A few months ago, I issued myself a cooking challenge: I set out to create my very own recipe and bake my son’s second birthday cake. Why make my own recipe, you ask? It all started with our cooking series, where we shared what we learned by cooking different dishes. In my final post of April, “Croissants: My Everest,” my biggest takeaway was that I had a clear image in my mind (and taste in my mouth) of a croissant. Even though there was a surmountable technical challenge in producing this buttery French treat, it didn’t really feel like it was mine. I wanted to create something.
By mid-September, I’d decided to make Sully an apple cake. He loves apples (not always in their plain form—the poor guy is teething), cinnamon, and baked goods, and I knew we’d go apple-picking and could use what we picked. In terms of my own challenge, I promised myself that I wouldn’t use a recipe. I did allow myself to look at the ratios for a high-ratio cake (which is usually what we think of when we think of cake. It’s sweeter and lighter; a pound cake is a good example of a low-ratio cake) to save myself some floundering. Consulting Fine Cooking was incredibly helpful and allowed me to appreciate the math behind baked goods.
For the frosting, I also had a few different ideas for recipes. I thought mainly about cream cheese and various flavors that could accompany the apples. One morning as I was eating my oatmeal (picture me on a couch with a toddler pressed against my side saying “Bite. More bite,” and you have a pretty good idea of how every day starts), he got a little clump of brown sugar and was delighted. So that settled my flavor direction there.
I’d intended to have more than one cake attempt under my belt by mid-October (his birthday was the 12th),
imagining different variations that my husband and son would help me taste test. In this, I wasn’t successful. I got waylaid by (some) good and (some) silly reasons. (Did you know that bingeing Queer Eye on Netflix is a great reason to avoid baking?)
Before I knew it, Friday, October 11th hit, and it was time to bake. While I’d thought up a recipe for a fresh apple cake and a cake made with homemade applesauce, I ended up baking a third option: Sully’s Cider Cake. (Chalk up this last-minute swerve to a successful batch of homemade apple cider donuts).
After re-consulting Fine Cooking, I created the following recipe:
7 oz. all-purpose flour
7 oz. sugar
4 oz. butter, softened
2 eggs + 1 yolk, room temperature
12 oz. of apple cider, reduced to 3 oz. (see Step 1)
½ tsp. salt
1 ½ tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. baking soda
½ tsp. vanilla
1 tbsp. apple pie spice
A few hours ahead of time (if possible), boil the 12 oz. of apple cider. Once it’s begun boiling, lower the heat so that the cider just simmers. Reduce it to 3 oz. (Hint: If you start by measuring 3 oz. in your pan, you’ll have a sense of what it looks like. Then add the remaining 9 oz.). Let cool to room temperature. (You can refrigerate it to speed this up).
Preheat your oven to 350° and grease two 6” cake pans.
With a mixer, cream together sugar and butter until smooth.
Add eggs, one at a time, until fully incorporated.
Add in the cider and vanilla.
Mix together the remaining dry ingredients in a separate bowl.
Fold the dry ingredients into the wet, until incorporated. Be careful not to over mix.
Divide batter evenly into the cake pans.
Bake at 350° for 25 minutes.
Makes enough batter for two 6” cakes (There are only three of us, after all!).
16 oz. full-fat cream cheese
8 oz. butter, softened
2 c. powdered sugar
1 c. brown sugar
Pinch of salt
1 tsp. vanilla
½ tsp. lemon juice
Mix together the cream cheese and butter until fluffy.
Add salt, vanilla, and lemon juice.
Add in sugars and mix until smooth. (If you taste it immediately, you’ll notice the brown sugar has a grit to it. That’ll go away after a few hours).
The result? A truly delicious dense and slightly dry cake. Sully loved it. A few days afterward (when we were still eating it), he learned how to open our refrigerator because he wanted at it so badly. I’ll take that as good enough praise that he felt satisfied with his birthday cake. Though Jack and I felt it could have been moister and a little lighter, we all agreed on the frosting; we wouldn’t change a thing (except maybe how much I made—about half of it is still sitting in a Ziploc in our fridge).
Still, I learned a lot.
Baking lessons I learned:
-Really and truly, wait until you smell a cake before you open the oven door. That’s a pretty good indication of burgeoning doneness, and I should have trusted that over my own anxiety. It took a full 35 minutes for these cakes to cook, not the 25 I’d imagined. And truth be told, I opened the oven after the 20-minute mark just to make sure they were fine. That resulted in the centers of the cakes collapsing a bit. Not the end of the world, but I could have avoided it.
-Bake smaller cake pans at a higher temperature. Next time, I think I’d try this at 375° and check closer to 20-25 minutes in. The smaller the pan, the hotter the oven can be for an even bake. I think this would have made for a moister cake.
-When reducing an ingredient, hypervigilance is okay. I ended up reducing the cider just a little too much (down to 2.5 oz.) and topped it off with cider. I don’t think this made a huge difference, but I think I took for granted how quickly it would reduce at the end.
-With a cake that has some decent acidity (which the apple cider brought), add baking soda. I thought about this while I was pulling out my baking powder, so I added ¼ tsp. of soda at the last minute. Next time, I’d increase this so that the cake was less dense.
-Oil can be a really helpful ingredient. For my next iteration, I’ll tweak some ratios and include a little oil to help keep the cake moist.
What I learned/reinforced about myself in the process:
-Sometimes, I procrastinate. This is true for a lot of people, but I definitely let this get the best of me. If I’d attempted a cake earlier on, I could have solved some of its issues. In teaching, I knew that when I procrastinated on writing a lesson or sending an email, I wasn’t doing myself any favors.
-Conducting thorough research will always make me feel better. When I want to learn about something, skimming a resource lightly isn’t enough, so I need to give myself the time and space to really dive in. Our kids need this, too. When they’re highly invested, give them the time they want to explore, learn, and experiment. If they’re still engaged, they’re learning.
-When I want something to go right, I get anxious about it. The anxiety doesn’t solve anything, and often, it makes me do something counterproductive. In this case, my anxiety that I may have been over-baking led me to open the oven early, which led to the cake falling. For students and teachers, anxiety can make them act out in a variety of ways that are seen as antagonistic. Building relationships with your students and colleagues can help you recognize when someone feels like this and what might help them in difficult moments.
-There’s always a way to make something better, but perfection is the enemy of the good. I think I procrastinated because I was worried that it wasn’t going to be a good enough attempt. Eventually, time ran out, and I had to begin. While it’s true that I could have taken even more time to craft my recipe, I think I was just getting in my own way; I had to start somewhere. This is also true when kids are creating products in our classrooms. Some kids will be inclined to just go for it, but other kids might need some gentle prodding to start. As you get to know them, you’ll be able to know who needs what kind of support, and you’ll grow in your ability to do this well. When it comes to relationship-building, dive in sooner rather than later.
Happy birthday to my sweet two-year old; I promise I’ll keep learning what support you need and adjusting so that you learn new skills (since you’ve already mastered the fridge door).
Images courtesy of Sara Bailey