This year, I made my own birthday cake. I’ve done it before—this delicious chocolate peanut butter monstrosity being one of the more memorable times—but not in a few years. It turns out that people are inexplicably disturbed by the idea. When someone finds out, the most common reaction is a look of pity for me and a tsk directed at R. for having failed to relieve me of this duty. The nerve! The truth is I don’t mind at all; in fact, I insisted on making my own cake.
Baking cakes is one of my favourite things in the world. My interest and skill wanes during the decorating phase, but I can see the finish line at that point, so it’s nothing I can’t handle. No, the biggest problem is choosing what to make in the first place. I pin things all year long, but when it comes time to strap on my apron, nothing seems quite right.
For 35, I wanted something fresh but not new, classic but not dull. Feeling a bit stuck, I started flipping through a photo album of little me. I’ve done this birthday thing 34 times before, I thought to myself. Surely I’ve learned something along the way (besides the fact that black icing is gross). That rabbit hole led to some entertaining #tbt posts on Instagram, but no real cake-spiration—until I landed on this photo of my sister with a black forest cake.
I remember this day—or at least I think do. As with many of my early memories, I can’t tell if I actually remember the occasion or if I’ve simply claimed other people’s recollection of it as my own. Simple sleuthing reveals a few details though. That’s the kitchen nook in our house on the farm, where we lived until I was six. We moved in the summer, and my sister’s birthday is in October, so the latest this photo could have been taken is 1985. It must have been 1984 though because I don’t remember her arriving with a red-headed baby nephew.
She’d just driven all the way from her new home, a little town in the southeast corner of Montana, to our even littler town in central Alberta. I think she arrived at night, and I think it was her birthday. I’m pretty sure she’s looking at me in this photo, and I’m pretty sure four-year-old me is wishing she’d blow out those candles already.
- 42 g (3 tbsp) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
- 70 g (1/2 cup) unbleached all-purpose flour
- 27 g (1/4 cup) Dutch-process cocoa
- Pinch of salt
- 6 large eggs, at room temperature
- 135 g (3/4 cup) granulated sugar
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 100 g (1/2 cup) sugar
- 30 mL (2 tbsp) kirsch
- 1 L (4 cups) whipping cream
- 115 g (1 cup) (4 ounces) powdered sugar
- 2 tsp vanilla extract
- 750 mL jar of sour cherries (about 2 cups drained)
- 150 g (or more) of semi-sweet chocolate in a single block
- Preheat your oven to 175 °C (350 °F) and move a rack to the centre. Butter and flour a 25 cm (10”) springform cake pan that is at least 7.5 cm (3”) deep.
- Melt the butter, then set it aside to cool while you get started on the rest of the cake.
- Tear off a large sheet of parchment paper. Onto it, sift the flour, cocoa and salt. Set aside.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat the eggs, sugar and vanilla on high until the mixture has tripled in volume and is very thick (about 8 minutes). The batter should form a thick ribbon when the whisk is lifted from the bowl. Don’t skimp on the beating!
- Lower the mixer speed to “stir” and use the parchment paper to slowly funnel the dry ingredients into the wet mixture. As soon as all of the dry ingredients have been added, stop the mixer and remove the bowl. We’ll be doing the rest by hand.
- Drizzle the cooled melted butter around the edge of the bowl, leaving the milky solids behind. Use a rubber spatula and light hand to carefully fold the butter and any remaining dry ingredients into the batter with as few strokes as possible. We’re counting on the whipped eggs to act as a leavener, so we don’t want to deflate them.
- Immediately scrape the batter into the prepared springform pan, place the pan on a baking sheet (in case it leaks) and bake until the cake feels just firm to the touch (about 40 minutes). Transfer the cake to a rack and let it cool completely.
- In the meantime, get started on the syrup. In a small saucepan, combine the sugar and ½ cup of water. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally to dissolve the sugar. Add the kirsch and remove from heat. Pour the syrup into a small cup or bowl and set aside.
- A few hours before you want to assemble the cake, chill the bowl and whisk attachment for your stand mixer. When you’re ready to go, fill the chilled bowl with the whipping cream, icing sugar and vanilla. Beat on medium-high speed until the cream holds firm peaks.
- Drain the cherries, set aside eight to 12 for garnish, and divide the rest into two equal piles.
- Use a long, serrated knife to cut the cake horizontally into three even layers. Transfer the top layer to a serving plate, top side down, then brush it liberally with ⅓ of the syrup (about ¼ cup). Spread on a thick layer of whipped cream, up to 1.3 cm (0.5”), then sprinkle half of the cherries evenly on top.
- Place the middle cake layer on top of the cherries and press it lightly into the whipped cream. Brush this second layer with syrup, spread on the whipped cream and sprinkle the remaining cherries on top.
- Place the third cake layer on top of the cherries and press it lightly with the whipped cream. Brush this final layer with syrup. Spread a thin layer of whipped cream on top and a thicker layer on the sides.
- Use a vegetable peeler to create decorative chocolate curls or shavings from the block of chocolate. Fill your cool, cupped palm with chocolate shavings and tilt it onto the side of the cake. Rotate the cake between handfuls until you’ve covered the perimeter.
- Scoop the remaining whipped cream into a pastry bag fitted with a star tip and pipe rosettes or a border on top. Garnish with the rest of the cherries and chocolate shavings.
- Refrigerate the cake for at least four hours before serving.