Birthday Inspiration

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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!

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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.

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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.

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