I mean, really, that statement requires an exclamation point. Any good cake suddenly becomes even better when it's made and eaten to celebrate someone's birthday. And to me, the classic birthday cake will always be a buttery, fine-textured yellow cake layered and covered with rich, fudgy frosting. It's the kind of cake that my Gramma is known for making for a birthday (you do have to get your request in early, however), and one that I grew up loving. It's the best of both worlds, vanilla and chocolate, light cake and rich frosting, simple enough flavors to pair well with whatever kind of ice cream the birthday girl or boy requests.
In this case the birthday boy was my husband's best friend from college, the best man in our wedding, and the person who indirectly introduced my husband and I to each other (in the way you can indirectly meet someone while dating someone else--it was college, people!). So this person obviously deserves a seriously good birthday cake, and nothing is better than a classic that never gets old, no matter how many times you have it. Kind of like celebrating birthdays themselves.
Before I get to the recipe, cross over with me into the land of culinary geekdom for a moment, won't you? I love experimenting with different mixing methods of cake-making. It never ceases to amaze me just how different textures and flavors can turn out just by mixing the same ingredients in a different order. I'm sure there's an ancient proverb in there somewhere. Anyway, in this case, the mixing method is the two-stage method, wherein softened butter is blended directly into the dry ingredients, and then the wet ingredients are streamed in at the end. This batter isn't quite as glamourous-looking coming together as cakes made via the creaming method, but oh, the texture of the finished cake. A fine and tender crumb, light and velvety, the perfect stage for a rich, dense fudgy frosting.
Classic Birthday Cake
(aka Yellow Layer Cake with Rich Fudge Frosting)
Adapted from Baking Illustrated
For the Cake:
1 3/4 cups plain cake flour, sifted, plus more for dusting the pans
4 large eggs, at room temperature
1/2 cup whole milk, at room temperature
2 teaspoons great vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened but still cool, cut into 16 pieces
1. Adjust an oven rack to the lower-middle position, and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Generously butter two 9-inch cake rounds, line the bottoms with parchment, and butter the parchment. Dust the pans with flour, tapping out the excess.
2. Beat the eggs, milk and vanilla with a fork in a small bowl. Measure out one cup of this mixture and set aside.
3. Combine the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in the bowl of standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Stir the ingredients on low to combine, about 30 seconds.
4. With the mixture still running at the lowest speed, add the softened butter one piece at a time, mixing until the butter and flour begin the clump together, until it looks pebbly with pieces about the size of peas, 30 to 40 seconds after all the butter is added.
5. Add the reserved one cup of egg mixture and mix at low speed until incorporated, 5 to 10 seconds. Increase the speed to medium high and beat until light and fluffy, about 1 minute. Add the remaining egg mixture in a steady stream with the mixer running, taking about 30 seconds. Stop the mixer and scrape down the bowl and beater. Beat at medium-high speed again until the batter is thoroughly combined and just starts to look curdled, about 15 seconds.
6. Divide the batter equally between the prepared pans, smoothing out the surface. Bake until the cakes are light gold in color and a toothpick comes out clean, about 20 to 25 minutes. Cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes then run a knife along the edges to loosen them from the pans. Release cakes from the pans and let cool completely before icing them.
For the Frosting:
16 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped fine
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1/3 cup light corn syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1. Place the chocolate in a heatproof bowl. Bring the cream to just a simmer over medium-high heat in a small saucepan, then pour the cream over the chocolate. Add the corn syrup, and let the mixture stand for 3 minutes.
2. Whisk the mixture until smooth, and add the vanilla. Refrigerate for 1 to 1/2 hours, stirring every 15 minutes, until the mixture reaches a spreadable consistency. You can use this frosting as is, or for a lighter texture like I prefer, place the frosting in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a whip attachment and whip the frosting until it is fluffy with medium peaks, about 2 minutes.
To assemble the cake, remove the parchment from the cake layers, and place one layer upside down on a cake stand or serving platter. I like to put strips of parchment or wax paper just under the edges of the cake to protect the serving platter from frosting smudges. Put about half a cup of frosting on this layer, and spread it out, leaving about 1/2 inch frosting-free around the edges of the cake--the filling will spread when you add the second layer. Place the second layer on top, and cover the cake with the remaining frosting. This frosting is so smooth and spreadable that you don't need a crumb coat, especially if you decide to whip the frosting. Serve at room temperature with ice cream of the birthday girl or boy's choice.