Nothing beats the pleasure of baking a cake for a child’s birthday. The recipient is invariably excited and, of course, easily impressed. Having become inured to teenage contempt and adult-onset apathy, watching someone eat your creations with the gusto and abandon of a 4-year-old is a rare and refreshing delight. When the opportunity to bake a birthday cake for an adorable little cousin fell into our laps, we couldn’t wait to get started.
The recipe we chose—a combination of graham cracker and strawberry buttercream—evokes the summers of youth: eating strawberries from a green plastic basket, the red flesh warm from the sun, and then later, as the air cools and the moon rises, roasting marshmallows on the beach and smashing them between graham squares with sandy fingers. These summer flavors were perfect for the warm spell we had been experiencing in the Bay Area but now serve as more of a cruel taunt in the current downpour. However, if you want to recall the sensation of sun-soaked skin and seek refuge from the driving rain, if but for an afternoon, we recommend this delightful recipe.
I have to admit another of the motivations for this choice of cake: unlike the unbridled joy of the birthday girl when confronted with her miniature tower of pink frosting, I derive a pleasure most unbecoming of my age from stirring coloring into white frosting. I compare this indulgence to the protagonist’s enjoyment of the cool depths of a sack of lentils in Amelie: it provokes the same profound sense of satisfaction and well-being. Starting with a pure and immaculate bowl of fluffy white, the splashes of food dye or fruit stand out like a hysterical riot of color. The tide of my apathy recedes as I stir; the stain spreads in beautiful streaks until I have a uniformly sweet pale pink or blue or green. It was therefore with great happiness that I dumped strawberry puree into the glossy buttercream and watched anarchic chunks of fruit disrupt the smooth whorls of frosting in the bowl. Getting to taste the tart, velvety result (quality control is important at First We Eat) offers an added bonus.
Once this process was over (sigh) and the cake rounds were safely removed from pans and sawn delicately along their crumb-y equators, we began to construct the cake. This marvel of sugar and flour came together with generous layers of jam—not enough to encourage the tiers to slip, but more than enough to satisfy a 4-year-old—and a healthy spackling of strawberry frosting. Topped with a festive arrangement of fresh strawberries in a nest of white frosting, it was a vision. And yes, the birthday girl enjoyed it very much.
STRAWBERRY PIE CAKE (Recipe from thecakeblog.com)
For the Graham Cracker Cake:
3 sticks unsalted butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
3 cups cake flour
1 cup finely ground graham cracker crumbs (about 9 sheets)
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup whole milk
1/3 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons vanilla extract
- Preheat oven to 325. Prepare four 8″ round pans with butter, flour and parchment paper (FWE note: we used a 6″ and an 8″ to up the cute factor).
- Whisk together flour, graham cracker crumbs, baking powder and salt. Set aside.
- Whisk together milk, cream, eggs and vanilla. Set aside.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat butter, sugar and brown sugar on medium-high using the paddle attachment. Cream until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Scrape down the sides and bottom of bowl.
- With the mixer on low, add one third of the dry ingredients. Pour in one half of the milk mixture.
- Add another third of the dry ingredients. Pour in the remaining milk mixture followed by the end of the dry ingredients. Mix until just combined.
- Divide batter evenly between prepared pans and bake for about 25 – 28 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with a few crumbs attached (FWE note: if using, the 6″ cake may cook slightly faster if filled to same level as the 8″).
- Let cool for about 15 minutes and then invert onto a rack to cool completely.
For the Sweetened Buttercream Filling and Strawberry Buttercream Frosting:
10 egg whites
3 cups sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 cups unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 tablespoons finely chopped strawberry puree
- In bowl of stand mixer combine egg whites, sugar and salt. Place over a pan of simmering water and whisk continuously until temperature reaches 160 on a candy thermometer and the sugar is dissolved, about 3 minutes. (The mixture should feel smooth when rubbed between your fingers).
- Attach bowl to mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Starting on low speed and gradually increasing to medium-high, whisk until stiff peaks form and mixture is fluffy and glossy, about 10 minutes. Your bowl should no longer feel warm to the touch.
- Switch to the paddle attachment. With mixer on medium-low, add butter a few tablespoons at a time, mixing well after each addition. Continue mixing until icing is smooth and silky, about 10 to 15 minutes.
- Add vanilla extract and mix until well combined.
- Divide buttercream in two, reserving one half to use for the filling.
- Mix strawberry puree to the other half of buttercream, creating the strawberry frosting.
- Spread a thin layer of strawberry jam onto the bottom layer of cake.
- Add a layer of plain buttercream onto the jam.
- Top with the second layer of cake and repeat until all four layers are stacked.
- Frost outside of cake with the strawberry buttercream.
- Top with a swirl of plain buttercream and mound of strawberries.
- Refrigerate until ready to serve.