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Brown Sugar Birthday Cake

Surprise! Raid your pantry to create a spur-of-the-moment treat packed full of flavor.

In a restaurant, the staff is a family. Crammed together for long hours in a fast pace, intense environment, they spend weekends, holidays, and special occasions together. And everyone from the big jefe to the dishwasher who has worked for the company for thirty years gets something special on their birthday. Of course, the pastry kitchen is home to scraps of dark chocolate cake or lemon curd from a previous night’s special, so coming up with a birthday surprise is more often a job of mastering leftovers than anything else. In a moment of free time (and a lesson on cake preparation), a lucky manager may receive a fondant wrapped jewel. On a busy day, a loved server may find a bowl of his favorite ice cream appear. But whether it’s a batch of special cookies or a fancy cake, everyone is taken care of.

At home, it’s rare to have these ingredients on hand. There just isn’t any room for the frozen doughs, cakes and fillings that make up a pastry kitchen’s stockpile. So it’s with much more determination that a birthday cake is made at home — the flavor choice is all yours. But, just as in the pastry kitchen, don’t rule out using what you already have. Look around the refrigerator and pantry and get creative. Fruit poaching liquid can be used as a syrup to moisten the cake layers, jam is an instant filling, and crushed toasted nuts make a simple, but beautiful decoration for the outside of the cake (here I’ve used the rhubarb and poaching liquid from last week’s coolers). A little creativity can go a long way, and make the process a fun challenge. So for your next birthday treat, look to your pantry before you begin.

Brown sugar cake with chocolate frosting, makes one 9-inch cake
For the cake:
2 cups cake flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
8 oz butter, softened
1 1/2 cup dark brown sugar
2 tsp vanilla
3 eggs
1 1/2 cup milk
For the frosting:
12 oz butter, softened
7 oz good quality bittersweet chocolate
1 1/4 cup confectioners sugar
2 tsp vanilla
To assemble:
1 cup mashed poached fruit, such as rhubarb or berries, or any flavor jam you prefer
1/2 cup simple syrup, or fruit cooking juice (I used the rhubarb and syrup from my cooler)


1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter and sugar a 9″ cake pan. Whisk together the flour, baking powder and soda, and salt in a bowl. In a stand mixer, cream the butter and sugar together on medium speed for five minutes, until fluffy. Add in the eggs one at a time, scraping down the sides after each addition. On low speed, slowly add in the flour in three separate additions. Scrape down the sides to combine completely and add the milk, and vanilla, in two additions. Mix until just smooth, but don’t over mix. Pour the batter evenly into the pan, smooth the top, and bake for 40-45 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean from the center. Remove from oven, place on a cooling rack and cool completely.

2. Run a paring knife along the outside of the cake pan to loosen, then gently remove the cake from the pan onto a work surface. Using a long serrated knife, trim the top layer to even out, then cut the cake in half horizontally. Use a pastry brush, coat the inside layer of the bottom piece of the cake with half the syrup. Spread the mashed fruit or jam evenly on top and place this piece of cake on a plate or cake round. Turn the top piece of cake over, so that the inside is upwards, and coat with simple syrup. Lay the syrup side down on top of the mashed fruit or jam, aligning the pieces to get the best fit. Place the cake in the refrigerator to cool while preparing the frosting.

3. Carefully melt the chocolate over a double boiler or in the microwave, making sure not to burn it. In a stand mixer, beat the butter and confectioners sugar until light and fluffy. Add a small amount of the butter mixture into the chocolate and mix with a spatula (this is to temper the butter into the chocolate so the chocolate does not seize when you add it into the butter). Add the chocolate mixture and vanilla into the butter and mix until combined.

4. Remove cake from refrigerator. Use a spatula to coat the cake with icing, first covering sides and then filling in the top. Using a small off-set spatula, create peaks for a messy look or smooth out for a more finished cake. If you smooth out, cover the sides with toasted nuts, coconut or sprinkles, if so desired. Place in the refrigerator to set. Remove fifteen minutes before serving. Enjoy!

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