smush in more icing along the outside between the 2 layers, so that around the edges between the layers there is a thick layer of frosting but in the center a thinner layer of frosting.

I should have realized that the lemon filling has a different consistency than frosting. It's more liquid-like. It spreads. Runs. It does not anchor a top layer to a bottom layer.I spread the lemon filling on the bottom layer, being careful to not extend it all the way to the edges, but it ran to the edges anyway. When I set the top layer on, the lemon filling predictably squished out but also, as I gently pushed the top layer down, the top layer cracked on top. I was annoyed but thought, well, that's what frosting is for - to cover cake flaws.Next, I started frosting the top of the cake. I don't know if there is a 'real' way to frost a layer cake - the top first and then the sides, or the sides first and then the top? Is there an advantage to one way over another? I have always done the top first, my reasoning being that if I start to run out of frosting or realize there isn't enough, the cake will look OK with only the top frosted, but if only the sides are frosted, well, that's just not good.

And the big trouble started. As I gently (so I thought) starting spreading frosting on top, the top layer cracked more along the existing cracks. The top layer slid around on top the lemon filling. The lemon filling started oozing out and dripping down. A lot.

I frantically tried to scoop the lemon filing up and shove it back between the layers. That didn't seem to help much - it just kept oozing out. So I abandoned frosting the top and decided that if I could quickly frost the sides, I could use the frosting to 'trap' the lemon filling and that maybe the sides being frosted would anchor the layers in place. No such luck. The side frosting got mingled with the oozing out lemon filling which made the frosting more 'runny,' the top layer slid from side to side depending on where exactly I was frosting, the frosting mixed with filling on the sides kept slipping down and puddling around the perimeter of the cake (thank goodness the cake plate was large enough to contain all the slop and it didn't ooze onto the table or floor!), my hands were getting coated in filling and frosting, my pajamas were smeared with filling & frosting. And I started to lose it.

SP's birthday cake was rapidly becoming a disaster. A Leaning Tower of Pisa. It looked like I had never before baked a cake.

I decided to just slather on all the frosting and get the darn thing in the refrigerator - surely the refrigerator would firm everything up. It looks pretty normal here, just a messy frosting job, not a nice smooth coating of frosting:Unfortunately, it of course slid precariously with every wee tilt as I carried it across the kitchen to the refrigerator and attempted to slide it onto a shelf in our side-by-side refrigerator (not the widest shelves!).

I slammed the refrigerator door and began cleaning up. Then I showered. And then I decided to check on the cake - just to be sure the top layer hadn't completely slid off. This is what I saw:I cried a bit. It looked horrible. The top layer had slid off the bottom layer. The frosting/filling on the sides had slid down and puddled around the cake. I wasn't sure I could salvage it even if I wanted to devote more time to trying to anchor the layers and spread the frosting. The cracks - well there was no way they could be hidden by frosting. They looked like earthquake fault lines - deep cracks in the cake.

I ignored the cake until I heard the garage door open. Then I got it out of the refrigerator and placed it on the table with one candle on top. I got out my offset spatula to try to pretty it up some, but the refrigerator had done the trick - the icing was very, very firm. Definitely not spreadable. But also not sliding around every time it got touched!

SP came up the stairs, looked at me, looked at the cake, and said thank you and hugged and kissed me. Being the wonderful fiance he is, he said it didn't look that bad and he scooped up some of the firm, puddled frosting and said it tasted yummy and lemony.

After dinner, we sliced the cake. Placed on a plate and pushed back into position a bit, it looks pretty normal: I thought the cake itself tasted fine, but it had just a wee hint of lemon. That was OK because the filling & frosting are very lemony. Very tart. The curd oozed out so much that I was a bit disappointed in the thickness of the filling layer between the cake layers. Most of the filling was scooped up with frosting from the puddles ringing the cake plate. In this photo on the right you can see how much the top layer slid - it hangs way over the bottom layer:I like the frosting, but to me, homemade frosting is tough to make, maybe because I am a picky frosting person. Sifting the powdered sugar definitely helps, but I've noticed that unless I use a cream cheese frosting, my frosting seems to taste a wee bit grainy and a wee bit too sweet. Last year's cream cheese icing was very tasty. This years was OK. Not bad, I'm just not sure I'd want this frosting again.

We don't have a Cake Saver/Keeper (it's on the registry!!!) so we decided to slice the cake and put the slices in containers which we then placed in the refrigerator.
Admittedly, the presentation is horrible, but that could easily be improved upon. Would I make this cake again? Probably not, but only because we have a super yummy, moist, lemony lemon pound cake baked in a loaf pan recipe that I like a lot more than this one. Somehow, a layer cake seems more birthday-ish than a loaf cake which is why I opted for a layer cake. Is this cake horrible? No, it tastes fine - we'll eat it during the coming week for evening dessert. And maybe small pieces for breakfast. Yes, we ate birthday cake for breakfast today.

Thank goodness it's sliced and contained in plastic ware. It looks much better than when it was on the cake platter!


  1. I'm so sorry the cake didn't turn out the way you wanted! It looks tasty, though. I'm NO BAKER, so IMO, if it tasted good, that's all you can ask for.

    Any ideas on the lemon pound cake? I heart lemon pound cake, but I've never made it!

  2. It might have given you some problems in assembly but the results are SO tasty. Thank you for a wonderful birthday surprise!

  3. Oh no! This is so something that has happened to me. In one case, I was actually supposed to take the cake to a party. Um, I sort of cut the thing up into chunks, frosting and all and layered in a big bowl with fresh berries and whipped cream. Instant trifle!

  4. I always seem to have issues with frosting too. As long as it tastes good, I don't really mind, but it sure is frustrating!

  5. Megan: Here's the lemon pound cake recipe we both really like:
    It was in an issue of Bon Appetit & the recipe makes 2 loaves. We made it last Father's Day when there were lots of fresh strawberries!

  6. I'm sorry this gave you so much trouble, but it really looks tasty. What a great birthday surprise anyway!

    I never seem to have luck with frosting, either. My layers usually crumble and then I get lots of crumbs mixed in with the frosting. Ugh.

  7. Lemon cake sounds good...

    Sorry for the mishap, I guess it's not just me that has "issues" at times!

  8. im sure the cake tasted great! next time try cutting the top of the cake of to make it even, and put a thick line of icing only on the ouside of the bottom layer then put the lemon filing inside that. hope that helps