Birthday cakes are special. And making the birthday cake is an enormous responsibility, not to be taken lightly. It has to not only be scrumptious if it’s for a three-year-old, it also has to be enchanting.
On our nephew’s second birthday, I made this train cake. On his first birthday, it was a dump truck. The obsession with things with wheels, unsurprisingly, continues. However, he is a pretty hard-working little three-year-old, and he loves to help and work in the yard. Moreover, he loves this book, Good Night, Good Night, Construction Site, which is apparently a sedative for three-year-olds in literary form. And what else does he love? Chocolate.
While I had absolutely no idea how to make a cake into a construction site, I did know a thing or two about how to make a fantastic chocolate cake. Cooking is like everything else: start with what you know. Rose Levy Berenbaum’s Cake Bible is still the greatest instruction manual and work of art on the subject of The Cake. I got my copy for my fourteenth birthday (speaking of birthdays) in 1988, the year it was first published. There are little notes in pencil throughout it. Not because these are recipes that I have ever toyed with—most of my cookbooks have notes in them when I change recipes and make adjustments—but because they’re recipes that have been an integral part of nearly every special occasion involving dessert in my life, ever. One cake has a note that says “Robyn’s birthday” another that says “Christmas 1989” and another that says “Bob’s favorite.” This is not a book of recipes that you adapt, or transform. These recipes are precise; they are perfect. Measurements are given in volumes and weights, and ever since my fifteenth birthday (when I asked for a kitchen scale) I have used the weights. The point is: obtain this book and cook from it whenever a cake is called for. I would also add that the raised waffle recipe in there pretty much sums up the difference between eating to live and living to eat. Or, the difference between not living and really living.
I decided to make my favorite chocolate cake from the book, the Chocolate Fudge Cake. It is the perfect cocoa-based chocolate cake, with a wonderful crumb, a fudgy texture, and with an incredible richness from its use of brown sugar instead of white. I made the cake into two 7.5- or 8-inch square pans. After the layers were baked and cooled, I measured the height of one of the layers. Then I cut one end off of one of the layers the same width as the height measurement. (So the piece you’re cutting off is a square when viewed from the end.) This is to make the ramps. You can see this in the picture, but you want to leave an inch or two before you start cutting the ramp on a gentle slant away from that plateau. You should come out with two ramps. One goes flush with the bottom layer (frost that first and then snuggle the ramp up to it). The second ramp goes up top along the cut side of the top layer (which is the one with the piece cut off of it).
Then you just frost the whole thing! And to frost it, I used the Cake Bible Milk Chocolate Buttercream, which, not to spoil anything, has three ingredients: milk chocolate, dark bittersweet chocolate, and butter. And these three ingredients only come in two measurements. One pound or one-half pound. (We found the high level of fat in the buttercream made for an easy clean-up of the birthday boy and it simultaneously provided a nice moisturizing treatment for the hands of the three people it took to clean him.)
As for decorations, we found these fantastic candy-coated “rocks,” which are filled with chocolate, and also used chocolate-covered almonds as “boulders.” This set of trucks plus the two men to go on the cake rounded out the design, along with—wait for it—birthday candles shaped like construction cones.
The cake inside this masterpiece is a marvelous delight for children and adults alike. It is wonderful to have such a whimsical cake for a little boy’s birthday, but it is even better to slice into it and find that inside is a very serious cake. As much as I get caught up in the appearance of the cake with each passing year (what will it be next year—dinosaurs?), I love knowing that there is a show-stopping cake inside that will be a treat for the entire family. It’s even good with a sturdy glass of red wine! Having a baking book like the Cake Bible is like having a true friend beside you in the kitchen, reassuring you that no matter what, your nephew’s third birthday cake is going to be fantastic.
When Harry woke up from his nap, after he rubbed his eyes, he saw the cake. His face lit up and he looked at me and said, “Good job, Auntie Joy! I love it.” What, I ask you, could be sweeter than that?