Friday, October 14, 2005

Happy Birthday to Me

Honestly, I like baking my own birthday cakes. I always have and always will. I feel like there is a lot of freedom for me to choose what my favorite cake is. Unfortunately, I don't really have a favorite. I like some things better than others, but when it comes right down to it, baking a birthday cake with no one's preferences but my own in mind is a tricky thing: I want it to be for me, but I want everyone else to love it. I guess I get selfish around my birthday. After much deliberation about flavors and a strong leaning towards doing something complicated and "fancy", I did a 180 (meaning that I changed my mind) and baked myself a yellow sheet cake.
I'm certain that the only yellow sheet cakes I have ever eaten, until now, have come from boxes. Yellow cake is a vanilla cake that gets a faint yellow color from egg yolks. Many cakes are slightly yellow, so in the realm of birthday cakes, it's just about as basic as you can get.
I would say that there is nothing wrong with boxed cake mixes, but if I had to compare them to this cake, I would be lying. This cake is moist and incredibly fluffy, soft and tender. It is easy to make and easy to handle. It tastes amazing, not due to some exotic flavor, but because it absolutely tastes homemade.
The method is the best thing about this cake. I use the same one for white cake, actually. Beating the butter into the dry ingredients gives the finished cake a beautiful and tender crumb, inhibiting gluten development by creating a protective coating of fat around the flour. Beating the flour/butter mixture with some of the eggs gives the remaining gluten a chance to develop and incorporate air into the cake. The little bit of gluten development is a good thing in this case. I’m not going to nay-say all the warnings about over-mixing, but we do need some gluten to hold things together and let the cake rise. If we didn't mix at all, we're just have a big bowl of butter, flour, milk and sugar. Yum.
This cake can also be baked in round cake pans and layered. The baking time will need to be reduced, probably to 25-30 minutes, depending on the size of your pan. Also, note that the cake itself is not super rich (in fact, I used skim milk to make it, though whole and lowfat are fine), so you can go crazy with a real buttercream icing.

Yellow Sheet Cake
2 ½ cups cake flour
2 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
1 ½ cups sugar
½ cup butter, softened
3 eggs
1 cup milk
2 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350F. Line a 9x13 inch sheet pan with parchment paper, or lightly grease it with shortening or oil (butter will produce a harder "crust").
Sift cake flour, baking powder and salt into the bowl of an electric mixer. Add sugar and, using the paddle attachment, mix on low speed to blend. Cut butter into 4 or 5 chunks and drop into the bowl with the flour. Blend on low speed until mixture looks sandy and no large chunks of butter remain, 1-2 minutes.
In a large measuring cup, combine eggs, milk and vanilla. Beat lightly with a fork until combined. With the mixer on low, pour 1 cup of the egg mixture into the bowl. Turn speed up to medium and beat for 1 ½ minutes. Reduce speed back to low and pour in the rest of the egg mixture. Continue to beat at low speed for an additional 30 seconds, until liquid is fully incorporated. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and beat for a few more seconds, if necessary.
Pour into prepared 9x13 pan and spread batter evenly with a spatula. Tap gently a few times to eliminate any bubbles.
Bake at 350F for 30-35 minutes, until a tooth pick inserted into the center comes out clean.
Let cool for 30 minutes in the pan before turning out onto a rack to cool completely. You can leave it in the pan if you're serving it casually.
Serves 16 (or 12 birthday-sized pieces)

Update: I wanted the cake to have a really fun feel, so I used Wilton edible giltter around the edges and made some blue and green piping gel to write on the cake. You can see the whole thing here.