Birthday Inspiration


It has been a busy week around my house— birthdays always do that here. We tend to make a big deal out of them. (Note to new parents: don’t start any traditions that you don’t want to carry on for many years to come.) It starts the night before the birthday when we sneak into the birthday child’s bedroom to fill it with balloons and to string streamers across the doorway. Then in the morning, we wake the child by singing Happy Birthday, and if she is lucky enough that her birthday falls on a weekend, we carry in a tray with the requested birthday breakfast. If it’s a school day, we hold off on breakfast-in-bed until the weekend. Of course there are cupcakes for school and definitely cake for dessert at our house. Over the years our children have also gotten in the habit of choosing their favorite meal for dinner (chicken pot pie with a layer of mashed potatoes under the crust was this year’s request). All in all, this ends up being a lot of work for me. Good thing I really like my kids!


But the good news is that the easiest thing I did for my daughter’s birthday was the most spectacular looking— her cake. It was a simple two layer vanilla butter cake, each layer cut in half. I stacked them with sweetened whipped cream and berries, as requested. No fussing over frosting a cake and working out elaborate decorations. The berries are both decorative and delicious. This idea is endlessly versatile too. Flavor the cake, flavor the whipped cream, change up the berries used. You can have a different cake every time you make it. In this case, the simplicity of it really is good.


The cupcakes for school required a little more effort but they were fun to do. I doubled my cake recipe to make both the 9″ cake and 24 cupcakes. My now 11-year-old did most of the decorating herself. They are here just for inspiration in case you are looking for a fun cupcake to make. We used vanilla wafers cookies (regular size) for the big frog eyes and very briefly dipped them in a mixture of green food coloring and water. Red hots for the eye centers and fruit leather cut into tongues. The rest was frosting. Easy!

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I created this cake recipe for Fine Cooking magazine many years ago and have been using it consistently since then. It is light enough to easily cut through (good for the cake above) and yet dense enough to work with a sturdier frosting like buttercream.

Vanilla Butter Cake

Makes two 9-inch cakes

2 3/4 cups (10 1/2 oz.) cake flour
1 1/2 cups sugar
3 3/4 tsp. baking powder
3/4 tsp. salt
6 oz. (12 Tbsp.) unsalted butter, room temperature, cut into pieces
3/4 cup whole or low-fat milk, room temperature
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
4 large eggs, room teperature

1. Coat cake pans with nonstick cooking spray and line bottoms with parchment paper. Preheat oven to 350°F.

2. Sift the cake flour, sugar, baking powder and salt into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix on low speed to combine ingredients.

3. Add the butter pieces and mix on low speed for 30 seconds to break butter into small lumps. Add the milk and vanilla extract. Mix on medium speed to thoroughly blend the ingredients, about 1 minute. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing briefly on medium speed after each addition.

4. Divide the batter equally between the pans and spread it evenly in each pan. Bake until golden brown and tester inserted in center comes out clean, about 30 minutes.

5. Let cool in the pans for about 30 minutes. Run a knife around the edge of each cake and then invert onto a rack. Peel off parchment paper and let cool completely.

Maple Syrup and Cake



That’s right, maple syrup and cake have been new and noteworthy in my kitchen in the last couple of weeks. Not together, although a maple syrup frosting would be delicious on an apple or an apple-spice cake. Hmm. Also, it is wonderful on top of oatmeal (and pancakes of course) and I bet it’d be good drizzled over vanilla ice cream. And my daughter wants me to make maple syrup cookies. My brain is very busy coming up with ways to use the first batch of the amazingly tasty homemade maple syrup that my husband and family made last week. Though the weather turned frosty again this week, we did have about a week of above freezing temperatures and for the first time, we tapped our maple trees.

We have lived in our ordinary suburban neighborhood for over a decade and never tried making maple syrup. My husband, Lou, decided this was the year. On our modest plot of land, we have a lot of sugar and norway maple trees. I love these trees. They provide shade all summer (don’t even need to slather sunblock on my kids), vibrant colors and giant leaf piles in the fall, and now, as winter turns to spring, they provide the makings of maple syrup.

Here is a quick photo journal of our first run of sap.


Drilling a hole into the maple.


Getting the first taste of sap. Yes it is slightly sweet.



Hammering a tap into the hole.


Running lines into a collection bucket.



Ready and waiting for the sap to flow.


First boil using our fire pit and a turkey fryer. It took all day and into the night.


As we get closer to syrup the boiling moves inside.


The next morning, pancakes were flipped and syrup was doled out. YUM!

I understand the weather will again warm up some time in March and we hope to get more sap and more syrup. I want to treat it more like an ingredient and less like gold. More to come on maple syrup recipes….

Last week I also made a first birthday cake for a family celebrating in a big way. I love to make cakes for people. I want everyone to know that a cake really can be delicious and beautiful at the same time. Sadly, that has not been my experience when partaking in many store bought and even bakery bought cakes.

This cake, as requested, had many elements to it that came together wonderfully: vanilla and chocolate butter cakes with pastry cream and berries as filling. Homemade Italian meringue buttercream to cover the cake and fondant decorations to make it look like a party cake.



Thanks for joining me on a picture walk of the last couple of weeks in my kitchen. I have lots of recipes to blog about so stay-tuned for more.

Upside-Down Cakes


Cranberry-Streusel Upside-Down Cake/ photo courtesy of Fine Cooking magazine

For some delicious winter cakes I created, check out the most recent issue of Fine Cooking magazine. It is on newsstands now or you can find my recipes for Cranberry Streusel Upside-Down Cake, Orange-Almond Upside-Down Cake and
Tropical Upside-Down Cake
through the Fine Cooking website.

I had a lot of fun creating these recipes, mostly because there was a lot of tasting going on. Hope you have as much fun as I did baking and eating.