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I've said this so many times I'm starting to bore myself: I am not a baker. Sometimes I bake. But it's not the kind of cooking I do to blow off steam; for that I need stews and sauces, roasts and lasagnas. Biscuits are an exception: I have such a deep love for them that I chose the simplest recipe I could find that gave great results and made it enough times that I don't have to think about it anymore.
But cake is not biscuits. I have made plenty of cakes in my life. In fact, I have a couple of standbys (like this applesauce cake) and I've even made wedding cakes for a couple friends—and lived to suffer the resulting PTSD.
I consider the prospect of buttering and flouring cake pans, assembling all my ingredients, stirring together batter, pouring it into said cake pans, nervously monitoring the oven so it doesn't over-bake, then coaxing it out of the hot pans without it tearing and waiting some more for the cakes to cool before finally making and applying the icing... and I feel dread.
Some find baking meditative, but I find it tedious and frustrating. I want to see the progress as I gradually build out a dish. I find my groove in the kitchen by surrendering myself to a fluid, dynamic rhythm of multitasking and constant adaptation. When you try to do that with cake, the results are rarely pretty.
I counted, and of the 215 recipes I have added to this site, a grand total of five are cakes. That's a measly 2 percent.
But once in a while I come across a cake so compelling I feel a strange impulse to replicate it myself. This happened with the carrot zucchini muffins from my favorite neighborhood cafe (which I turned into a loaf cake) and my friend Betsy's blueberry lemon cake. I'm usually tempted by a cake I know I can pull off pretty easily—meaning I'm not going to need to beat egg whites separately and then fold them into the batter, or something crazy like that.
A few weeks ago I met with temptation at Gather, my morning coffee stop on the way to the subway. They always have great-looking cakes on display, but this one was a stunner: a chocolate layer cake (layers!) embellished with the most beautiful pink frosting. When my pal Everett (who makes excellent coffee) told me it was cranberry frosting, I had to try a slice. The frosting was buttery and rich, with a discernible tang from the cranberries that kind of blew my mind paired with the chocolate.
I can do this, I thought, swiping up the last bit of pink icing: I just have to purée cranberries and fold them into my go-to buttercream (used for the aforementioned wedding cakes), then make Amanda's Chocolate Dump-it-Cake in two cake pans instead of a tube pan, put it all together and that's that! And let's be honest: My husband's birthday was that weekend, so I was going to be making cake anyway.
And it wasn't so bad after all. I skipped sifting together the dry ingredients for the cake (it turned out just fine), and I had to actively restrain myself from simultaneously pan-frying brussels sprouts and starting a risotto while the buttercream was doing its thing in the mixer. But in the end, it was all pretty painless. And two Food52 team members called it "the best cake of their lives." So there's that.
For the cake:
- 2 cups sugar
- 4 ounces unsweetened chocolate
- 1/4 pound (1 stick) unsalted butter, plus more for greasing the pan
- 2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting the pan
- 2 teaspoons baking soda
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- 1 cup milk
- 1 teaspoon cider vinegar
- 2 eggs
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
For the buttercream:
- 3 cups (300 grams) fresh cranberries
- 1/3 cup sugar
- 1 pinch salt
- 18 tablespoons (2 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter, slightly softened
- 2 egg yolks (optional)
- 1 cup sifted confectioners' sugar