Weeknight Cooking

Grown-Up Birthday Cake

January 24, 2011

Grown-Up Birthday Cake

- Jenny

For weeks, I have been eyeing Midge's Grown-Up Birthday Cake, trying to come up with an excuse to make it. There were no birthdays in my house, and the holidays were so full of cookies, toffee, and brittle that I didn’t see where it would fit in. I couldn’t even justify it for this blog, as suggesting cake-making on a weeknight seemed a stretch. 

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So I clicked. I longed. I moved on. 

But then, things began happening all around me. First, MrsWheelbarrow randomly stopped by with some delicious homemade raspberry jam. Then my friend Daniel generously sent me a bottle of McEvoy Ranch olive oil, which is the elixir of the gods. Next, my mother-in-law finally gave me her mother’s Foley sifter, which I have been eyeing for the better part of a decade, because it is 100 times better than modern sifters with their sticky, mercurial and ultimately maddening arms.

In short, the universe seemed to be telling me: make grown-up birthday cake right this second! 

Of course, this is the same universe that told me I should take advice about a $200 pair of jeans from a 19-year-old sales girl at Fred Segal, even though my behind was giving me quite a different narrative, the same universe that told me that it would be a good idea to tell the incipient pescatarian and bacon girl if they did not stop bickering in the back seat of the car, “I will take you with me to the Virginia quilt museum!” I mean, good people don’t demonize quilts. 

But anyway, I could no longer resist, and so this cake came to being in my kitchen recently, with all those aforementioned ingredients and a fairly nice bottle of white wine and four eggs. Olive oil! White wine! No butter! I giggled madly as I mixed it all up, and when I tasted the batter I was quite excited, barely able to wait for it to finish baking.

I think you should treat this cake like a savory dish, because you truly taste every ingredient, and the jam does a fruit dance with the wine and olive oil, which you will want to be something closer to a waltz than a two step, if that makes sense. The chocolate icing pulls it all together: chocolate + fruit + depth – cloying sweetness = delicious adult dessert that children will actually find divine, as well. 

Here were my two bads: I had a hard time turning my layers out, even though I gave the pans a nice greasing, which may have to do with the fact that my nine-inchers are not as high quality as I would like; I might use buttered parchment next time just to make life easier. Also, I under-mixed the frosting –- perhaps in my almost unhealthy haste to get this confection into my pie hole –- so it was not as smooth looking as that in lovely photo posted by Midge. So don’t do that. (Amanda noted that when they made the cake for the photo, the food52er's icing looked curdled. But once she hand whisked the hell out of it, it turned smooth. It's such a small amount that Amanda thinks the mixer whisk just didn't reach it enough. So do what she did. Okay?)

Finally, is this a classic weeknight recipe? Not really. But it is actually easier and quicker than many birthday cakes that require lots of butter beating, some of them less worthy of praise than this one. You can always leave work a little early, declaring a cake emergency. 

Grown-Up Birthday Cake

by Midge

Serves a birthday party.

Yellow Cake:

  • 2 1/2 cups AP flour
  • 1 tablespoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 cup white wine
  • 1 cup olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 7 ounces raspberry jam, preferably homemade, but I used Bonne Maman

1. Preheat oven to 350.

2. Butter and lightly flour nine-inch cake pans.

3. Sift together flour, salt, and baking soda. Set aside.

4. In a standing mixer, blend sugar and eggs on med-high for a minute. Slowly mix in vanilla, wine, and oil.

5. Gently fold dry ingredients into cake batter until smooth.

6. Pour batter into prepared pans and bake for 25-30 minutes until cake tester comes out clean. Cool on wire racks.

7. Spread jam on one layer; then top with the other. Frost top layer with icing (recipe below).

Bittersweet Chocolate Buttercream Icing:

  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 cup confectioners sugar
  • 1/2 cup Dutch processed cocoa
  • 1/4 cup whole milk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

1. Blend the butter and sugar. Fold in cocoa and gradually add milk until it starts to look like icing -- you will need to whisk it vigorously. Mix in the vanilla.


By day, Jennifer Steinhauer, aka Jenny, covers Congress for The New York Times. By night, she is an obsessive cook.

Jennifer Steinhauer

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Stephanie B. February 1, 2013
Based on the feedback about the baking soda, we've adjusted the recipe to 2 1/4 teaspoons baking powder. The cake's olive oil and white wine really shine with the adjustment.
Monginis February 13, 2012
I will try to make this...
paulbjoachim June 19, 2011
Olive oil and white wine?? I'm totally going to try this.
bostongal April 28, 2011
Reading back through all of Jenny's posts and I stumbled upon this gem. I am already committed to the Chicken Breasts with Dijon Sauce from a later post and now I am plotting how to get this deliciousness into my day.

Did we ever solve the baking soda vs. baking powder dilemma?

I am considering using a fancy apricot jam for the fruit and possibly winging in a glass of Coppola's Sofia which is a sparkling wine just to see what that does for the texture of the cake. I am doubting that I will have much restraint once it's made.

I love the posts - writing is witty and engaging. I no longer have small children but can remember those days fondly through your writing. Thanks for sharing your day to day with all of us.
C_lynn March 20, 2011
I tried this cake and it turned out wonderfully. I read through the comments and switched out the baking soda for baking powder. The cake was moist and firm.

Chill the icing before frosting the cake.
allie February 2, 2011
I am making this for my 2 year old's birthday tomorrow. She adores wine (would drink it if we let her) & jam - got to start them young on subtle cakes or they start demanding cake from a mix.
Jestei February 6, 2011
oh yes. agreed.
Ann M. February 2, 2011
Made this today as a reward for shovelling our driveway after the storm in Chicago. It sunk a little bit in the middle and took an extra 10 minutes to cook to done. I used a Vignoles, Bonne Maman strawberry jam, and covered the sunkenness with extra frosting (a hardship, an absolute hardship). It was lovely. Not too sweet, subtle interesting flavor, crispy edges. Thanks so much for posting this!
Jestei February 6, 2011
we must resolve this sinking issue.
slmaruca January 31, 2011
I have recently purchased the most delicious meyer lemon olive oil from Davero farms in California (which can be ordered online), and I am going to try it in this cake. Perhaps I'll use a different frosting though... would chocolate go well with a hint of lemon?
Jestei February 6, 2011
it might be too much fruit happening. but let us know.
cookinalong January 30, 2011
Jestei, thanks for the advice. This sounds like it's worth splurging on a small bottle of a good EVO. My standby Bertolli, fine for salad dressings, etc., might not be fruity enough.
Jestei February 6, 2011
I think that is right.
MrsWheelbarrow January 30, 2011
It's taken me a few days to get here, and WOW how nice! What a clever way to use that raspberry jam. Last night I was desperate for cake. Now I know what to bake tonight.
Jestei February 6, 2011
did you ever make this?
MrsWheelbarrow February 6, 2011
I did make it. And I filled it with apricots in vanilla syrup, not jam. And then I ate half the cake. And then I took the other half to the neighbors. I know trouble when I taste it.
tweeter10 January 30, 2011
we tried this cake. Unfortunately it is too heavy for our taste, although the frosting was good!
Jestei February 6, 2011
thanks for trying it!
cookinalong January 30, 2011
Ahhh, birthday cakes! THIS is definitely one of the upsides to having 7 siblings...Who all have spouses, who also have birthdays! Not to mention my own progeny, nieces and nephews, engagements and weddings of same...There is never an excuse NOT to try a new cake recipe. So thanks for that! One question...I'm assuming that this does not call for extra virgin olive oil, but the less intense virgin olive oil. I'm open minded on the subject. What my olive oil did before it reached my kitchen is none of my business, but I'm thinking EVO might be a tad too virginal, I mean, strong for a cake. Advice anyone?
Jestei January 30, 2011
i used a very young extra virgin olive oil from mcevoy ranch. i think what you are aiming for is something with a mild but nice fruit flavor, if that makes sense
KitchVega January 30, 2011
I am rocking back and forth like a crack fiend. I need this now!
Jestei January 30, 2011
so, wait no more!
ashleyamore January 30, 2011
Yes, Yes, YES!!!
Jestei January 30, 2011
let us know how it turns out
Kate O. January 25, 2011
This is so freekin good and who woulda thought WINE and OLIVE OIL in CAKE??? delish! I used half olive oil and half canola though. I couldn't go all in...I know. I'm a wimp ;)
Jestei January 28, 2011
if you have really good olive oil and are willing to part with a full cup of it try it sometime, just to see how you like it by comparison
EllieN January 25, 2011
I made the cake today to celebrate my parents' 69th(!) wedding anniversary, and I'd say this cake was equal to the occasion. Very nuanced flavors, the cake played beautifully with the raspberries and chocolate, and the texture was wonderfully moist and springy. I found, though, that folding in the flour wasn't working, so I just used the mixer to blend it in, and I used the mixer, not a whisk, for the frosting, too. Without the electric mixer both the cake batter and frosting were lumpy, but with it they were both perfect. All in all, it is an unusual, and very grown up, layer cake. Fabulous.
Jestei January 28, 2011
yes i used a mixer for both; next time i might try a hand mixer for the frosting
courtneycarlson January 25, 2011
I'm 8 months pregnant, so really any day in the next 6 weeks could be a birthday... Better be prepared and try this out...

Any particular type of white wine? Im not swimming in wine here because of the aforementioned bun in the oven so...we have a bottle of Kim Crawford Sauvignon blanc but it is pretty dry and crispy--summery (also kind of expensive if I remember...so maybe a trip to the liquor store is for the best anyway..suggestions appreciated)
Jestei January 25, 2011
i think that would be fine. i used a french chard if i recall but not crazy expensive or anything. midge or amanda might have other ideas.
Midge January 25, 2011
I generally use whatever's on hand, something dry and not too pricey. I'd save the other bottle for when you can drink again.
tsw02 January 24, 2011
the cake just came out of the oven...it seems to have sunk quite a bit in the middle. Could it be too much baking soda? (although the batter tasted great!)
Jestei January 25, 2011
Hm....midget? anyone? bueller?
Midge January 25, 2011
Yikes, I'm sorry, I'm not sure what could've caused that. Anyone else have ideas? Foodpickle?
mrslarkin January 25, 2011
Yes, it might be the baking soda. According to Shirley Corriher in her book BakeWise, for each cup of flour, use no more than 1/4 teaspoon baking soda. So 1 tablespoon baking soda is enough to leaven 12 cups of flour! But you've also got wine here, which I think is acidic, no? You'll need some baking soda to neutralize that. Corriher says, for example, that 1/2 teaspoon baking soda will neutralize 1 cup of a mildly acidic ingredient. The cake might work better with 1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda, or 1/2 teaspoon baking soda and 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder. I'll try it on Friday. I'm no expert, so if other bakers want to chime in, please do!! Midge, Jenny, what was the consistency of your cake? Was it dense and heavy, or light and airy?
Sagegreen January 25, 2011
Great info, mrslarkin. Also, the way you measure flour is important: fluffing it up first, then with a scoop filling the measuring cup which you can level off evenly....I learned esp, making bread.
Midge January 25, 2011
Thanks mrslarkin, you are a baking super sleuth. I recently discovered that the recipe this is based on (from the Chicago Tribune via my mom) calls for 1 TBSP of baking powder, which thanks to some miscommunication between mother and daughter (imagine that) became 1 TBSP of baking soda in my book. I've made the cake several times - always with baking soda - without a problem, so I didn't think that was the issue for tsw02. To answer your question, the cake is on the denser side but I wouldn't call it heavy. I'm really interesting in hearing what you end up using and how your cake turns out. Also, tsw02, I'm wondering if you were able to salvage yours? I feel like baking one and sending it to you to make up for my potential snafu.
tsw02 January 25, 2011
I'll have to try it with the baking powder, although maybe that wasn't my only issue since you have not had a problem with it and it sounds like others have made the cake with success, too. (ps it sunk a little too much in the middle of one of the layers; was afraid to frost and have a lopsided/indented cake). Will post back when I try it; thanks!
dymnyno January 24, 2011
My husband and I celebrate Birthday Month. So the good news is that this cake is in my near future!
Jestei January 24, 2011
what is birthday month?
dymnyno January 25, 2011
Well...for example, my birthday is February 26, so the entire month of February is birthday month.
Kitchen B. January 24, 2011
Jenny, you make me forget the recipe with your prose. Wow...you mother must be proud. And your father too. Tell you kids I said that. Smile. Smile. Smile.
Jestei January 24, 2011