It’s the frosting, stupid!

Baking a cake from scratch can be pretty easy for the most part. But it’s the frosting that will get you every time.

Some frosting recipes need to be prepared just so, otherwise they can fall flat on their faces, or flat on the cake as it were. Witness the Chocolate Frosting that I made for the recent birthday parties.

By this past weekend, I was completely sick of cake. But the issue of the Fluffy Chocolate Frosting That Wasn’t kept nagging my brain and wouldn’t leave. I thought I had pinpointed what was going wrong with the recipe and wanted to test my hypothesis.

And you can’t make frosting without having something to put it on, right? So I made one last mini-cake on Friday since it was my daughter’s official birthday that day.

In a search for more cake recipes for 6-inch diameter cake pans online, one person suggested that you can just halve a regular cake recipe, and that’s enough for a 6 inch 2 layer cake. Could it be that easy? No complex math involved?

I set out to see if this was the case – whether 1 full cake recipe could be made into two mini-cakes. First, I measured how much batter there is in a full-size cake recipe; it turned out there was about 1 1/2 quarts in the recipe I prepared.

Then I took roughly half of the batter and divided it between two cake pans, which illustrated that you only need to fill the cake pans about 1/4 full for a 2 inch cake pan (this translates to about a 1/2 inch deep of cake batter).

I baked the first cake, let it cool for about 10 minutes, then baked the second cake. (I guess it’s okay for the batter to sit around for a little while. It baked up fine.)

The cake layers turned out a little unevenly sized,

but I countered that by slicing the top off the bigger layer and using that layer for the cake bottom; slicing off the domed part left a nice flat surface on which to put the second layer.

Now, on to the frosting challenge. First, I sifted the powdered sugar.

This removes any lumps that have formed in the stored sugar and provides an even texture. The cookbook talked about the importance of this step and I can cofirm this; in the past when I’ve been too impatient with frosting recipes, I’ve just thrown in the sugar and the final frosting has turned out lumpy.

Then, the recipe called for “waking up” the cocoa powder by pouring boiling water over it. Supposedly, this releases a richer flavor from the cocoa. You stir the cocoa together with the water so that it forms a soft mass. Then you blend room-temperature butter into the moistened cocoa.

The potential problems with this method are two-fold. First, it’s very easy to put too much water in, which can result in general runniness.

And the boiling water leaves the cocoa pretty hot for a while afterward. So if you put the butter in right away, it’s just going to melt. And no amount of mixing afterward can make melted butter turn fluffy.

I think that I ran into both of these problems the first couple of times I made this frosting recipe and that’s what turned it into a glaze rather than a fluffy consistency.

When I made it again on Friday, I was very careful about how much water I poured over the chocolate (WAKE UP COCOA!!!), and then I let it rest for a few minutes (shhh, little cocoa, go back to sleep) before I continued with the recipe.

These small changes were enough to turn the frosting corner. The finished frosting looked completely different than the other times – a thicker texture and lighter color.

FINALLY I had conquered this frosting. It only took me four attempts making the recipe to get it right.– Sigh-

Check out the photos of the finished cakes to see the difference a few tweaks can make. The frosting doesn’t even look like the same recipe, but it is:

First attempt:

Last attempt:

Fluffy Chocolate Frosting
Adapted from the Chocolate Cake Mix Doctor

This recipe makes 1 1/2 cups, enough to frost a 2-layer 6 inch diameter mini-cake.

1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
3 T. boiling water
4 T. (1/2 stick) butter, room temperature
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar, sifted
1/2 tsp. pure vanilla extract

Pour the boiling water over the cocoa powder and stir it together to combine. Let the mixture sit for a couple of minutes to cool down, then add the butter and mix on low speed until it is combined (this takes less than a minute).

Then, add the powdered sugar and vanilla and mix on low speed for another minute so that the powdered sugar is incorporated into the mixture. Turn the speed up to medium and beat the frosting for a couple more minutes until the mixture lightens in color and turns fluffy. The longer you beat it, the lighter it will get.


Well, we had our cake and ate it too,
and that was enough for us to do.

The second cake went into the freezer,

so that I could be a future people pleaser,

And I was keeping it cool, keeping it cool…

Now that I know the tricks
to get my mini-cake fix

I’ll get my kicks
taking licks

At other cake recipes, other cake recipes.

A piece of cake

With one party down and one to go, I was all charged up to bake again on Sunday morning.

First off was the white frosting for the cupcakes. The frosting I used on the cupcakes comes from the Magnolia Bakery Cookbook. In that cookbook, it’s used for the Coconut Layer Cake (which, by the way, is completely decadent and delicious).

I used it for the cupcakes because this frosting is just gorgeous, with a satiny gloss and luscious curves. The perfect backdrop for Halloween-themed cupcakes -it’s Casper gone uptown.

This frosting is best made and eaten the same day – it starts to break down after several hours. Still, while it’s at its peak, it is a glorious, marshmallow-y confection.

White Frosting
From the Magnolia Bakery Cookbook

3 egg whites
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 cup cold water
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/4 plus 1/8 tsp. cream of tartar

First, some notes on the eggs. This cookbook notes that eggs beat up better when at room temperature, so take them out of the fridge about an hour before making the recipe.

For me, simpler is better when it comes to tools for baking. You can buy an egg separator gadget, but really, the easiest thing is to break the egg and let the whites run through your fingers into the mixing bowl. Take care not to let the yolk break at all.

Combine the egg whites and vanilla in your mixing bowl and let them sit while you prepare a sugar mixture on the stovetop.

In a saucepan, stir together the sugar, water and cream of tartar

and heat on a medium-high setting until it comes to a rolling boil (the liquid will turn from opaque to translucent at this point); remove it immediately from the heat.

Beat the egg whites and vanilla with a mixer on a medium-high setting until foamy, about 1 minute. Then, gradually pour in the sugar mixture in a thin, steady stream while continuing to beat the egg whites.

Once you’ve added all of the sugar liquid, continue beating the mixture on medium-high

until stiff peaks form but the frosting still appears moist and shiny (this’ll take about 5 minutes)

Frost your cake or cupcakes immediately.

Now for a few Halloween sprinkles to see what it’ll look like when the kids decorate them at the party. Nice! That’ll do.

After the cupcakes were frosted, I set about making the mini-cakes for each of the kids (at the party, these were for the kids to blow out candles, then the parents ate the cakes, while the kids ate the cupcakes {lest you think I let them each eat a whole cake by themselves :) } ).

For the kids cakes, I baked the Baby Cakes recipe which appears in the cookbook, Birthday Cakes: Recipes and Memories from Celebrated Bakers. This is a two-layer cake baked in 6 inch cake pans. You can find 6 inch pans at specialty cooking stores or online.

I love this recipe, because the size is so cute, plus it’s nice for serving a small number of people, or small people, or both.

I wish I could find more recipes tailored specifically for this size of cake, because it’s perfect to accompany a family meal or intimate dinner party. Alas, this is the only one I’ve found. When I’ve wanted other flavors, I’ve resorted to using box mixes and just guess how much to fill the pan, with sometimes freakish results as seen in my previous post.

Oh, I know I could probably scale down scratch recipes to fit these pans, but that would require using math, wouldn’t it?

Anyway, on to the recipe:

Baby Cakes
A Flo Braker recipe from Birthday Cakes: Recipes and Memories from Celebrated Bakers

1 cup cake flour
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/8 tsp. salt
3/4 cup unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks) at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
3 large eggs
1 tsp. vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees, with the oven rack in the lower third of the oven, and butter and flour the cake pans. Sift the flour with the baking powder and salt.

Cream the butter with a mixer on medium speed until it’s soft and creamy. Add the sugar and beat until fluffy. Then, beat in the eggs one by one. Add the vanilla, then shift the speed to low and add the dry ingredients, mixing until blended.

Divide the batter among the two cake pans and bake for about 30 minutes until a toothpick inserted in comes out clean. Let cool for about 10 minutes in the pan, then remove from pans and cook completely on a wire rack. Frost when cool.


I made the Fluffy Chocolate Frosting recipe yet again from the Chocolate Cake Mix Doctor cookbook, this time convinced that using the stand mixer with its oomph-atic power would be just the trick to make the frosting fluffy.

What’s that saying about insanity? The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results?

Well, I mixed…

and mixed….

and still it was no fluffier than the previous day. In fact, it was worse. Very, very runny.

Screw it, it will have to do.

And it did do; it was fine, along with the cupcakes.

Because, really, in the end, who cares about baking perfection? All you need is to please the ones you love.

My mixer goes to 11

I am sooooooo done with cake.

I mentioned earlier that both of my kids’ birthdays fall during October; well, they’re only 9 days apart, right at the end of the month.

This last part of the month is like my version of Super Bowl week, only times two. There’s official birthday number one, then a family birthday party (where we also celebrate my niece’s October birthday), then a kids birthday party, then the official birthday number two. Then Halloween. It’s all enough to drive a person batty, or into a sugar-induced coma, or both.

The seismic birthday activity peaked this past weekend, with two parties scheduled, one with family on Saturday and one with kids on Sunday.

For these two birthday extravaganzas, over the course of the weekend, I baked a total of 5 two-layer mini-cakes and 2 dozen cupcakes. Yes, why not dive right in from non-cooking to full-throttle cooking? It’s the way of Amy.

Why did I choose to bake the cakes myself rather than buy them? It’s a question my husband tactfully posed to me and one that I also tend to ask myself midway through the process each year (as in, what the hell was I thinking?).

But then, the next year, the mental slate is wiped clean and I rationalize it to myself saying, well, I like to bake. They’re easy to make. They’re cheaper than buying cakes from the store. And, since the kids birthdays are so close together, they inevitably share parties. The least I can do is to give them each their own cake, right? Riiiight.

To preserve my stamina and sanity, I had to prepare these in stages.

  • On Friday, I made the three cakes for Saturday’s family party – two devils food cakes and one yellow cake.
  • On Saturday, I frosted the three cakes, and baked the cupcakes for Sunday’s kid party.
  • On Sunday, I frosted the cupcakes, baked two more cakes and frosted them too.

In the process, I went through four cake mixes, over a bottle of vanilla, a bag and a half of powdered sugar and over two cups of cocoa powder. That’s a personal record.

The first set of cakes went pretty well, with a few stumbles along the way. I bought a new oven thermometer to gauge the calibration of our new range and, even though the oven dial was set to 350 degrees, the thermometer read 450. I filled the pans too full, so the layers were freakishly tall.

(I cut back the bottom layer to make it flat and more stable for the second layer, but didn’t think to shorten the top layer too. Isn’t frosting great camouflage?)

And the Fluffy Chocolate Frosting that I made didn’t live up to its name. I’ve made this recipe several times now and it tends to be floppy rather than fluffy. It’s not the most elegant looking frosting, but I continue to make it because of its fudgy taste.

Whatever. In the end, the cakes turned out pretty cute, the guests lavished praise on them (who wouldn’t, free cake!), and all was well in Petersonland.

But I knew I could do better.

I took the boxed mix shortcut just because I had so many cakes to make at once; I really do prefer scratch cakes. There’s a big texture difference between cake mix cakes and cakes made from scratch; using cake flour produces a finer, more tender crumb. Also, I think cakes made with butter simply taste better than the vegetable oil-based cakes.

So I decided to make the cakes from scratch for Sunday’s party.

Frosting is one of those things that always should be made from scratch too. The kids were going to decorate cupcakes at the kids birthday party, so I planned to make a cooked seven-minute style white frosting. Plus I wanted to take another go at the chocolate frosting and see if I could get it to fluff up more this time.

My hand mixer only had three settings, but I knew I needed more power. Time to break out the big guns and use the stand mixer.

A lot of bakers, their mixers only go to 10. But where can you go from there? NOWHERE. My mixer goes to 11.

Recipes to follow in tomorrow’s post…

Plum galette

I’ve never really eaten plums before. They’re just one of those fruits that get lost in the conga line of the late summer fruit crew; the plum’s flashier stone fruit cousins, peaches and nectarines, steal the limelight this time of year. But I thought I’d give them a go this year, in my year of trying to eat more locally and seasonally.

It turns out that the plum season is brief here in Minnesota. When I was last at Minneapolis Farmers Market in mid-August, the word was that the plums would be in stock soon. Now I hear that there’s only maybe one more week left of Minnesota plums? Another example of the universal principle, you snooze, you lose.

Plums are featured in the September 2009 issue of Everyday Food, with several plum recipes, including a recipe for a Plum Galette, a free-form rustic fruit tart (BTW, this Fine Cooking link has excellent tips for making rustic tarts like this).

I’ve never made a galette before, but the photo looked so good that I just had to try it.

I used the plums that I bought from the Havlicek’s Orchard at the Thursday Nicollet Mall market for this recipe. I was concerned that these five wouldn’t be enough, but it turned out they were just right.

Plum Galette
Adapted from Everyday Food, Sept. 2009 issue


Flour – 2 1/2 cups for the dough plus 2 T. for the filling
Unsalted butter – 1 cup (2 sticks), cold and cut into small pieces
5 T. plus 1 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. salt
1/2 cup ice water
1/4 cup slivered almonds, toasted
5 or 6 plums, sliced about 1/4 inch thick
Heavy cream


Toast the slivered almonds at 350 degrees for 5-10 minutes, until golden.

Pulse 2 1/2 cups flour, butter chunks, 1 tsp. sugar and salt in a food processor until the mixture looks coarse. Then, drizzle in the cold water and pulse briefly until the mixture is combined and crumbly [the recipe cautions not to over-mix]. You want the dough to hold together when squeezed, and if it’s still too crumbly to do this, then add a little bit of ice water at a time until it’s moistened enough to hold together. When I made this, I added a little water beyond the 1/4 cup but it probably wasn’t needed.

Shape the dough into a disk, wrap it with plastic wrap and chill in the fridge (the dough, not you) for at least an hour. While it’s chilling, preheat your oven to 350 degrees, slice up the plums and prepare the almond mixture for the filling.

To make the almond mixture, combine the toasted almonds, 3 T. sugar and 2 T. flour in a food processor and pulse until it’s ground into a coarse meal.

When the dough is chilled, roll it out on a floured surface until it’s about 1/4 inch thick. Transfer the rolled-out dough to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and sprinkle the almond mixture across the dough. Then lay out the plum slices on the dough; for a more formal presentation, you can keep the slices together and fan them out, or throw them on however you want. Leave a couple of inches of space around the edges.

Fold up the edges and chill again in the fridge for about 20 minutes.

When done chilling, remove it from the fridge, brush the crust with heavy cream and sprinkle the entire galette with 2 tablespoons of sugar.

Bake for 60-70 minutes. The recipe called for about 70 minutes, but when I took it out of the oven at a little over 60 minutes the edges of the crust were overdone. Just goes to show that oven calibrations can vary, so keep an eye on it and take it out when the crust appears golden and the underside is cooked through.

My verdict on this dessert and the plums themselves? I’d definitely make this again.

If you like crusts, this is the dessert for you. The crust was crunchy and flaky, and crackled from the sprinkled sugar on it. The filling was juicy and I really enjoyed the added flourish from the toasted almonds. It seemed, though, like perhaps it could have used some additional spice to it (maybe cinnamon? what goes well with plums and almonds?).

To me, the plums didn’t really seem to have a distinctive flavor. I think that other fruits would offer a bolder taste. My personal opinion, though; maybe I just need to get to know this fruit better to appreciate its subtle charms.

I can’t wait to try out this technique using local apples next.

Cookin’ it, campfire style – part 2

Well, our little camping adventure with the kids was a success. They loved being outdoors, we had planned pretty well and so had the supplies we needed, we all managed to sleep together in one massive air mattress in the tent and not freeze during the cool nights, and nobody got any ticks.

Re: our food, I started out with healthy intentions. I had grilled zucchini and eggplant from our CSA share in advance, intending to try to make grilled vegetable sandwiches in the campfire using our pie iron, but then the veggies got all smashed in the cooler. So we ate hot dogs and mac and cheese for dinner that night instead.

I had also cut up our CSA watermelon to bring along (BTW, check out this pic of the beautiful melons we received in our Harmony Valley Farm CSA box last week)

but then I forgot to put the container in the cooler, so we had to eat the watermelon when we returned home.

In the end, I have to admit that the food we ate while camping was pretty processed, but like my mother-in-law said, that’s okay, you get a free pass when you go camping.

What was interesting to me was that the kids refused to drink the Tang, instead preferring the real fruit juices we had brought along. I was surprised. I mean, how could they not drink the drink of astronauts, and my favorite stuff from my childhood camping adventures? But part of me was proud that they chose the real stuff on their own.

Back to the processed foods for our final dutch oven experiment – baking a Black Forest Cobbler.

This dessert is made with chocolate cake mix, cherry pie filling and Hershey’s chocolate bars. You could probably make the cake and pie filling from scratch yourself, but sometimes, life is too short, and it’s worth it to take the convenient route.

It’s a very, very complicated preparation:

Heat up your coals for about 15 minutes before starting to cook.

Mix together the cake batter according to the box instructions (mine called for adding eggs, oil and water). Then pour the cherry pie filling into the dutch oven.

Pour the cake batter over the cherries, break up 1-2 Hershey bars into little pieces and scatter them onto the batter.

Bake over coals for around 40-45 minutes. I used the same technique as the pizza I made, using about 10 coals underneath the dutch oven and about 15 on top.

This is what the baked cake looked like when I pulled it off the coals:

To serve it, invert the cut pieces onto a plate, and voila, you have a fresh warm cake to eat.

This dessert won’t win any awards for “Best Looking Cake” but who cares, when it’s warm and juicy with cherries and you’re eating it by a campfire? Granted it’s a cake mix concoction, but it still seems like magic being able to bake a cake outside like this.

Now I have an alternative if my ancient stove at home ever conks out; I’ll just have to head outdoors and start cooking.

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