I'm not much of a cake person. I would pick pie or a creamy custard over cake any day. And because I don't really get excited about cake, I've never put any energy into learning how to make a decent one. However, in the course of things, I have made a few cakes from scratch, mostly as a vehicle for some fruit or another.
But my dear son requested a homemade cake for his birthday. A birthday cake, a real, live, layer cake with frosting in between and specifically NO FRUIT of any kind involved. He wanted yellow cake with chocolate frosting.
So, I figured, this was an opportunity to stretch my culinary wings and learn how to make the classic birthday cake topper, buttercream. I set to work. First with reading. I started with CooksTalk, of course, and the folks over there sent me over to Real Baking with Rose. That's Rose, Rose Levy Beranbaum, author of The Cake Bible, and Supreme Goddess of All Things Baked. The woman is a baker extraordinaire, but she's also a scientist. Her recipes are measured, tested and thought out to the extreme. And she's very generous about sharing her knowledge. She will answer just about anyone's question on the website. I don't own her book. But kind friends at CooksTalk suggested her recipe for Classic Eggwhite Chocolate Buttercream and I found her recipe for Rose's Favorite Yellow Layer Cake on her website. Next came the shopping: butter, more butter, chocolate, more chocolate, pasteurized eggwhites. (Since I planned to serve this to children, other people's children, I couldn't be too careful.)
As I mentioned, I have made cakes from scratch before. So I was more worried about the buttercream than the cake. I decided to give the recipe a test run by making cupcakes for my son's actual b-day. I decided to make Amy Sedaris' vanilla cupcake recipe from this incredible website. And to make the chocolate eggwhite buttercream (recipe in link above) to frost them.
I had a great time making this buttercream. I was venturing into unknown territory and it was exciting. I carefully chopped and melted my chocolate. I whipped my eggwhites and prayed that what I thought was stiff peaks is what RLB thought was stiff peaks. And then I, ever so patiently, added a pound of butter, by the tablespoon, to the eggwhites . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Whew! that took a long time. All the while, I didn't believe that those eggwhites could possibly absorb all that butter. At one point the mixture looked curdled. But the wise, all-knowing RLB talked me down from the ledge with her instruction on how to smooth it out. After all the butter was added, I got to mix in the melted chocolate and I was rewarded with an ethereal-ly light, but incredibly chocolatey buttercream. It was so smooth, creamy and velvety in my mouth, I couldn't believe it. And it was very easy to work with.
To make a long story short, since I had success with the cupcakes, I felt confident making the cake for the actual party day. The second time through, the buttercream recipe came out just as well. The cake itself was good too, but hardly noticeable because the buttercream was so delicious. Sure I could use some lessons on how to properly frost a cake (I know I should have saved some white icing and used a different tip to do the lettering,) but to 11-yr old boys (and one sweet one in particular; it was just fine.