Sunday, April 15, 2012

Pink Lady Cake, Bunnified

Living so close to an amazing city like New York certainly requires a bit of a lifestyle change when adjusting from a car-centric, more suburban existence.  In theory, you are in no better place in the world to be for shopping, dining, and culture.  In practice, you're SOL if you want to make a quick trip to a large one-stop shop to stock up on toiletries, home goods, or pantry staples, spend less than $20, and be able to schlep everything home without your arms falling off (I'm getting increasingly close to picking up one of these Nana carts - it's only a matter of time).  And with our tiny city apartments, stocking up to any significant degree is unwise.  The result of this is a lifestyle where you're more inclined to support small local businesses and shop sustainably for as little as possible.

On a day-to-day basis this is obviously a positive thing, however, this means that the infrequent trips to big box stores are marked by an excitement and desperation more typical of, say, running of the brides.  Wanting to take advantage of the key trifecta of car access, the spacious shopping experience, and the perhaps false impression that I'm getting a good deal, I've been known to impulse purchase my way to owning a fog machine, a full kg of guava paste, and a ruffled dress from Avril Lavigne's clothing line.  No, I do not have any business wearing anything with ruffles, or anything produced by the same person responsible for this.

For the first time ever, though, one of these impulse purchases has truly improved my life instead of just cluttering up my closet and inducing guilt.  A $10 investment in a Wilton starter cupcake-decorating set that I picked up at Target awhile back has infused me with a confidence for baking that is starkly disproportionate to my actual experience or abilities.

My cookie career spans almost two decades at this point, but there is something about the high stakes world of cakery that has always made me hesitant to dive in.  If you overshoot your baking time with a batch of cookies, you still have a 75% chance of fixing the problem and having an edible product at the end of your efforts, but cakes!  There are just so many ways for it all to go horribly wrong, as I have personally demonstrated for you at least twice.

So I'm trying to remedy this situation now, and in the process become a more popular friend, family member, and coworker who can be relied upon for a celebratory showstopper if the occasion calls for it.  This Pink Lady Cake is a great starting point; a subtle fruit flavor and glorious girly pink with a recipe that is nearly impossible to mess up.  Of the two cake iterations that I've tried in the past few weeks, I like my adaptations below much better than the original Smitten Kitchen recipe that I used for cupcakes.  Separating out the liquid/dry ingredients until the last minute makes for a much lighter cake that is also easier to mix.

The only other advice I would impart is to make sure your butter, strawberries, milk, AND egg whites are at room temperature, otherwise the butter will chunk up and leave some steam holes in the final cake.  Fortunately, covering the entire cake in a tangy cream cheese frosting and shaping it into an Easter rabbit can make up for a lot.

Pink Lady Cake
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

Serves 8-10
Total time: 75 min plus cooling and decorating time (Active time: 45 min)
  • 1/2 pound (230g) unsalted butter, softened*
  • 2 cups (400g) sugar  
  • 1 cup (240mL) pureed strawberries (fresh or frozen and thawed), about one box 
  • 5 egg whites at room temperature (about 1 cup [240mL] if you use the boxed stuff)
  • 1/2 cup (120mL) milk
  • 1-2 drops red food coloring (optional)
  • 3 cups (115g) cake flour (see here to make your own using AP, corn starch, and a little legwork)
  • 3 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 (8 ounce) packages cream cheese, softened*
  • 1/4 pound unsalted butter (115g), softened* 
  • 2 cups (200g) sifted confectioners’ sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • assorted things for decorating (e.g. shredded coconut, food coloring, chocolate chips, jelly beans, strawberries, julienned carrots, twizzlers, m&ms... the possibilities are endless)
For the cake:  Preheat oven to 350F (180C).  Butter two 9" rounds, parchment paper, and butter the paper.**  Cream butter and sugar with electric mixer on low speed for a few minutes.  Add strawberry puree, egg whites, milk, and food coloring, mixing well after each addition.

In a separate bowl, combine cake flour, baking powder, and salt.  Add the dry ingredients to the wet bowl in three additions, mixing until just combined.  Divide the batter into the two prepared pans.  Bake for 30-35 minutes until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean.

Cool for 10-15 minutes in the pans.  Invert onto wire racks and peel off paper liners.  Cool completely before frosting and assembling cake.

For the frosting and bunnification process:  mix cream cheese and butter with an electric mixer until well-combined.  Add vanilla and gradually blend in powdered sugar.  Set about 1/4 aside if you want to add a few drops of food coloring for decorating.  Keep in the fridge until ready to use (it is much easier to work with after being chilled for 30-60 minutes). 

Arrange one of your cake rounds in the center of a large pan.  Carefully cut out the ears (the sides of the second round) from the bow-tie (the center).  You may have to make further adjustments to make it look symmetrical; this means more cake for you to snack on.  Arrange your ears and bow-tie, and cover the entire thing in cream cheese frosting.  I won't infringe upon your personal creativity, so you should decorate this however you want.  But do take a note from some of the more frightening examples out there.

* Successful, mildly healthier substitutions I have tried:  swap half of the butter (in the cake and frosting) for a light cholesterol-free veg oil spread, and use reduced fat cream cheese for the frosting.  You cannot tell the difference.  Now, if there was only some way to get the sugar down..

**I tried to cut corners here and not use the parchment paper, and was left with a good amount of cake stuck in the pan.  Do not cut corners.  Alternately, you could make cupcakes which take about 20 minutes in the oven, give or take.