Last week we celebrated Miss Baby’s first birthday. Naturally, I spent a not insignificant amount of time pondering what kind of cake she should have. It wouldn’t be her first taste, since she had had small bites at my cousin’s wedding and on her father’s birthday—really, who manages entirely to keep sugar away from the baby for a full year? Who WANTS to?—but she has such a wonderful appetite that I wanted the first cake that was all her own to be extra nice.
I approached her father and her aunt with my ideas—pear bundt cake with milk glaze, apple cake with cream cheese frosting, pound cake, lemon cake—which were all rejected as being cakes I would want, not what Bee would want. What would Bee want? “A chocolate cake,” said her 70% cacao father. “A funfetti cake,” said the aunt who has vowed to ply her with Kraft macaroni and cheese when my back is turned.
Well. If the cake was going to be made to suit one of the adults’ tastes, I was going to be that adult! As my list above betrays, I love simple cakes, usually with fruit, more often with glaze or whipped cream than frosting. When I chose this cake from The Cake Bible, I wasn’t (consciously) thinking of it, but for a few childhood birthdays I insisted on a plain white cake baked in a heart-shaped tin and left unfrosted, which was my idea of rustic elegance. Apparently I haven’t changed much, except insofar as I now prefer the taste of real butter to cake mix (I used to look down on Rose Levy Beranbaum’s pound cake because it didn’t taste like Sara Lee!). This single-layer buttermilk cake reminded me of my own favorite cakes, and the only reason it wasn’t heart-shaped is that I didn’t make it to the baking supply store in time.
Bee did like it, of course, but in truth she was far more interested in the raspberries I had scattered around it for decoration (bought on a whim because they were on sale next to the cashier at my market). Babies! For those of us not distracted by discount fruit, the cake itself was lovely. Homemade buttercream always tastes disgustingly like pure butter to me, so this crème fraîche was a nice alternative. Everyone loved it; in fact, no one would have minded having an extra dollop, so next time I’ll make twice as much. Oh yes, and this was the first time I have ever made crème fraîche—ridiculously (dangerously?) easy, gratifying, and tasty.
BUTTERMILK COUNTRY CAKE
From Rose Levy Beranbaum’s amazing The Cake Bible
4 large egg yolks (room temperature)
2/3 cup buttermilk (room temperature)
1.5 tsp vanilla
2 cups sifted cake flour (I always use 7/8 cup all-purpose flour plus 2 tbs cornstarch for 1 cup cake flour)
1 cup sugar
1 tbs baking powder
.5 tsp salt
8 tbs unsalted butter (room temperature/softened)
Preheat the oven to 350. Grease a 9x2 inch or 9-inch springform cake pan; line the bottom with parchment or wax paper, grease again, and flour. (Ahem…this book is all about precision, but my cake pans are 8x2 or 10-inch springform. I used the 8x2 and kept an eye on it while it baked. All’s well…)
In a medium bowl lightly combine the yolks, 1/4 of the buttermilk, and the vanilla.
In a large mixing bowl combine the dry ingredients and mix on low speed for 30 seconds to blend. Add the butter and remaining buttermilk. Mix on low speed until the dry ingredients are moistened. Increase to medium speed (high if using hand mixer) and beat for 1.5 minutes to develop cake’s structure. Scrape down sides. Gradually add egg mixture in 3 batches, beating for 20 seconds after each addition. Scrape down sides.
Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the surface with a spatula. The pan will be about 1/2 full. Bake 30-40 minutes or until a tester inserted near the center comes out clean and the cake springs back when pressed lightly in the center. The cake should start to shrink from the sides of the pan only after removal from the oven.
Let the cake cool in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes. Loosen the sides with a small metal spatula and invert onto greased wire rack. To prevent splitting, reinvert so that the top is up and cool completely before wrapping airight.
When cool, slather top with whipped crème fraîche and, if you like, decorate with fruit. I used peeled, sliced peaches that I had tossed with a bit of sugar.
Combine 1 cup heavy cream (preferably NOT ultra-pasteurized) and 1 tablespoon buttermilk in a jar with a tight-fitting lid. Put the jar in a arm spot such as the top of the refrigerator or near the stove. Allow to sit undisturbed for 12-14 hours or until thickened but still pourable. This will keep 3 weeks refrigerated, according to The Cake Bible. When you are ready to use it. Add 1 tablespoon sugar and whisk lightly until soft mounds form when dropped from a spoon.
I made my crème fraîche a day ahead of time, and when I got it out to use, it had solidified. My heart sank a little before I reminded myself that these things are unpredictable, and so I broke out the whisk and the sugar anyway. Well, my solid cream loosened right up and assumed a delightful soft but shape-holding spreadable texture. Mmmm…I want more right now. There was also talk of splitting the next buttermilk country cake in half and spreading crème fraîche inside as well as on top.