For months now, I have been planning for a very special occasion. You see, a certain gentleman of my acquaintance is celebrating a milestone birthday, and I was keen to celebrate with a cake befitting the occasion. That's right: Justin turned thirty today!
I've been pestering him for months, asking him what kind of cake he wanted. I offered to recreate last year's epic white chocolate and lemon masterpiece; now that I'm unemployed, I could have surely done it in under four days since I'd have daylight hours to work on it as well as evenings. Though he loved that cake, he knows me well enough to know that I don't relish the thought of repeating recipes, and that I'm always on the lookout for excuses to try something new.
I suggested a number of flavor combinations and recipes to him, and all were met with an overwhelming ambivalence. Finally, I suggested the mint chocolate grasshopper cake I had wanted to make for Mom's own milestone birthday back in June, that she rebuffed in favor of making healthier choices. Though he didn't initially seem any more enthusiastic about that idea, his ears perked up when I mentioned that the recipe came from Baked: New Frontiers In Baking, the book that he got me for Valentine's Day in 2011. I've only ever made two recipes from it, and Justin seemed pleased that it would get some additional use in honor of his big day.
Still, I could sense that his acquiescence to the grasshopper cake was less about a craving for chocolate and mint and more about his desire to give me a chance to bake the cake I've been eying for months. As luck would have it, I found myself skimming through a pile of baking books from the library last week that included the sequel to the original Baked -- Baked Explorations: Classic American Desserts Reinvented. I tossed out a few ideas from the book to Justin in lieu of the grasshopper cake, but when I flipped to the last recipe of the cake section, I knew my quest was over. Though it was called "Aunt Sassy Cake," when I described the cake to Justin as a pistachio cake with honey vanilla buttercream, garnished with more pistachios, I received the most exuberant endorsement from him that I had heard in months. My quest was over.
Though this year's cake recipe was less complex than last year, it still featured a few unique points that kept me on my toes. The cake itself, for example, had an unusual batter that called for adding the dry ingredients alternating with ice water, followed by folding in whipped egg whites at the end, for lightness. And the frosting was unlike anything I'd ever seen before. Instead of a traditional buttercream, which involves sugar syrups and whipped egg whites, or so-called buttercream "cheats" that involve little more than powdered sugar and butter, this one called for boiling a mixture of flour, sugar, and milk, allowing it to cool, and then whipping it with the butter, honey, and vanilla.
I was skeptical that anything that began life as a flour and milk paste would taste good, but the frosting was actually better than many I have made. It was the perfect consistency for spreading; neither too stiff or too runny, and it was slightly less sugary-tasting than most frostings, which I appreciated. Excessive sweetness is one of the primary reasons why I've always been vehemently anti-frosting, so this unconventional recipe from Baked might just be making another appearance in my kitchen someday.
Pistachios have always ranked near the bottom of my nut preference hierarchy, so this cake was truly a labor of love for Justin. I'll admit, they did add a nice buttery quality to the cake, but it was hard for me to love the finished product, given the extremely prominent pistachio flavor. The cake miraculously managed to be both exceptionally light and fluffy and moist, a combination that can be rare in homemade cake, which tend to be more on the dense and coarse side. The frosting, while perfect in texture and not too sweet, did not especially taste like honey, which I hoped would be more assertive, as I thought it would pair well with the pistachios.
|I know, there's only half a cake here, but we celebrated Justin's birthday a few different times, with different sets of people, in order to get rid of enough cake that we wouldn't be eating it all ourselves.|
Let it be said that Justin loved this cake, and since I made it as a physical manifestation of my love for him, his opinion is the only one that really matters. Everyone I fed the cake to loved it as well, but then again, they were also uniformly pistachio lovers across the board. As for me, I thought there were good things about the cake, such as the texture, the moistness, and the well-balanced frosting. I also may have hit upon the solution for my spotty cake decorating skills -- covering the sides of the cake with nuts to camouflage my sloppy frosting job. I'm going to have to remember that for the future.
For me, however, this cake will always live in the shadow of last year's luxurious lemon creation. I don't especially like lemon either, but that cake won me over. Perhaps I set the bar too high during my and Justin's first year together, and I'll always feel like I'm not doing enough compared to that unrealistically high standard. Maybe I'm expecting too much of myself; after all, Justin was thrilled with this year's cake, and that ought to be enough. Still, I'm not going to stop searching for the perfect cake for my perfect guy -- he deserves it!