Can you think of anything more decadent than cake for breakfast? I certainly can’t, and I woke up feeling slightly irrational yesterday in my need to bake a cake. Since I no longer work in an office, and the idea of carting around a two-layer cake with the intention of ceremoniously dumping it in someone’s lap isn’t necessarily feasible, baking something this grand is a bit much.
But I woke thinking: I need to bake a cake. And so I did.
Something about this sweet interior and luscious ganache put me thinking about boxed Duncan Heinz and tubs of chilled frosting, remnants of a childhood where boxed cake was the height of sophistication. I remember my first meager attempt in the kitchen, brownies. The gesture was ambitious — surprising my mother with a sweet treat for working a job where she was on her feet for the majority of her day. I mixed the powder with oil and what eggs I could find. Unfortunately, they were hard-boiled, and I thought, eggs are eggs, right? So I unpeeled the shells, chopped up the eggs and mixed them in the thick batter. I felt triumphant!
Cooling on the counter, I noticed something strange. Bits of white skin poking up through the surface of the brownies, much like weeds breaking ground and spiraling up for air. I’d never seen brownies that had all this white, but I ignored it and cut perfect little squares and presented them to my mother that evening when she arrived home.
I remember her feeling a square, sniffing it, taking a small bite and then tossing it in the bin. What a rush of cold I felt as she made her to the bedroom, slamming the door behind her. I dumped the brownies in the garbage and swore off baking. I was fifteen.
Over two decades later, I went from someone who chopped up eggs in a boxed mix to making tiered cakes guaranteed to make your heart flutter. It’s strange, really, because I was just thinking to myself that baking is much like my yoga practice — the journey is in the practice not toward some obtuse destination. Some sort of finishing. And just when I think I’ve nailed a pose or a recipe, I come undone as a result of that ego, and I have to remember that no two batches of flour are alike. No two days in a pose are similar. Every day brings something new to the kitchen and the mat, and after twenty years I’m still impatient, ambitious. I still want my body to resume shapes after six months when it took me seven years to build. I still want my cakes to cool quickly so I can frost them. Invariably this ego, this impatience, gets you hurt and ruins cakes.
Lately I’ve been practicing humility. I come to the mat as if I were a beginner, and I tell myself that I’m simply going to do the best I can with what I have. After an hour of cooling, I slathered on the frosting and I couldn’t help but smile because it didn’t melt, rather it was beautiful, glinting, and the very vision of what it means to be present. To be patient.
INGREDIENTS: Adapted from Joanne Chang’s Flour: Spectacular Recipes from Boston’s Flour Bakery + Cafe
For the cake:
1 1/2 cups (3 sticks/342 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 cups (400 grams) granulated sugar
3 egg yolks
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 cups (360 grams) cake flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 cup (240 grams) nonfat buttermilk
For the chocolate ganache frosting:
12 ounces (340 grams) semisweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 cup (240 grams) heavy cream
1 cup (2 sticks/228 grams) unsalted butter at room temperature
1 cup (140 grams) confectioners’ sugar
1/4 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
For the cake: Position a rack in the center of the oven, and heat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour two 8-inch round cake pans.
Using a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or a handheld mixer), cream together the butter and granulated sugar on medium speed for 3–4 minutes, or until light and fluffy. (This step will take 8–10 minutes if using a handheld mixer.) Stop the mixer a few times and use a rubber spatula to scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl and the paddle to release any clinging butter or sugar.
In a small bowl, whisk together the eggs, egg yolks, and vanilla just until combined. On low speed, slowly pour the egg mixture into the butter mixture and mix just until incorporated. Scrape the bowl and paddle again, then beat on medium speed for 20–30 seconds, or until the mixture is homogeneous.
In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. On the lowest speed, add about one-third of the flour mixture to the egg-butter mixture and mix just until barely combined. Immediately pour in about half of the buttermilk and continue to mix on the lowest speed until the buttermilk is almost thoroughly incorporated. Stop the mixer and scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl well. Again on the lowest speed, add about half of the remaining flour mixture and mix just until barely combined. Add the rest of the buttermilk and mix just until combined. Be careful not to overmix.
At this point, it is best to finish the mixing by hand. Remove the bowl from the mixer stand and, using the rubber spatula, fold in the remaining flour mixture just until the batter is homogeneous. As you fold, be sure to incorporate any batter clinging to the sides and bottom of the bowl. Divide the batter evenly between the prepared cake pans.
Bake for 40–50 minutes, or until the tops are golden brown and the cakes spring back when pressed in the middle with a fingertip. Let cool completely in the pans on wire racks. (The cooled cakes can be tightly wrapped in plastic wrap and stored in the freezer for up to 1 week. Thaw at room temperature, still wrapped tightly in plastic wrap.)
For the chocolate ganache frosting: While the cake layers are cooling, put the chocolate in a medium heat-proof bowl. In a small saucepan, scald the cream over medium-high heat (bubbles start to form around the edge of the pan, but the cream is not boiling). Pour the hot cream over the chocolate and let sit for about 1 minute, then slowly whisk together the chocolate and cream until the chocolate is completely melted and the mixture is smooth. Let sit at room temperature for 1–2 hours, or until completely cool. (Or, refrigerate the ganache until cool, about 30 minutes, whisking every 10 minutes).
Fit the stand mixer with the paddle attachment (or use a handheld mixer) and beat the butter on medium-low speed for 10–15 seconds, or until smooth. Add the confectioners’ sugar, salt, and vanilla and continue to beat on medium-low speed for about 2 minutes, or until the mixture is fluffy and smooth. Stop the mixer a few times and use a rubber spatula to scrape the bowl and the paddle to release any clinging butter or sugar. On medium speed, add the cooled ganache and beat for about 2 minutes, or until completely combined. Stop to scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl. Turn up the mixer speed to medium-high and beat for about 1 minute, or until the frosting lightens in color and thickens. You should have about 4 cups. (Use the frosting the day you make it, or cover and store in the refrigerator for up to 1 day, then bring to room temperature and paddle again for a few minutes until smooth before using.)
Remove the cooled cakes from their pans. (Be sure they are completely cool. If they are even the slightest bit warm, the frosting will melt and you will have a mess.) Using a long, serrated knife, trim the top of each cake to level it (the layers will have rounded a bit in the oven; the trimmed scraps make great nibbles). Place one cake layer on a cake plate or cake pedestal (if you have a revolving cake stand, use it). Spoon about 1 cup of the frosting on top and use an offset spatula to spread it evenly to the edges.
Carefully place the second cake layer, top-side down (so the even, sharp edges will be on the top of the finished cake), on top. Spoon about 1 cup of the frosting on top and spread it over the top and down the sides of the cake, smoothing the frosting as well as you can and covering the entire cake with a thin layer. This is the crumb coat that will keep any loose crumbs from migrating to the surface of the finished cake. Spoon a heaping cup of frosting on top of the cake, and spread it evenly across the top and down the sides. This is the finishing layer of frosting. If desired, spoon any remaining frosting into a pastry bag fitted with a small round or star tip and pipe a decorative line along the top and/or bottom edge of the cake.
The cake can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 days.