I was born to be a baker—and by that I don’t mean just a bread baker—something that I’ve been accused of pursuing and talking about obsessively in the way that an insurance salesman talks about, well, insurance. I have patience and curiosity, the humility of a novice, and a cautious and attentive hand that will watch over sugar and butter and cream the way a mother will cradle her newborn infant. What I do not have is a baker’s sweet tooth. A few nibbles of cake, a fingertip of frosting, and two or three, okay, I will admit to four or five spoonfuls of ice cream, and my primordial hunger is satisfied. So, I usually bake bread while my wife is the enchantress of all things sweet. She, however, will not bake her own birthday cake. Nor will she buy her own presents. Or offer hints, other than to say, “I am the easiest person to buy presents for. Just don’t get me another pair of heavy earrings.”
This year I dragged my daughter along with me to shop for my wife’s presents. I didn’t ask my son because when it comes to birthday celebrations, he has two questions: What time should I be home and where are we going for dinner? Most of my daughter’s one-sentence conversations are versions of “can you take me shopping?” so I assumed that she would be my savior. Instead, she was my fitness instructor. Up one aisle and down another. I lifted clothing off racks. She raised her eyebrows. A desperate man does what he has to do. I started filling up my shopping cart. My daughter looked at me. “What did you expect from me?” she asked while putting a pair of leggings that she wanted me to buy for her in the cart. “Remember, I was the one who bought you a broom for your birthday.” When she suggested sexy underwear, I knew it was time to leave.
While we were walking to the car, my daughter sensed my desperation and offered to bake my wife’s birthday cake. “Does this mean that you won’t need my help?” I asked. “Yes, dad, I’ve got it covered. Now that I had a few extra minutes, I could walk up the avenue to our local jewelry store. I found a pair of reversible earrings. She had to like one side. Didn’t she? I asked the saleswoman to try them on. How heavy could they be if she was able to talk with me while wearing them?
When I returned home, my daughter was staring at a TV show on her computer, playing a game on her iPod touch, and texting on her phone. I didn’t smell chocolate and sugar fusing together in our oven. “Dad, I didn’t say I would bake mom a cake. I said I would make the frosting.” Oh, is that what you said?
A few years ago, my wife received the book chocolate & vanilla as a present. If Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder collaborated on a cookbook, this is what it would look like. Written by Gale Gand, James Beard Award-winning pastry chef, it’s a flip/cookbook. One half chocolate recipes, the other half vanilla; you can flip the book over and start from either direction. I zeroed in on a recipe for chocolate-almond upside-down down cake that my wife had made before so I knew it would taste good and that she would like it. I had all the ingredients. I wouldn’t have to melt chocolate because Gand uses cocoa powder, which is easy to measure and mix—and it transports an intense chocolate flavor.
Cakes can be temperamental. Or maybe it’s my oven. Baking time for this cake is 25 to 35 minutes. I turned the timer off after 35 minutes and kept checking it until it was finally done. It was like peeking into the bedroom to see if my wife had finished dressing and was ready to finally come out.
My daughter came into the kitchen and said, “I’m ready to make the frosting.” “It doesn’t need any. Take a look. It’s topped with almonds.” Dad, are you serious? The only reason people eat cake is because of the frosting.”
Have you ever noticed that the person with the worst singing voice is almost always the first one to start singing “Happy Birthday?” I am not going to rat out who that was, but my wife, who is an amazing singer—had to suffer through our rendition—and pretend that she enjoyed it. She didn’t have to pretend that she liked the cake. The caramel topping was just as Gand described it. Gooey-Nutty.
My son was eating his second piece. My daughter was scraping her finger across her plate. I looked at my wife, whose earrings were dangling as if the weight of the world were lifted from her shoulders. Sometimes you get to have your cake and eat it too. Even if it isn’t frosted.
Chocolate-Almond Upside-Down Cake (from chocolate & vanilla)
For the caramel topping
6 tablespoons (¾ stick) unsalted butter, melted
¾ cup packed light brown sugar
¼ cup honey
1¼ cups sliced or slivered almonds, lightly toasted
For the cake
1¼ cups cake flour
½ cup cocoa powder, preferably Dutch processed
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1½ cups sugar
3 large eggs
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Generously grease a 10-inch round cake pan. To make the topping, pour the melted butter into the cake pan and swirl to coat the bottom, then sprinkle in the brown sugar. Drizzle in the honey and sprinkle the almonds evenly over the bottom.
Preheat the oven to 350°.
To make the cake batter, sift the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt together three times (this is to make the cake extra light). Beat the butter in a mixer fitted with a whisk attachment until smooth and fluffy. Add the sugar and mix. One at a time, add the eggs, mixing after each addition. Beat until fluffy and light, about 3 minutes. With the mixer running on low speed, add a third of the ingredients and mix to combine. Mix in half of the buttermilk, and then another third of the dry ingredients, before adding the remaining buttermilk and the vanilla. Finish with the remaining dry ingredients and mix until smooth. Pour the batter into the pan.
Bake until set in the center and springy, 25 to 35 minutes. Run a knife around the edge of the pan and immediately invert the pan onto a serving platter. Let it sit with the pan still on top for 5 minutes so the caramel can soak into the cake a bit, before removing the pan. If the topping is sticking to the pan, warm the pan surface over a low burner to loosen the caramel and pour it over the cake. Let cool completely (The cake keeps at room temperature for up to 2 days). Cut into wedges with a serrated knife.