Jenny and I are approaching Sweet Pea and Punkin Seed’s first birthday. After much deliberation, we (and by “we” I mean Jenny) thought of the perfect way to celebrate: we would bake ourselves a birthday cake – specifically, Mimi’s signature birthday cake. (See our earlier posts in the series called The Mimi Project.)
We talked about it in detail before Jenny and Dan arrived to Denver. We pulled out Mimi’s recipe cards, and we even bought all of the ingredients. But when we got down to it, we didn’t actually get to bake the cake together because – well, because life happens while you’re busy making plans.
You see, my dear sister and her hubby are moving out west – that’s right, I said west. Alas, not to Denver, but to L.A.! He has accepted an amazing new position, and she has accepted an amazing change. And so, they cut their Denver trip short to swing over to L.A. and take care of potential domicile duties. With that said, this was nonetheless truly a shared effort. Jenny bought the ingredients and even the cake pans, I baked the ingredients, and when she and Dan passed back through the Denver airport for their four-hour layover, I made sure Mom (who met them for lunch) had the finished product in tow so that they could indulge in a slice.
That first bite was just like I remembered at so many birthday parties. Our family (and by family, I mean cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, family friends, pets, …ok, not pets, but you get the picture!) had a party for everyone’s birthday. Does anyone wonder why I was a little round bowling ball with chicken legs as a child? I’m talking about a birthday celebration club of 20 people – so imagine the amount and frequency of the eating we did. As I’ve said we before, we are a family of live-to-eat-ers, not eat-to-live-ers.
Even more nostalgic than taking that first bite was the process of making the cake. It brought back so many memories of us as children helping Mimi with the cake. Sometimes, she would have the layers already done for us to help frost; sometimes, we got to help with the layers, in which case we were the official flour-sifters, wax-paper-cutters (we had to make the circles that fit in the bottom of each cake pan) and, of course, bowl-lickers. The one part I’d forgotten was melting the chocolate over the stove. I’m sure I don’t remember it because we were too short and too young, in Mimi’s estimation, to handle melting the stuff on a hot burner.
The part I remember with greatest fondness is the icing process – and boy, was it a process. Seven-minute frosting (more romantically called “sea foam frosting” in one of Mimi’s cookbooks) is so named because you’ve got to stand with a hand-mixer over a double boiler for seven full minutes. And if you can imagine my grandmother – whom I resemble in height, if nothing else, at 5’1” – with a metal 1950’s hand mixer, that’s no easy feat. That thing was heavy. Which is why Mimi would have to make sure that Granddaddy was around so that he could help hold the mixer. Often they recruited a third helper, Cina – our beloved housekeeper and nanny (and the woman who is responsible for this blog almost being called “Bang Bang and Sweet Pea” – she always called me Bang Bang). I always thought Mimi had trouble holding the hand mixer because she was aging, but after using my cheapo plastic hand-mixer from Target on Sunday, I can officially say – it’s hard. Even I had to holler for Mike to step in and help me.
I also remember when the layers were baking that we weren’t allowed to open the oven for fear that the layers would fall (and sometimes they did anyhow). Last Sunday I was channeling Mimi’s frustration when I made my second batch of layers, dealing with the joys of baking at altitude. With that said, I will caution those here in the mountains that I have not tweaked this recipe to off-set the consequences we pay for living so high. For those of you at sea level, this recipe is spot on – just don’t open your oven doors!
Jenny and I both concur that this cake is not like the grocery cakes that are overwhelmingly sweet and moist. It’s a little drier and a more complex flavor than just pure sweetness. It’s a Devil’s Food Cake, which is a recipe based on brown sugar. This brown-ness comes from a coating of molasses and is the thing to which I attribute the unique taste and texture of this cake.
Wikipedia says that it's common for Devil Food Cake to have coffee in it. This recipe does not have coffee - however, it does have unsweetened chocolate.
But what really (I mean really) makes this cake is the icing, which is also made with brown sugar. This frosting is almost meringue-like in consistency when it cools and dries, which means that this cake is best enjoyed after it’s had a few hours to rest.
With age, Mimi had us re-write some of her recipe cards. Hence, Jenny's handwriting.
Don’t be tempted to slice and enjoy right away – frost it and leave it. Soak your aching mixer-holding arm in a hot bath. Think about who you’ll be inviting over to enjoy this old-fashioned delight. And wait for the icing to darken and harden just slightly before you sink in your cake knife and create new memories with just the right hint of sticky sweetness.
(Note: the photo below is of the cake freshly iced – I only learned after the fact, how much difference waiting has on the look and texture of the cake.)
This is freshly iced; the icing hasn't hardened yet in the photo
Mimi’s Devil’s Food Cake
1/2 cup (1 stick) of unsalted butter
2 cups of light brown sugar
2 1/4 cup of sifted cake flour
1/4 tsp of salt
1/2 cup of “sour” milk aka buttermilk
1/2 cup of water (in a pot for boiling)
1 tsp if baking soda
1 1/2 squares of unsweetened chocolate (could substitute cocoa powder)
1 tsp ofvanilla
1 tsp of baking powder
Before starting the batter making process, line the bottom of 3 – 7 or 8 inch round cake pans with wax paper. Rub butter or shortening on the wax paper and on the sides of the pan. Slightly toss a very small amount of flour in each pan to coat the greased sides and bottom. Now your cake pans are ready to receive the batter. Pre-heat your oven to 325 degrees.
Cream the shortening aka, butter, add 1 cup of the sugar, and cream some more. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs lightly, and the 2nd cup of sugar. Add the egg/sugar mixture to the butter/sugar mixture, and cream. In a separate bowl sift flour until you can measure out 2 1/4 cups. Then add the baking powder and re-sift. Alternate adding the flour mixture and the buttermilk to the egg mixture. Bring the pot of water to a boil, and add the chocolate squares until melted. Add the baking soda. Add vanilla, and slowly temper the egg mixture with the melted chocolate mixture.
Pour batter evenly into the 3 lined cake pans. Mimi used a scale to weigh each pan so that the layers would cook at exactly the same rate. Bake the layers for about 25 minutes or until done at 325 degrees. Don’t open your ovens until you are done baking! Just use your oven window to judge the readiness of the layers. Let the layers cool enough to remove from the cake pans. Let rest on a cooling surface until room temperature to ice the cake.
Doubly-Boiler Sea Foam Frosting
2 egg whites, unbeaten
1 1/2 cup of brown sugar firmly packed
5 tbsp of water
1 tsp of vanilla extract
dash of salt
Combine egg whites, sugar, water and salt in the top of a double boiler, beating with a hand-mixer until thoroughly mixed. Continue beating while cooking for 7 minutes or until icing stands in a peak on the beater. Remove from water, add vanilla, and beat until thick enough to spread.
Assembling the cake
Ice the bottom layer on top and edges. Add 2nd layer and repeat. Add 3rd layer an repeat. Mimi always inserted toothpicks into the cake layers to keep them from slipping (she was often traveling to someone’s house with the cake). Sometimes Mimi would shave Heathbar shavings on top as well. Remember, let the cake sit for a day before you eat it. Mimi always stored it in Rubbermaid, air tight cake cake keeper.
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