Friday, July 20, 2012

Chocolate, Strawberries and Birthday Cake...

A birthday tradition in my family was that the birthday girl or boy would always get to take the first bite of cake.  But not a nice, polite, fork-ful of cake...  A face-first bite straight out of the side of the cake where it sat in the middle of the table!  It was one of my favorite things to look forward to as a kid, getting to choose any bite without being required to use a fork.

One of my least favorite things was being forced to sit through dinner first, before it was time for cake and presents.  Especially if dinner included watery, frozen mixed vegetables in questionable cube shapes.

Half the fun of birthday cake was the anticipation - watching my mom mix up the batter, licking the beaters, sneaking tastes of sugary frosting.  Gazing at that sweet mountain of cake and icing gracing the table.  My mom shoeing me away before I could stick a finger in.

Wednesday was my birthday, and for my cake, I decided to combine chocolate and strawberries into a luscious and beautiful celebration cake that I hoped would look and taste equally fantastic.

Something a bit unusual is that I actually share my exact birthday, even the year, with one of my girlfriends, so Wednesday night we celebrated with a girl's night dinner out, ending with cake and chocolate-dipped strawberries at the restaurant.

Chocolate-dipped strawberries were my inspiration for the cake, so I baked my favorite from-scratch chocolate cake recipe, tweaking it just a little to allow for the additional moisture of sliced strawberries stirred into the batter, along with pieces of bittersweet chocolate.

A strawberry concentrate (pureed strawberries strained and cooked down) tinted the strawberry buttercream a pretty pale pink.  Sweet and girly.

All week long I've been looking forward to a weekend trip Jamie's been planning, which he still hasn't divulged to me the night before...  I love these kinds of surprises.

I think 34 is going to be a wonderful year...

Chocolate-Dipped Strawberry Chocolate Cake with Strawberry Buttercream

strawberry concentrate:
  • 2 cups sliced strawberries
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 vanilla bean
chocolate cake:
  • 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 tablespoon espresso powder
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3 eggs, room temperature
  • 3/4 cup milk, room temperature
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla
  • 1 cup sliced, macerated strawberries (from the concentrate)
  • 1 cup bittersweet chocolate chunks, or roughly chopped chocolate
strawberry buttercream:
  • 1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
  • 1/4 cup strawberry concentrate
  • 3 1/2 cups powdered sugar
  • 3 tablespoons meringue powder
  • 1-3 tablespoons milk, if needed
  • Chocolate-dipped strawberries, for garnish

Make the Strawberry Concentrate: 
Combine the strawberries and sugar in a bowl. Cover and let macerate for one hour until very juicy.  Pour berries and liquid into a colander set over a bowl; let drain for 15 minutes until most of the liquid has drained off.  Scoop out 1 cup of the strawberries and set aside in the refrigerator (these will be mixed into the cake batter).

Pour the strawberry juice and the rest of the strawberries, into a blender and puree until smooth.  Pour through a fine mesh strainer into a saucepan to remove the seeds, then add the vanilla bean to the saucepan; there will be about a cup of liquid. Bring to a gentle simmer over medium-low heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until reduced to a concentrated syrup; let it reduce to about 1/4 cup (4 tablespoons) of syrup.  Remove the vanilla bean and transfer the concentrate to a container.  Refrigerate until completely cooled.  This concentrate will be used to flavor the buttercream.  (It will be very gooey and jelly-like once chilled.)

Bake the Chocolate Cake: 
Preheat the oven to 350.  Spray the bottoms only of three 8-inch round cake pans with non-stick spray and line the bottom with parchment paper.  (If you don't have three pans, you can divide the batter between two pans, then split each cake layer into 2 layers for a total of 4 layers instead of 3.)

In a mixing bowl fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, espresso powder, baking soda, baking powder and salt.  Add the eggs, milk, oil and vanilla; mix on low until combined then mix on medium speed for 3 minutes.  Stir in the 1 cup reserved strawberries and the chocolate chunks.

Divide the batter between the pans and bake for 21-25 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.  Cool in pans for 15 minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack, cover loosely with a clean kitchen towel and cool completely.

Once cooled, level each cake with a cake leveler or sharp knife.

Make the Strawberry Buttercream:
In the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the butter for one minute.  Add all of the strawberry concentrate and beat until incorporated.  Add the powdered sugar, 1/2 cup at a time.  Mix on low to combine then increase speed to medium-high and whip for 4-5 minutes until very light and fluffy.  If too thick, add milk, one tablespoon at a time, as needed.

Assembling the cake:
Scoop the buttercream into a pastry bag (or plastic zip lock bag) fitted with the star tip.  Make sure the cake layers are brushed free of crumbs.  Place one layer of cake on a cake board.  Pipe the buttercream around the cake, starting at the outer edge and ending in the center.  Place the 2nd layer of cake on the butter cream and press down very gently.  Repeat with another layer of buttercream and the 3rd layer of cake.

Pipe the buttercream on the top layer of cake.  Garnish with chocolate-dipped strawberries, if desired.

Recipe from Curly Girl Kitchen