I am the designated birthday dessert baker for my circle of close friends and dear family members. Every year, I make a dozen or more cakes, pies, tarts and meringue concoctions for parties, picnics and small family dinners.
It starts in January with my dad’s birthday. Tradition dictates that he gets a thing called Pinch Pie (though it’s neither pinched, nor is it a pie). It’s a meringue shell filled with ice cream, strawberries, whipped cream and toasted almonds. It’s a sugar bomb, but it’s beloved in my family.
In February, both my sister and my husband celebrate. When she was younger, Raina was into ice cream cakes, but these days she prefers something dense and chocolatey. Scott, on the other hand, hasn’t shifted his preferences since childhood. He likes to celebrate with a Funfetti cake made from a boxed mix. Though it violates my from-scratch sensibilities, that’s what he gets.
As we head into March, I start thinking about baking for my friend Shay’s big day. She doesn’t have a standard cake, instead preferring to try something new. Last time I did a carrot cake, and this year I’ve been planning something layered and featuring chocolate.
While interviewing potential cakes (you can’t give someone a cake you’ve never tried), I came across the recipe for an Old Fashioned Cocoa Cake With Caramel Icing that Tricia Yearwood had featured on her show. After one bite, it has became the top contender for this year’s party.
The cake comes together quickly and has a beautifully light crumb. I found the caramel icing a little bit tricky, but I think that with practice, I could unlock the secrets to making it without any graininess (even imperfect, it tasted great). Whether you have a birthday coming up or you’re just in need of a sweet treat, I highly recommend this cake for The Weekender.
Before you start baking, read these tips:
— The recipe calls for 9-inch cake pans. I had only 8-inch rounds, so I used those. It was a tight fit (the batter rose to the very top of the pans), but it did work.
— You caramelize dry sugar for the icing. This is tricky business because the sugar can go from light and barely melted to near burning in just a few seconds (I had to throw out my first batch). Watch it carefully, and be ready to scrape it into the milk and sugar as soon as it reaches a light amber color.
— Make sure the cake is totally cool, but not cold, before you frost it. Because the icing goes on warm, the cake needs to be at room temperature for the caramel icing to grab ahold appropriately. Work quickly once you start applying it, as it hardens fast.
Marisa McClellan is a food writer and canning teacher who lives in Center City Philadelphia. Find more of her food (all cooked up in her 80-square-foot kitchen) at her blog, Food in Jars. Her first cookbook, Food in Jars: Preserving in Small Batches Year-Round, is now available.