Friday, October 16, 2009

Five-Spice Fall Cake

Two people in my lab had birthdays last week, so we had a joint celebration for them. I volunteered to make the cake (as if I’d pass up the opportunity). With autumn finally arriving, bringing with it cooler weather and various gourds in the grocery stores, I’m in the mood to take advantage of fall flavors. Some of my favorite spices are the warm, hearty spices that come with this season: clove, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, etc. Here’s how I combined all of these into a cake.

Five-Spice Fall Cake

As far as flavors are concerned, I decided to do a two layer cake with each layer having a distinct flavor. I baked up a pumpkin cake and a gingerbread cake. I had a bit of a time crunch while making the buttercream frosting, so I left the flavor as plain vanilla. I did want to color the frosting red since this cake was for a Chinese person and a Taiwanese person, but a pure, bright (Communist) red is extremely difficult to achieve. Mine ended up pink by the time I ran out of red coloring gel, so I started using tones of burgundy, pink and black. The end result was something that was a bit purple-maroon. Thus, I had to change my plans a bit. I decided to go more simple in my design, so with some borders piped in blue, I added happy birthday wishes in both English and Chinese. I found the Chinese version on a couple different websites, and I just did the best I could to replicate the characters.

Gingerbread Cupcakes

There was enough of the gingerbread batter left over to make some cupcakes. Normally, I eat the cupcakes myself, but I thought I’d bring them in for the birthdays too. I had originally planned on cutting out a circle of white chocolate for a mock-up of the Taiwanese flag, but since I could not get a good red buttercream, I used the white chocolate to fill the cupcakes. For frosting, I made a chocolate buttercream to which I added five-spice powder. The anise and spice tones of five-spice powder are a welcome addition to my fall repertoire and they paired nicely with the gingerbread. On top of the cupcakes, I piped messages of “36” and “ox” since those are the birthday boys’ ages and star signs, respectively.

Cake Aftermath

As you can see above, the cake and cupcakes were a hit. The cakes stayed very moist, especially the pumpkin. I think adding vegetables or applesauce to cakes does a fantastic job of keeping them moist. The only issue you face in assembling a cake is that the layers will fall apart because they have so much delicious moisture. That is one of the paradoxes of cake baking - too moist and you cannot make it look fancy, too dry and most people will find it too hard to swallow. And the great news about these cakes is that all of my Chinese writing was legible and understandable. My worst fear would be to misplace a line and all of a sudden I accidentally insulted someone’s mother. But that did not happen and everyone seemed very happy to celebrate the start of fall with a big ol’ slice of this well-balanced and surprising cake.

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