Happy Birthday To Justin...

Today marks the beginning of Justin's last year in his 20s. Practically ancient, right?

The past year has been exceptionally busy for my beloved. In the span of 365 days, he traveled out of state several times, weathered a bout of pneumonia, got four jobs, made new friends, went new places, tried new foods, learned new skills, and (most importantly, in my opinion) met and fell in love with me. Suffice it to say, he's had a lot on his plate since last October.

That's why I decided to celebrate him and usher him into what will hopefully be an equally happy new year on the planet with a birthday cake befitting the epic year he just had. I spotted his cake a few months ago, when an aimless stroll through the cookbook section of the Harold Washington Library left me sitting up in bed one night with a copy of Rose's Heavenly Cakes by baking guru Rose Levy Beranbaum. It takes gumption to name your second book The Cake Bible, but it seems, at least within the baking blogosphere, that Beranbaum does indeed have a sacrosanct reputation as the authority on cake baking. Even though I don't bake many cakes myself, I was curious as to what all the fuss was about, so I grabbed a copy of one of her books and paged through it.

For the large part, the recipes contained therein were too intimidating to even consider trifling with, and basically reaffirmed my desire to stay within my cookie comfort zone. However, there was one cake, a towering confection of lemon and white chocolate, that caught my attention. When I saw it, I thought, "Ooo, lemon, Justin would like that... maybe for his birthday?" But, I talked myself out of it quickly, as it seemed like far more than I really wanted to tackle at the time. 

Fast forward a few months though, and I was even more in love with Justin than I was when I first spotted that cake in Beranbaum's book. So completely besotted was I, that my overwhelming love inspired me to completely outdo myself in his honor. Hence, it was with this noble goal in mind that I undertook the single most complicated endeavor of my career in baking.*

The finished product. Sadly, after all that hard work, my cake decorating skills weren't quite up to par. I think the solution for my next cake will be getting a cake comb and using that to create decorative sides that will camouflage my sloppy icing work.

To create "Woody's Luxury Lemon Cake" as it appears in Rose's Heavenly Cakes so that it would be ready to eat on a Friday night, I had to allocate four consecutive evenings of baking. (The cake could be assembled in less time, but I work during the day so I had to space things out.) I turned down plans with friends, blew off dinner invitations, and hunkered down in my kitchen night after night, applying a level of self-discipline that only seems to manifest itself in my life when it comes to major baking projects. Justin, feeling a bit guilty I think about all the time I was planning to sink into his cake, offered to come over and help, but I demurred. Baking this cake would be like my equivalent of climbing Mount Everest -- it doesn't count if someone carries you part of the way up.

I briefly entertained the idea of writing a separate post for each phase of construction, including the recipes for each component, but I quickly came to my senses and realized that few people in their right mind would want to replicate this task at home. Instead, I'll summarize:

The birthday boy, at his family celebration.
On the first night, Monday, I started out by preparing a lemon curd that would serve as the filling for the cake. I actually think this was the easiest component of the entire process, even though I'd never made lemon curd from scratch before. I've used lemon curd from a jar for other desserts, but the homemade version is really much tastier (big surprise). I'm not a fan of lemon desserts in general (prompting the question from many why I was expending so much effort on baking something I wouldn't even enjoy eating -- again, it was a labor of love thing), but the homemade lemon curd was really pretty tasty.

For the second night, cake baking was on the agenda. I followed all of Beranbaum's anal-retentive, nit-picky instructions to the letter: I used freshly purchased cake flour instead of trying to make some sort of substitution using all-purpose flour and corn starch; I buttered the pans, added parchment paper rounds, then sprayed the entire thing with Pam with flour, even though all those steps seemed like overkill; I even purchased Valrhona brand white chocolate from the gourmet shop at the outrageous expense of $17/pound to be ensured of a white chocolate with a sufficiently high cocoa butter content. 

Still, in spite of doing everything as written, I still ran into some troubles. Beranbaum specifically instructed not to bake the cake until it pulled away from the edge of the pan as it would then be overdone, and therefore dry. However, the interior of the cake was still entirely liquid up until the point when this very thing happened. I think the cake was sufficiently moist, and the crumb was by far the finest, most uniform of any from-scratch cake I've ever made. Demanding as she is in her instructions, she may just be on to something...

I chilled the cake overnight, but allowed it to come to room temperature before serving. It cut like a dream.

Day three of the process was dedicated to what was, by far, the most stressful component of the cake for me -- the white chocolate vanilla bean buttercream frosting. Because I don't like frosting, I very seldom make it. In fact, I believe I could probably count on one hand the number of different frosting recipes I've made in all my years of baking. Factor into this lack of experience the fact that I was about to roll the dice with nearly $20 worth of artisan white chocolate, and the stakes suddenly became uncomfortably high. Plus, the online accounts I'd compulsively read of other, more experienced cake bakers who attempted this recipe were not exactly encouraging. Despite my misgivings, however, I soldiered on.

For a while, the frosting situation was indeed touch-and-go. The recipe, from what I understand about buttercreams, is somewhat unusual. Most buttercream frostings are made by creating some manner of stable meringue, then gradually incorporating butter and flavorings. This one called for the production of a white chocolate custard, which was to be cooked to a very specific temperature, then cooled to a specific temperature, then whipped into butter. (Did I mention that this cake was not low-cal? It included some 16.5 ounces of white chocolate, 17 eggs, and 4.5 sticks of butter. Hopefully, I did not shorten Justin's lifespan by baking this for him to celebrate his birthday!)

When I went to melt the white chocolate and butter for the custard, it quickly turned into a terrifying mess; the white chocolate turned lumpy and sunk to the bottom, while the melted butter sat on top in a vast, greasy slick. I was terrified that I'd screwed it up, but I managed to keep panic at bay long enough to take a whisk to the monstrosity and beat it into a semblance of being smooth and creamy. The eggs seemed to stabilize the mixture, and the recipe was smooth sailing, if demanding, from there.

The cross section. From the bottom up we have cake, lemon curd, cake, buttercream, cake, lemon curd, more cake, and the whole thing is covered with the beautifully vanilla-speckled frosting.
Finally, the day before the cake was to be served, I assembled the whole thing. Though I clearly need more practice splitting cake layers evenly, and my frosting skills need a lot of work (any volunteers out there want to eat my homework?), the assembly of the cake was the fastest part. Even if I had imagined it coming out much more attractive than I was able to realize in reality, I knew that it was ultimately going to be Justin's birthday cake, and he'd probably care more about how it tasted than how it looked.

After all that work, I did manage to produce a fairly tasty cake. I can't call it fantastically delicious because I really don't like lemon cake, but I managed to impress where it counted: Justin proclaimed it the best birthday cake he's ever had. He could be a little biased toward the chef, but I'm going to accept that compliment and move on. 

Texturally, it was the most perfect cake I've ever made. Plus, I did like the frosting, and that almost never happens. It was supremely smooth and silky, and though it did taste very rich, I felt that it made the cake live up to its moniker as an item of "luxury." Though it would have to be for a very special occasion, given the expense of the ingredients, I would definitely make that white chocolate vanilla bean buttercream again.

I will say, that conquering such an intense recipe left me feeling pretty good about my baking skills. I went into this project wanting to do something nice for Justin, but in the process, I managed to boost my own confidence and improve my skill set. But then, isn't that what is so great about love? When we give freely of it to others, we not only benefit them, but ourselves as well. As the Beatles said, "The love you take is equal to the love you make."

*My annual Cookie Bonanza requires at least as much time, and a great deal more planning to execute, but no single recipe that I prepare for that is as complicated or time consuming as this cake was to bake, not even the iced sugar cookies that are the star of the yearly giveaway.

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