Wednesday, June 20, 2012


I think it's pretty common for people who like to spend time in the kitchen to identify themselves as more of a baker or more of a cook. In Latin America, the home baker barely exists; many kitchens don't even have ovens, or if they do they are typically used for two things: to store pots, and to make lasagna (who would've thought lasagna would be so universally adored). I lean more towards the baker side of things, though I would argue that in general most American cooks use their ovens on regular basis, even if it might not be for sweet baking per se. In Colombia, at least, the savory things that Americans tend to put in the oven (potatoes, vegetables, meat) tend to be fried or on occasion boiled. What all of this means as far as my personal life goes is that I make a lot of birthday cakes; somewhere in my upbringing I was instilled with the notion that birthday cakes must be made for the birthday person and never bought (also, that supermarket cakes are super gross, which seems to hold true universally). As I am more or less the only cake-maker around, you can imagine the experience I've gotten these past couple of years. And now all that can be yours!

There is a limitless amount of combinations that can be used with this cake base. In my mind, your typical layer-cake scheme involves 4 parts: cake base, soaking syrup, filling, and frosting. The original tiramisu cake recipe from Dorie Greenspan is delicious and a nice variation on the classic ladyfinger tiramisu. She uses coffee soaking syrup and mascarpone filling and frosting. Using a vanilla soaking syrup, I've filled this cake base with berry curd and frosted it with whipped cream mixed with a bit of the curd for a bright magenta-colored, really lovely-tasting cake. For an old roommate's birthday (see above), I basted the cake with a dark rum-vanilla syrup, filled it with a fresh guava-lime compote and frosted it with cream cheese frosting. What I'm trying to say here is that I think the possibilities are endless, and that it would be hard to go wrong.

Basic Butter Layer Cake
     adapted from the tiramisu cake from Smitten Kitchen adapted from Dorie Greenspan
5 oz. (1 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 c. (5.7 oz.) white sugar
3 large eggs
1 large egg yolk
1 1/2 tsp. pure vanilla extract or 1/2 vanilla bean
3/4 c. buttermilk (or milk soured with white vinegar or lemon)
2 c. cake flour (I've used all-purpose flour here without any problem)
2 tsp. baking powder
1/8 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt

Preheat the oven to 350F. Butter and flour two 9 inch cake pans, knocking out the excess flour. You can line the bottoms with parchment paper though I often only butter and flour and the cakes come out just fine.
In a large bowl with electric beaters/stand mixer/wooden spoon, beat the butter until soft and creamy. Add the sugar and beat until well incorporated, about 3 minutes if using an electric mixer and 5+ minutes if you're a wooden spoon kind of person. Don't worry if the mixture looks curdled. If using the vanilla bean, split it open with a knife and scrape the seeds out, then into the bowl (save the pod for another use). Beat the mixture to break up the seeds and distribute them throughout the butter. Add the eggs one at a time and beat well so that it's fully incorporated after each addition, then beat in the yolk and the vanilla extract if using. 
Place a large sifter/strainer over the bowl and pour 1 cup of the flour into the strainer (some flour will immediately pass through the sifter directly into the bowl). Have a large (clean) dinner plate next to your work surface. Sift most of the flour into the bowl, leaving about 1/4 cup. Place the sifter onto the plate so that any flour that passes through is caught by the plate. Use a spatula to fold in the flour until no streaks are visible, then add in half of the buttermilk. Stir with the spatula to incorporate. Return the sifter over the bowl and add the other cup of flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt to the sifter. Sift half of the flour mixture directly into the bowl, then return the sifter to the plate. Gently fold in the flour with the spatula. Repeat adding the rest of the buttermilk, stirring to incorporate, then sifting in the last of the flour mixture. Fold in the flour just until the streaks vanish (make sure to get around the sides and to the bottom of the bowl). Divide the batter between the two cake pans and put them in the oven. Bake for 25-30 minutes, rotating the cakes after the first 15 minutes. The cakes are done when a knife inserted into the center comes out clean and the cake has pulled away from the sides of the pan.
Let the cakes cook on a rack for 5 minutes, then run a knife around the sides and unmold them (if you used parchment paper, peel it off). Invert the cakes so they are right side up and let them cool to room temperature. 
At this point, it's up to you and what your wants/needs are for the cake at this time. If the cakes are oddly shaped (if they have a peak in the middle for example), you may want to trim them with a serrated knife to even them out. If you want to make a syrup to baste the cake with (it's not necessary but it can add another accent flavor as well as adding moisture), a simple syrup of a 1:1 ratio of sugar to water flavored with a generous swig of whiskey, espresso, or whatever else you like, works quite nicely. Use a pastry brush to soak the cake with the syrup- about 1/3 cup of syrup per cake layer. If you're planning on filling and frosting the cake, you'll want at least 2 cups of filling/frosting, unless you plan on your filling and frosting being two separate things in which case you'll probably want around 2/3 cups filling and 1 1/2 cups of frosting. As far as I'm concerned, it's hard to go wrong with cream cheese frosting, or the old classic whipped cream (real, not from the can) with fruit to decorate the top and in between the layers. If you want to go a bit fancier there's always coffee buttercream and/or chocolate ganache. The most important thing is to keep everything cold, otherwise your frosting will melt off your cake (don't bring a cake with cream cheese frosting on a bus when it's 90 degrees out! Trust me!)

Torta Básica de Mantequilla
     adaptada de Dorie Greenspan
140 g. de mantequilla sin sal, temperatura ambiente
1 taza (160 g.) de azúcar blanca
3 huevos grandes
1 yema (si no tienes como gastar la clara, la puedes usar aquí también sin problema)
1 1/2 cucharita de extracto de vainilla natural o 1/2 vaina de vainilla
3/4 taza de suero o leche cortada con vinagre blanco o limón
2 tazas de harina de trigo común (tipo 000)
2 cucharitas de polvo de hornear
1/8 cucharita de bicarbonato de soda
1/4 cucharita de sal

Precalienta el horno a 180ºC. Amanteca y enharina dos moldes de 23 cm., golpeandoles para que salga la harina excesiva. Los puedes colocar papel de hornear también si quieres, allí solo tendrías que amantecar los moldes (sin echar la harina). Si hay que cortar la leche, hazlo ahora, agregando 2 cucharitas de vinagre o limón a una medida corta de 3/4 de taza de leche entera. Dejala a reposar.
En un bol grande con una batidora eléctrica o una cuchara de madera, bate la mantequilla hasta que esté cremosa. Agrega el azúcar y bate hasta que esté bien incorporado, unos 3 minutos si estás con la batidora eléctrica y 5+ minutos si estás con la cuchara de madera. No te preocupes si la mezca se corta. Si vas a usar la vaina de vainilla, abrila con un cuchillo y raspa las semillas, metiendolas al bol (guarda la vaina para otra cosa, como un arroz con leche). Bate la mezcla para distribuir las semillas por la mantequilla. Echa los huevos uno a la vez, batiendo bien después de cada uno, después echa la yema y el extracto de vainilla si lo estás usando. 
Coloca un colador fino seco sobre el bol y echa una taza de harina allí (un poco de la harina caerá al bol inmediatamente). Ten un plato (limpio) grande al lado del bol. Tamiza la mayoría de la harina al bol, dejando unas cucharadas en el colador. Coloca el colador al plato. Con una espatula, incorpora la harina solo hasta que no se vea la harina, después echale la mitad de la leche cortada/el suero. Revuelve con la espatula. Coloca nuevamente el colador sobre el bol y agrega la otra taza de harina, polvo de hornear, bicarbonato y sal al colador. Tamiza la mitad de los contenidos al bol, y devuelve el colador al plato. Incorpora la harina con la espatula. Repite agregando el resto de la leche cortada/el suero, revuelve y después tamiza el resto de la harina al bol y echa cualquier harina que se haya quedado en el plato al bol también.  Incorpora esta harina con delicadez y fijate que raspas bien el fondo y por los lados del bol para que no queden grumos de harina. Divide la masa entre los dos moldes y colocalos en el horno. Hornea durante 25-30 minutos, volteando los moldes 180º después de 15 minutos. Las tortas están cuando un cuchillo metido al centro salga limpio.
Deja las tortas a enfriar por 5 minutos, después pasa un cuchillo por los lados y voltealas sobre platos. Dejalas enfriar totalmente.
Ahora, puedes seguir como quieras. Si las tortas salieron con picos, tal vez las quieres nivelar con un cuchillo con dientes. Si quieres hacer un jarabe para mojar la torta (no es necesario pero puedes meter otro sabor y ayuda humedecer la torta), un jarabe básico de proporción 1:1 de azúcar y agua saborizado con un poco de whiskey, ron, cafe, o lo que te guste, funciona bastante bien. 
Utiliza más o menos 1/3 taza de jarabe por capa. Si tienes pensado rellenar y cubrir la torta, vas a necesitar por lo menos 2 tazas de cobertura/relleno, a menos que quieras usar una cobertura y un relleno diferente, entonces necesitarías más o menos 2/3 de taza de relleno y 1 1/2 tazas de cobertura.

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