My father grew up during the Depression. His family was exceptionally poor, but even so they managed to celebrate special events.
A birthday meant a birthday cake from a bakery. But they couldn’t afford to special-order a cake, so they instead would buy a mistake, a cake that someone else had ordered but had never picked up. My father used to joke that his cakes always said “Happy Birthday Marianne” on them.
Many years later, my mother thought it would be funny on his birthday to give him a cake reading “Happy Birthday Marianne.” She asked a bakery to make one.
There are several ways to spell the name: Marianne, Maryann, Mary Ann, Mary Anne. The baker asked her how to spell it.
“Oh, it doesn’t matter,” said my mother. You can imagine the look on the baker’s face.
I mention this story because birthday cakes are inexplicably on my mind right now, and was especially to be on my mind on Saturday (I wear a 17/35 shirt, in case you’re interested).
So even though I can’t figure out why I’ve been thinking about making them — and don’t tell me that age will do that to a person — I set out to make three birthday cakes this week.
One is a traditional cake, the very sort of cake that is most likely to say “Happy Birthday Marianne.” One is a red velvet cake. And one is a carrot cake.
Why a carrot cake? Because it is the best cake I know how to make. It is also the best cake I know how to eat. It is the best cake you will ever have. Everyone should try this carrot cake at least once in their lives.
It is, I can say with no fear of contradiction, the best carrot cake in the world. It was developed by the geniuses at the long-closed Commissary restaurant in Philadelphia; I have never understood how a restaurant that could make a carrot cake that good could ever close.
The secret ingredient, obviously, is calories. Even a relatively small piece has more than 1,000 calories — which is why you should only have it on your birthday or the birthday of a friend or the birthday of someone in the world, somewhere. Altogether, it contains 3 1/2 sticks of butter, a half-pound of cream cheese, a pound of powdered sugar, 3 1/2 cups of granulated sugar, a bunch of pecans and 1 1/4 cups of corn oil.
And no matter how many times you joke that it has carrots in it so it has to be healthy, that still doesn’t reduce the calorie count on each piece.
But that does not matter. This cake is worth the calories. If you love someone, make this cake for his birthday. If you like someone, make this cake for his birthday. If you don’t even know someone, but it’s his birthday, make this cake. Make it even if it isn’t his birthday.
That said, a traditional birthday cake is nice, too. I’m talking here about a plain yellow cake with chocolate frosting. A white frosting is also good, but the chocolate frosting for this one is truly excellent.
It’s called Silky Chocolate Butter Frosting, which is an excellent description. It’s silky, it’s chocolaty and it’s buttery, and although it is rich, it is also quite light.
The frosting is the crowning glory on top of this traditional cake, which is as it should be. The cake itself is lovely, too, and not too sweet. It’s just a basic cake, and you can never go wrong with a classic, basic cake.
The recipes for both the cake and the frosting come from Good Housekeeping. That is what makes this the Platonic ideal of cakes; if you were to close your eyes right now and think of “cake,” this is the cake you would think of.
Of course, if you are a red-velvet cake lover (and who isn’t?), the cake you may think of might actually be deep red in color.
Red velvet cake has been around since the 1800s; it was popular because of the way cocoa powder gives it an exceptionally soft crumb. The distinctive red color originally came about because of the way the cocoa reacted to the acid in the buttermilk. That was later replaced by beet juice and then by red food coloring; the recipe was vigorously marketed by the Adams Extract company after World War II.
What a lot of people don’t realize is that, despite the fiercely red hue, the cake itself is mildly flavored. It is pleasant, not intense, with just a hint of cocoa and a couple of splashes of vanilla. As in the case with most cakes (that aren’t the carrot cake), the best part is the frosting.
I used a traditional ermine frosting, which was the original topping for red velvet. Ermine, which is also called boiled milk frosting, is light and fluffy and is an absolute dream to work with. On the other hand, it takes a few steps to make.
But it’s worth it. It’s so worth it. It brings the red velvet cake to life.
All you need to add are the candles.