I always thought grown-ups were weird whenever they’d talk about how fast kids grow up. It felt like it took foreverrrr! Nothing could be better than being a Big Kid, right? They could ride all the rides at theme parks, stay up later, watch the PG movies, and go to sleepovers. The good life.
Now I wish they had Big Wheels for grown-ups, along with nap time followed by milk and cookies.
Wait…except I still don’t like naps. (most of the time…)
Anyway, now I get the whole kids-grow-up-so-fast thing because my little niece is doing just that: last week she turned two! Just a couple years ago, I remember seeing this tiny little newborn for the first time, and now she says things like “awesome!” and “cat toy”. Her name for me? “Jeh”. :)
For her birthday, her mom (AKA my sister Jill) was going to make lemon cupcakes, but she also wanted there to be a cake. I offered to make a strawberry one since Natty’s a big berry fan, and quickly settled on a recipe. It’s Jell-O-less, which is pretty unusual as far as homemade strawberry cakes go. Don’t worry: fresh strawberries >>> Jell-O.
4 1/2 cups cake flour
3 cups sugar
5 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
3 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups pureed strawberries (from ~1/2 lb fresh or frozen)
8 egg whites*
2/3 cup milk
optional: 1 to 2 drops red food coloring (I used 2)
*I’ll show you what you can make with almost all of those yolks soon, so save them!
1. Preheat oven to 350F (or 300F if you want more level cakes). Butter 3 9-inch round baking pans, line the bottoms with parchment, then butter again.
2. Mixing on low speed for 30 seconds, combine the cake flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt.
3. Add the butter (I cut mine up) and strawberry puree. Blend on low speed until combined, then turn up to medium and beat for 2 minutes.
4. In a separate bowl, whisk together the egg whites, milk, and food coloring (if using).
5. Add the egg white mixture in 2 to 3 additions to the batter, mixing after each until just combined.
6. Divide the batter evenly among the pans. Bake, rotating pans ever 15 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean from the centers. At 350F, this should take about 30 – 34 minutes. At 300F, this took about 45 – 50 minutes. Let cakes cool in pans for 10 minutes before inverting onto cooling racks to cool completely.
How to make Basic Buttercream without a recipe
I’ve recently discovered how easy it is to make simple buttercream on the fly, which is great if you’re like me and find most recipes too sweet. Going by taste and texture instead of a recipe is a better way to keep things in control. The amount of butter you use depends on how much frosting you want. It’s good to have a little extra left over in case you need to do touch ups. For the cake, I used 4 sticks, which was more than enough since I frosted it thinly and not between layers. For the 27 cupcakes, I used 3 sticks, and there was still extra even though they all had quite a bit on them.
(I realize this is kind of a recipe for not using a recipe, which is…silly.)
unsalted butter at room temperature (or vegan margarine)
flavoring (such as vanilla or lemon extract)
milk (any kind)
1. Cut up the butter into chunks, then whip it in a mixer until fluffy.
2. Begin adding the powdered sugar 4 tablespoons at a time and completely blend between additions. Since I don’t like super sweet frosting, I only keep adding sugar until the frosting has a nice light consistency and stops tasting like butter.
3. Add a little flavoring and a pinch of salt. Mix well, then taste. Add more flavoring and salt if needed.
4. Add milk a little at a time and beat until the frosting is thin enough to spread.
Frosting can be kept in the fridge or freezer until needed. Just let it thaw until soft enough to whip up again in your mixer.
My sister put together a Very Hungry Caterpillar–themed birthday party last year, and so felt compelled to go all-out again. This year, due to Natalie’s Elmo obsession (what is it about him?), it was all about Sesame Street. We turned to the interwebs for inspiration, and ended up settling on this cake because it looked fun and also possibly doable for our totally amateur abilities.
First up: fondant faces! If you’ve played with Play-Doh, you can work with fondant. Seriously. For these faces, dust powdered sugar on a clean surface (and rolling pin) and roll the colored fondant out until it’s thin. If you have a biscuit cutter with the jagged edges, use it for Big Bird, Cookie Monster, and Elmo. Grover gets the smooth kind!
The rest of the facial features are mainly about rolling out little balls with your hands. For the mouths, make a little black ball, flatten it into a circle, then cut in half. Similarly for the beaks, make a square, then cut it diagonally so you get two triangles. Make one triangle “hug” the other, keeping the top points apart (no kissing! :P). You’ll need little clean paint brushes to apply water as glue for all the parts, and let them dry before applying the faces to the cake. We used edible black marker for the pupils.
For the cupcakes, my sister used a leaf tip to make Big Bird’s feathers and beaks. Then for the the rest of them, we used the hair tip (the one with tons of holes). Cookie Monster’s hair kept globbing up, and it turned out the frosting was too warm. After putting it in the fridge for a little bit, his hair separated nicely. :P Speaking of CM, my sister couldn’t justify wasting a box of Cookie Crisp for five cupcakes, so I made some out of fondant. Then for the eyes, we used mini marshmallows (marker pupils again), and black gel icing for the mouths.
Before heading to the party the next day, it was cake assembling time! Leveling the layers as I went, I piped vanilla frosting around the edges and spread strawberry preserves in the middles. Then I coated it in a crumb coat before adding the final layer of frosting and little poofs around the bottom. From then on, it was super easy: gently press the faces into the cake wherever!
photo by Guy Rubio
photo by Guy Rubio
Lots and lots of food coloring…but no Jell-O, right? ;)
Unfortunately, I forgot to snag a cupcake, but did have a little sliver of cake. Despite being made a couple days in advance, it was super moist! Very strawberry-y too, which was enhanced by the preserves. Confession: I only used them because I thought it would look weird to have bright blue frosting between the light pink layers. :)
Anyway, Natty had a super fun day with her friends and family, and I think we all did, too! Also, I have to admit that my sister and I were quite impressed by our cake and cupcake decorating efforts since neither of us are really into that.
photo by Guy Rubio
Happy Birthday, sweet Natalie!! <3
I think we’re all curious about what kind of party your mama will throw next year… :)