How do you like to celebrate your kids' birthdays? It's June, which means I'm starting to think about a gathering for my oldest child, born on July 15. We always do a big festive family party at home, spilling out into the backyard. Many of the families we know host similar get-togethers for kids' birthdays, which was how we found ourselves celebrating at three different birthday parties last Sunday. (!) It was a wonderful day, three wonderful birthday kids (two age 3s and an age 5), and three festive backyards. I really love birthday parties, and I get so excited about making all the snacks from scratch, which the kids also help with in the week leading up to the party. This year for Cash, I'm thinking about an outdoor party at a park - I think it would be so lovely to hang bunting all over the place and run around.
Last Sunday, I had taught a cooking lesson in the morning, where the two young students had made mint tea with mint cut from the backyard. I had the idea to get my own kids to cut herb bouquets to bring to the parties that afternoon, and they had fun snipping away.
Snacks are lovely, and herb bouquets a nice touch, but as we all know, the main part of a kid's birthday gathering is the cake. Two years ago, when Cash, my oldest, was turning 3, I got my hands on a cookbook called Miette. It's a bakery in San Francisco and their cakes are stunning. I almost always make the chocolate one, and always with a buttercream frosting. This is European buttercream, which is a completely different frosting from American buttercream. The American style is more common in this part of the world, but I was keen to try this more buttery and less sweet frosting, which is made with egg whites. It tastes much smoother and creamier than typical American frosting.
For months before her birthday (March 27) rolled around, Polly (3) told me, "I want a chocolate cake with blueberry icing." When Cash first saw the Miette cookbook two years ago, he wanted to make the cake pictured on the cover. Because the kids love to help me make their birthday cakes and frostings, and that takes time, I find it's very useful to plan WAY ahead and make the cakes and frosting and freeze them both. Then on the day of the party, when you have a million things to think about, you only have to decorate the cakes (also an excellent task for kids to help with), and not actually make them start to finish. Just don't forget to take them out of the freezer the night before and let them thaw in the fridge!
I love to decorate kids' cakes with fresh berries and fruit - last year Cash's birthday fell during the very short Nova Scotia cherry season, and that was a gorgeous topping. They also like to choose their own sprinkles at the Bulk Barn, of course. I don't always even offer ice cream with these cakes, since they are so spectacular on their own.
European Buttercream Frosting
adapted from Miette
This makes about 6 cups of frosting, which is enough to frost two six-inch layer cakes (the size of the cakes in the miette cookbook), but I think would easily stretch to frost two nine-inch layer cakes. It is silky and luxurious. As I mentioned above, it's useful to make this well before you need it, and not the same day. It can be refrigerated for up to a week or frozen for up to a month. Any cake with this frosting must be served at room temperature, otherwise the buttercream will be too hard and lose its silkiness. The cake will be best if it is assembled and decorated the day it is served.
2 cups (14 ounces) sugar
1/3 cup water
5 large egg whites
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
3 cups (1.5 pounds) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 Tablespoons vanilla extract
1. In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine the sugar and water. Clip a candy thermometer to the side of the pan. Cook the mixture until it reaches 248 degrees F, 5 to 10 minutes, keeping a constant eye on it.
2. Meanwhile, combine the egg whites and cream of tartar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. When the sugar syrup reaches 240 degrees F, begin whisking the egg whites on medium speed until soft peaks form.
3. When the sugar syrup reaches 248 degrees F, immediately pour it into a heat-proof measurer. Reduce stand mixer speed to low and very carefully drizzle the syrup into the mixer bowl, away from the whisk so the hot syrup doesn’t spatter. Be careful, because the syrup is very hot. When you have added all of the syrup, raise the speed to high and beat until the mixture is cool to the touch (an instant-read thermometer should register 65 to 70 degrees F), about 15 minutes.
4. Only when the meringue is cool enough should you begin adding the butter. Reduce the speed to medium. With the mixer running, drop in the butter, 1 tablespoon at a time, waiting until each is incorporated before adding another. The mixture may deflate and begin to look curdled. Raise the speed to high and continue to add tablespoon-size pieces of butter, making sure each is completely combined before adding more. When all of the butter has been added, the frosting should be smooth and thick. Add the vanilla and mix to combine.
5. Use the buttercream immediately, or cover and refrigerate until needed. Store in a zippered plastic bag for up to 1 week in the refrigerator and up to 2 months in the freezer. (To thaw, leave in the refrigerator overnight, not on the countertop.) To use buttercream that has been chilled, remove from the refrigerator and bring to room temperature, about 1 hour, then soften the buttercream over a bain-marie or a double boiler. The frosting will soften from the outer edges of the bowl so mix from the outside, folding the frosting inside. Take care not to let it melt completely. Transfer to a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and beat until soft and spreadable, 2 to 3 minutes. Don't worry if at first the frosting looks broken - it will come together with the beating!
For Raspberry Buttercream (I love this variation. Also works with strawberry and blueberry)
For each 1 cup of Vanilla Buttercream, stir in 3 tablespoons raspberry juice until well combined and smooth. To make raspberry juice, in a saucepan over medium-low heat, combine 2 cups fresh or frozen raspberries, 2 tablespoons water, and 1 tablespoon sugar. Cook, gently stirring the berries to help them break down, until the berries are liquefied, 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from the heat and strain into a heatproof bowl through a fine-mesh sieve. Let cool to room temperature before adding to the buttercream.