What's the difference between cake and birthday cake? Ah, an existential question for the ages.
Scholars have long debated the issue, but here's where we come down on it: Birthday cake should make you look forward to the next time you'll get to eat it. It might be the cake you love most in the world—plus something that makes it even better (like a spackle of jelly beans, a flamingo adornment). We'd prefer it'd be frosted, but that's not necessary. You'll probably want to eat it with a fork, not your hands. Maybe it's the same cake every year—the one that reminds you of all the other days you sat around the circular wooden table, puffed your cheeks, and blew the candles while the camera snapped. Maybe it comes from a box. Maybe it's pie! Whatever it is, it should be able to hold a candle upright.
When we thought about the Food52 signature birthday cake—something to celebrate the third birthday of our Shop, the years past, and the exciting years to come—we had a lot of options to choose from, and we got a little carried away. After all, we talk about (and eat) cake all the time.
First, we thought about Merrill's Applesauce Cake, but made with peach sauce in place of the eponymous ingredient. Then we thought about turning that into a double-layer cake, the top of which would be an upside down cake (like this one), crowned with rosemary-roasted peaches.
And then, because that sounded really complicated (not to mention hot in this midsummer weather—peach sauce and cake?—and potentially disastrous), we looked into making a burnt toast-flavored cake, which proved both difficult and not-so-desirable.
So back to square one and our birthday cake fundamentals: Take away the guesswork (especially important if party guests are involved) by making something reliable; then dress it up to make it all the more special.
We turned to a simple, surprising cake made with pantry ingredients that has never let us down—Maialino's Genius Olive Oil Cake—but we doubled the recipe to make two layers (the taller, the grander!) and swapped out the orange zest for lemon zest in anticipation of the next components.
On top, a layer of Roasted Plums with Vanilla Bean; in another season (or another mood), macerated strawberries would work well, or poached pears or Apples in Cardamom-Lime Syrup or brûléed grapefruit rings (switch up your citrus zest accordingly).
For the frosting, we channeled our love of fried toast (it was the olive oil in the cake that made us do it) swooshed with ricotta and turned, naturally, to Whipped Ricotta Frosting from Julia Busuttil Nishimura of Ostro, who wrote about it on Design Files.
(Would chocolate whipped cream been just as good? Probably.)
To construct the cake, we made sure all the components were cool (the cake took a timeout in the freezer, the frosting chilled in the fridge), trimmed the layers so they were perfectly even across, then stacked: cake, frosting, cake, frosting, plums aplenty. We showered with chopped pistachios (crunch) and plenty of lemon zest (zing).
And, fittingly, our birthday cake was served on one of our Shop products: a Looks Like White platter (and a cake stand would've looked nice, too).
Happy birthday, Food52 Shop! What's your ideal birthday cake? Is it simple or complicated? Tell us in the comments!
From our new podcast network, The Genius Recipe Tapes is lifelong Genius hunter Kristen Miglore’s 10-year-strong column in audio form, featuring all the uncut gems from the weekly column and video series. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts so you don’t miss out.Listen & Subscribe