buttermilk layer cake with chocolate frosting

Classic birthday cake

I’d love to have a yellow layer cake recipe in my list of go-to recipes — those recipes that I know work, taste great, and don’t demand great feats (or fancy ingredients) to make. I’ve made a couple of attempts at this classic (once as a small layer cake and cupcakes, and as mini vanilla cupcakes). And those were made with freshly milled soft white wheat flour.

For my husband’s birthday, I splurged on cake flour that I had leftover in the pantry rather than whole wheat. So I was able to follow a recipe for buttermilk cake as written. Well, almost. Instead of buttermilk, I used whey from my latest batch of yogurt. It was so hard to pick from the zillions of yellow cake recipes (so many declared “the best”!), but the recipe I settled on was the right blend of flour type, liquid ingredients, and eggs. It also appeared to have the crumb I was after: tender, and looser crumb rather than dense and spongy.

I investigated lots of different frostings for this yellow cake. I don’t love typical American buttercream because I can never get the powdered sugar completely smooth — it’s always a little gritty, and it’s a very sweet buttercream. French buttercream is super smooth, but I didn’t want something so buttery this time. I’m intrigued by Ermine icing (also called boiled milk frosting or flour buttercream). I’d love to try it at some point, but I got the sense it’s better paired with a more flavorful cake like chocolate or red velvet.

Since I’m going for classic birthday cake here, I finally settled on an American style buttercream, flavored with chocolate.

buttermilk layer cake with chocolate frosting

Recipe

Buttermilk Layer Cake from nytimes.com (adapted from The Joy of Cooking), and Chocolate Frosting from urbanbakes.com (adapted from Betty Crocker Big Book of Cakes)

Process notes

Cake

  • lined the bottom of the pans with parchment after greasing, then greased the tops of the parchment rounds
  • used whey leftover from homemade Greek style yogurt instead of buttermilk
  • mixed in stand mixer using scraper blade
  • baked in middle of oven, side by side, for 30 total minutes, rotated pans after 20 minutes

Frosting

  • converted measurement of 4 1/2 cups of powdered sugar to 563 gm
  • mixed in about 2 tbsp of additional milk after adding powdered sugar
  • mixed for a total of about 5 minutes
  • added a pinch of sea salt at end of mixing

Results

Using parchment rounds was a good move. I didn’t have any sticking like with my last cake. I forgot to use my cake strips, but didn’t run into any problems with the tops — they were even enough that they didn’t require trimming.

My frosting was much denser than the frosting in the original recipe post, even though I added extra milk. I just didn’t want to keep adding so much that it became too runny, so I backed off adding more.

I’m torn on the chocolate frosting…the texture is gritty, which I don’t like. And it’s too sweet for me. The chocolate flavor is fantastic though! I’m looking forward to trying an Ermine frosting in the future to compare.

The cake is extremely light and airy, and is practically impossible to taste under the frosting. I’m not sure if it was the whey I used in place of buttermilk, or I mixed it wrong, or what, but it was just way too light and delicate in texture. It’s like eating fudge with some cake crumbs underneath. The pancakes with my whey/runny yogurt combo worked better as far as using yogurt whey goes. On the bright side, the flavor of the cake reminded me of the Easy Bake Oven cake from my childhood — which is a good thing, not a criticism :)

So here’s what I learned: this cake recipe, adapted the way I did, was not a good fit for me. Also, a 9-inch layer cake is MUCH too much cake for two people. It made 12 pieces, and 7 went into the freezer (individually wrapped for the occasional treat).

That being said, cake is always delightful to have around, and it’s never bad in my book. But when it gets made only occasionally, I like to strive for making it the best fit it can be for me.

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Baked croissants

Croissants

Croissants have been on my list of things to make for quite some time. My goal is to come as close to the French style as possible — crispy on the outside, with tender, buttery layers on the inside.

But for a variety of reasons this project kept getting pushed to the back of the line. For one thing, I wanted to make my first batch of them following the traditional instructions that call for all purpose flour, in order to get the feel of what the experience would be like under normal conditions before using home-milled whole wheat flour. And since they’re such an involved process, it seems the odds of success are slimmer than normal and it would be so crushing to have my first batch flop.

Shaped croissant dough
Shaped croissants, ready for their final rise before baking

These croissants are my first experience making viennoiserie. To prepare, I watched the Baking with Julia episode “Croissants with Esther McManus” and Esther gave a helpful and encouraging tutorial on the process.

I started the dough yesterday afternoon so it could rest in the refrigerator along with the prepared butter overnight. At around 9 a.m. today, I started the process of rolling, folding, chilling, shaping, rising, and baking the croissants, and they came out of the oven at 6:30 this evening. This is by far my most time- and energy-intensive baking project!

Baked filled croissants
Baked filled croissants

I mostly made regular croissant shapes, but I also wanted to try my hand at filled versions. So in a couple of rectangular-shaped pieces, I placed some dark chocolate chips (I didn’t have any of the chocolate bars I’ve been seeing bakers use for this), and in a few others there’s a combination of sugar, cinnamon, plumped raisins, and walnut pieces. I’m freezing most of the shaped dough to bake later.

After working with this dough, my hands will smell like butter for days…

Process notes

  • followed the instructions, ingredients, and measurements as closely to the video as possible, except for adding the flour to the butter because…
  • I used Organic Valley Cultured European Style butter instead of American style butter
  • used 2 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast
  • filled a few rectangular shapes with chocolate chips, and a few with a mixture of sugar, cinnamon, plumped raisins, and chopped walnuts
  • shaped 4 regular croissants and 4 filled to be baked immediately
  • froze 22 for later baking

Results

These puppies are definitely a labor of love. But oh man, did they turn out fantastic. I’m glad I did some filled versions. The chocolate chips got a little clumpy but tasted good, and the walnut-raising flavor was perfectly subtle.

Getting the ball of butter to spread evenly and to the edges inside the folded dough didn’t work for me, and in the future I’d like to try making the flat, rectangular slab of butter that I’ve seen with other recipes. I think a 10×7 slab would work pretty well folded inside the dough. Also, my dinky rolling pin was no match for this dough. A French pin or straight dowel style pin would be much better.

Despite these rolling challenges, I’m thrilled with how the croissants came out. I look forward to making this dough again, except with some combination of hard and soft white wheats, freshly milled and whole grain.

Ginger spice apple cake

6-inch ginger spice apple cake

When I read Flour: Spectacular Recipes from Boston’s Flour Bakery + Cafe, the recipe for Apple Snacking Spice Cake jumped out at me as a must-make. I made an apple cake once before that was delicious, but didn’t include the ginger and cloves.

I cut the recipe in half in order to use my smaller 6-inch cake pan, which I bought so we wouldn’t have so much cake sitting around the house. It came together really well at this size. It’s not too rich or sweet, and is a really pleasant little cake, somewhat similar to an unfrosted carrot cake. It would also be good with some vanilla ice cream, or perhaps a caramel sauce.

This recipe calls for some cake flour, but in the future I may try it with all soft white wheat flour and avoid the processed white flour.

Ginger spice apple cake

6-inch Ginger Spice Apple Cake

  • Servings: 6
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

Makes one 6-inch round cake. Adapted from Flour by Joanne Chang.

Ingredients

  • 70 grams soft white wheat flour
  • 45 grams cake flour
  • 3/4 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/16 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 150 grams granulated sugar
  • 85 grams unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 egg
  • 2 medium peeled, cored and chopped Granny Smith apples
  • 40 grams raisins
  • 50 grams pecan halves, toasted and chopped
  • Confectioners’ sugar for dusting

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350° and put a rack in the middle. Prepare 6×3-inch cake pan by buttering and flouring the inside.
  2. Whisk together the flours, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger, and cloves the bowl of a stand mixer. Using the paddle attachment (or beater blade), beat the granulated sugar and butter into the flour for about a minute or until it’s well mixed. Scrape down the sides as necessary.
  3. Add the egg, and mix on low for 10-15 seconds or until well mixed. Then beat on medium-high until the batter is light and fluffy (about a minute).
  4. Fold in the apples, raisins, and pecans. Don’t worry if it doesn’t look like enough batter for the apples — once it bakes things balance out.
  5. Spread into cake pan and bake for 45 minutes or until it’s firm in the middle and a toothpick comes out clean. The top should be a medium to dark brown, and the center shouldn’t jiggle.
  6. Cool on a rack, in the pan, for about 15 minutes. As it cools, the cake will come away from the pan edges a bit and make it easy to overturn onto the rack. After removing it from the pan, turn it back over so it’s right-side up and dust with some confectioners’ sugar.
  7. Cover the cake well and store at room temp, eating within a few days, or wrap it well and freeze it for up to 2 weeks.

Basics of French pastry class

Recipes

  • profiteroles (pate au choux) with praline pastry cream
  • lemon curd tart with meringue

Class notes

The tart crust was too bitter for my taste because of the vodka we added to the dough, and the meringue didn’t have enough time to set up so was a bit runny. The profiteroles (pate au choux) seemed a bit undercooked, but were tasty. The praline paste the chef made from scratch is amazing — would like to try that in the future.

I’m glad I had this experience, but I realized I don’t have the patience for a casual, social class like this. I’d prefer something more orderly and focused on learning. Chef Nathan (who went to Scottsdale Culinary) was great, and suggested I look into Arizona Culinary Institute, where some of his favorite teachers are, if I’d like to pursue more serious training.

Roasted vegetable tart

Roasted vegetable tart (pre-grain mill)

Recipe

Roasted Vegetable Tart by Yotam Ottolenghi found on bonappetit.com

Process notes

  • prepared dough and vegetables ahead of time to make baking the day-of quicker
  • baked using convection baking setting

Results

This was my main vegetarian dish for our family Thanksgiving dinner and it was pretty spectacular. It was a bit dry, either because of the convection setting or because I baked it too long. It was a lot of work, but I’d make it again.

Homemade white bread

Homemade white sandwich bread

This is the loaf that got me rolling on making bread from scratch at home. It was so exhilarating to see the dough rise properly, bake properly, and taste like real bread! For me, the significance of this loaf is huge. It’s led to a journey of learning more about healthy whole grain cooking and baking, and to a greater level of self-reliance. It’s so much more than a plain loaf of white bread.