It’s my birthday!
I’m turning the big 2-4. And I can’t decide if I’m happy about it or not.
On the one hand I can no longer drink until 4 AM and wake up fresh as a daisy three hours later. The hangovers are real y’all. I’m also one year closer to this whole “being on Earth for a quarter of a century” thing. And I forget my age all the time…which is probably the biggest reminder of how old I’m getting.
But on the other hand, I feel like each day I am shedding layers of a life that had less direction. A person that was less self-assured. I’m in a job that I love, living in a city that makes me happy, and I’ve never been more satisfied with who I am as a person. There are definite growing pains, though. I’ve sacrificed the comfort of being near those that I love in order to continue my personal and professional growth.
I was once told in a seminar at Penn State that in order to be a successful human being, you need to be happy 70% of the time. Or maybe it was 80%…Anyway the point is that it’s okay to be unhappy part of the time if you have loads of contentedness elsewhere in your life. It’s okay to sacrifice some part of what is important to you but only if you can enjoy who you are a majority of the time. Otherwise your head and your heart inhabit vastly different parts of your consciousness, and you begin to dwell on what your life could have been. Once that happens, you better switch paths quickly for fear of losing precious amounts of time.
Moving far away from everything you know several times in a row is hard. There are definitely some days that I feel my somewhat lonely life is so contrastingly different from my first couple of years as a twenty-something that it makes me feel the sudden need to hop on a plane and be surrounded again by vibrant pals. If only for a big hug and a friendly ear. But in these brief moments of (cough, self-absorbed, cough) crisis, I find comfort in many other new parts of my life that I can enjoy in my own time like creating candy at work, great books, flavorful food, and this blog. I spend my brief evenings doing the things I want to do which could mean taking a walk down to my favorite local restaurant and treating myself to a meal. Or baking cookies while I listen to NPR—funny how only half of the cookie dough makes it to the oven. (And most recently, devouring Outlander which may be my absolute favorite book now)
So as I sit here alone on my birthday, I feel a twisted happiness. I am in full transition constantly, and each step forward feels confusing but right. I treasure every moment I have with old and new friends alike. And I really do treasure my time alone as well. I guess the point is that I am happy that 70 or 80% of the time. Which is what matters to me. I look forward to this year full of new. No regrets. Here’s to 24!
But let’s start with this cake because that’s why you’re here after all. Whether you read that blabbering monologue or just scrolled down, you have surely worked up an appetite. So I’ll keep the science-y fun stuff to a minimum.
This cake is so moist and soft that I felt a perfect accompaniment is a just slightly bitter coffee buttercream and bittersweet chocolate crunchy filling. Because there is always some bitter to go with the sweet and some “texture” to break up that smooth sailing. And caramel corn to top it all off because this is still a birthday after all.
Remember when we made butter from scratch and the interactions between the air, fat, and water of the cream were constantly in flux—changing all the time on a precarious truce or breakup because of their respective love or hate of each other? Well that’s because the cream is an emulsion. And this coffee buttercream is essentially an emulsion as well. The butter, mostly fat, does not play nice with coffee milk, which is mostly water. This is to do with the chemical structure of fat and water, much like what comes to mind when you think of oil and vinegar.
Because we want this frosting to taste of coffee and that’s it, this recipe has relatively little else in it except for the butter. That means we don’t have a lot to work with in regards to emulsifiers. So we are sitting rather dangerously on the line of perfection and separation. Essentially the trick is to add the coffee milk as slowly as possible to the butter in order to allow the native dairy proteins to help act as a buffer between the water and fat. Proteins naturally have water-loving and water-hating portions which help them keep the peace as they orient themselves as needed. Act too quickly, and you’ll overwhelm the system. Patience grasshopper!
The cake also has quite a perilous ratio of fat and water as well in order to maximize tenderness of the crumb. Keep your cool there too and be patient with the batter as it comes together.
Chocolate Chip Birthday Cake with Coffee Buttercream, Chocolate Crunchies, and Caramel Corn
This is an amazingly moist cake inspired by Christina Tosi of Momofuku Milk Bar. I find that her recipes are absolutely foolproof when you use the ingredient weight versus volume. So I included both for those parts of the cake that are similar to hers. Additionally, the frosting and chocolate crunchies should be used immediately. They both freeze up relatively quickly, and at that point it’s easier to just start over. So have everything ready to go when you assemble!
Chocolate Chip Cake
Adapted from Momofuku Milk Bar
Makes 4 6” layers
½ cup (115 g) unsalted butter, softened
1 ¼ cup (250 g) granulated sugar
¼ cup (60 g) packed light brown sugar
½ (75 g) cup vegetable oil
½ cup (110 g) buttermilk
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 ½ cups (185 g) cake flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt
¾ cup (150 g) semisweet chocolate chips
- Heat oven to 350⁰F. Prep two 6” cake pans (make sure they’re not the super short ones) with a circle of parchment in the bottom and a thin coating of Pam baking spray around the pan. Set aside.
- Put the butter into the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment. Beat until smooth, about 1 minute. Add the sugars and cream on medium-high for 3 minutes. Scrape the bowl and add the eggs. Mix on medium-high for about 3 more minutes. Scrape the bowl and beat briefly to combine.
- Combine the oil, buttermilk, and vanilla into a separate container and whisk quickly to bring together. Turn the mixer on the lowest speed and slowly stream this liquid into the bowl. Increase the paddle speed to medium-high and paddle for 5-7 more minutes. Your cake batter should appear to get larger in size and lighter in color. You want everything to be homogenous, but you are kind of forcing the liquid into a fat-based mixture. It will take some time to come together. Don’t freak out!
- When it appears that the mixture is homogenous, scrape down the bowl and beat briefly to combine.
- Add the cake flour, baking powder, and salt to the batter. On very low speed, mix to combine until it just comes together. About 30 seconds to 1 minute. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and mix if you see any lingering ingredients not incorporated.
- Roughly chop the semisweet chocolate chips. Mix into the batter with a rubber spatula.
- Divide the cake batter between the two pans. Bake in the preheated oven for about 35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean. Rotate the pans halfway through baking to ensure even browning.
- Remove from the oven and let cool to room temperature. Invert the cakes onto a sheet of parchment paper and remove the parchment circle from the top. If you are assembling the cake immediately, put the cakes in the fridge for an hour or so to make cutting easier. Otherwise, cover in plastic wrap and keep in the fridge until ready to use. Use within 2 days.
Chocolate Crunchy Center
2 squares (2 ounces) unsweetened chocolate
⅓ cup 60% chocolate
½ tablespoon butter
½ tablespoon heavy cream
½ cup chocolate rice Krispies
- Melt the chocolates and butter together either in short bursts in the microwave or over a double boiler. Add the heavy cream and a big pinch of salt to the mix. Mix gently until smooth.
- Let the chocolate mix cool for about 1 minute and then add the Krispies to the bowl. Combine gently but well. Use immediately.
Adapted from Momofuku Milk Bar
Makes enough for a naked cake coating (about 1 cup)
½ cup (115 g) unsalted butter, softened
¼ cup (40 g) confectioner’s sugar
¼ cup (55 g) milk
¾ teaspoon (1.5 g) instant coffee powder (preferably Nescafe)
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
- Beat the butter with a paddle attachment on medium for about a one minute until smooth. Add the confectioner’s sugar and cream together on medium-high for about 2-3 minutes until fluffy and pale yellow.
- Whisk together the milk, instant coffee, and salt in a separate bowl.
- Scrape down the sides of the stand mixer bowl with a rubber spatula. On low speed, stream in the coffee milk slowly. This is the tricky part, and you need to pay attention. You are forcing liquid into fat. With each small addition, the butter mixture will clump and separate a bit. Make sure that you mix well after each bit of coffee to smooth everything out again before you add more coffee mixture. This will take you some time.
- When you have added all of the coffee mixture and the mixture is smooth, give the frosting one final scrape and beat for 30 seconds longer to ensure complete homogenization. The frosting should be pale brown and very fluffy. Use immediately! Reheating after cooling is a bitch and basically impossible.
Once the cake halves have briefly chilled, take from the fridge and set on a cutting board. Take a large serrated knife and cut each layer in two. You will now have four total layers. (this part is optional, but I like breaking up huge layers with a bit of frosting to give you the full experience with each bite…and it’s prettier) Use the serrated knife to also even out any flaws like uneven layers or sides.
Put a small dollop of the coffee buttercream on your cake plate of choice. Place one layer of cake on top. Spread a small amount of the buttercream on the top of the cake. Carefully put another layer of cake on top of that.
*Tip: the larger bits of chocolate sink a bit to the bottom of the cake layers. If you want some crunch all the way through, be sure to position the bottom layers of cake as the first and fourth layers.
Put the chocolate crunchy layer on top of the cake now and try to spread as evenly as possible. If you mound it all in the center, you will have stability issues (i.e. your cake will topple when you add more layers to the top).
Put the next layer of cake on top of the chocolate filling and spread a bit of coffee buttercream on the surface of that. Finally add the last cake layer to the top of your cake and make sure everything seems stable.
Use the remaining frosting to thinly coat the cake all over. Top with caramel corn of your choosing (or make your own!) and serve!