Monday, July 2, 2012

Matt's Birthday Cake (Carrot Cake with Blueberry Preserves, Blueberry Milk Crumbs, and Cream Cheese Frosting)

Oh, how do I start this one.  For as long as I've known him, I've made my husband Matt a birthday cake that incorporates his favorites - carrot cake, which is his lifelong birthday cake, and blueberries.  Never together though - it's always been carrot cake or some sort of cake with blueberries.

But this year, he deserved the cake to outdo all other cakes.  Carrot cake and blueberries.

I'll admit I was inspired by the layer cakes at Momofuku Milk Bar, which I am fairly outspoken about not being a fan of, mostly because everything there is overloaded with sugar.  But I do like the many layers of flavor and texture in their cakes - a little bit of crunch is often an unexpected but welcome addition to a cake - and the method of construction that allows all the layers to be seen even before slicing into the cake.

There are four components to this cake, none of which are difficult (I promise) and all of which can be knocked out  in the time it takes to bake and cool the cake.  Then there's the assembly and, the hardest part, chilling the cake to set it before you can dig in.

The carrot cake is a recipe I've adapted from a carrot cupcake recipe in Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc at Home and it's by far the best carrot cake I've had.  It's incredibly moist without being sticky - I cut back on the sugar a bit to let the carrots shine.  And that big dose of shredded carrots in the batter makes the cake taste intensely of carrots rather than of spices, which all too often is what carrot cake tastes like (and I did dial down the cinnamon, which is probably my least favorite flavor in the world, except when it's part of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, and no, there is no logical explanation for this).

Between the layers of carrot cake are homemade blueberry preserves cooked with a smidge of orange zest and juice.  I generally like lemon with blueberries, but I often put orange zest in my cream cheese frosting for carrot cake so I decided to go with that citrus in the preserves as well.  (I will admit that I didn't cook my blueberries long enough and ended up with way too many whole ones in the mix - don't be impatient like me and let them cook down a bit more.)

On top of the blueberry preserves are blueberry milk crumbs, an idea taken straight from Momofuku Milk Bar.  The milk crumbs are sort of a spin on streusel, with milk powder taking the place of most of the flour and lending a nutty, milky flavor - I have to say this idea is a stroke of genius.  I had to include these in this cake - between the cake, preserves, and frosting, it's all soft everything, and I had to add something crunchy.  What can I say, I like crunchies in my cake - this goes back to my days of Carvel birthday cakes and eating out all the crunchies in the middle before eating the vanilla ice cream layer.  Anyhow, I used this recipe and cut back on the sugar (as you should always do with MMB recipes unless you're a sugar fiend) and added ground freeze-dried blueberries.

A simple, straightforward cream cheese frosting brings everything together and adds that classic flavor that always reminds me of bake sales and autumn birthday parties.

So you see, it's not at all hard to make, but it's a perfect combination of flavors, particularly for someone  you love who loves carrot cake and blueberries.

Happy birthday, Matt.  Here's to many more years of this eating this cake together.


Matt's Birthday Cake (Carrot Cake with Blueberry Preserves, 
   Blueberry Milk Crumbs, and Cream Cheese Frosting)
makes a three-layer 6" cake - serves 6-8

Carrot cake
1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1 1/4 cups + 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons cornstarch
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 large eggs
3 tablespoons whole milk
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2/3 cup turbinado sugar
3/4 cup canola oil
2 1/4 cups finely shredded carrots (from about 8 medium carrots)

Blueberry milk crumbs
3/4 cup nonfat dry milk
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 ounces (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
3 ounces (1/2 cup) white chocolate
35 grams freeze-dried blueberries (I got these at Trader Joe's and used the entire package)

Blueberry preserves
1 pint (~2 cups) fresh blueberries
1 tablespoon freshly-squeezed orange juice
1/2 teaspoon orange zest
1 teaspoon cornstarch
2 teaspoons granulated sugar

Cream cheese frosting
12 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
2 ounces (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
2/3 cup confectioners sugar, sifted

Special equipment
6" cake ring
Two 4" x 20" pieces of acetate
7" cardboard cake round
All of these are available at cake supply stores


Carrot cake

Heat oven to 350 F and a place a rack in the middle of the oven.  Line a 9" x 13" pan with parchment (butter or lightly oil the bottom of the pan, place the parchment on top, then grease and dust with flour) and set aside.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the whole wheat pastry flour, all-purpose flour, cornstarch, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, and salt.

Add the eggs, milk, vanilla, granulated sugar, and turbinado sugar to a large bowl and whisk for 30 seconds.  Add the oil and whisk until well-combined.

Add the flour mixture and mix until just combined.  Add the shredded carrots and mix until combined.

Pour the batter into the pan, then bang the pan a few times on the counter to remove any air bubbles and level the batter.

Bake until the top is light golden and a toothpick comes out with a few small crumbs attached, about 25 minutes.  Let the cake cool fully in the pan.  Run an offset spatula around the edges of the cake and turn it out onto a wire rack, then peel off the parchment.  Set the cake aside.

The cake can be made several days ahead and stored in the refrigerator wrapped tightly in plastic wrap.

Blueberry milk crumbs

Lower the oven temperature to 200.

Combine 1/2 cup of the dry milk, flour, cornstarch, sugar, and salt in a medium bowl.  Stir in the melted butter until all of the dry ingredients are absorbed.  Transfer the mixture to a small sheet pan and bake, stirring every few minutes, until the milk crumbs are light golden brown, about 12 minutes.

A few minutes before the milk crumbs are done, melt the white chocolate in a microwave-safe bowl (I did this in two 25-second bursts and stirred well after the second round).  

Transfer the milk crumbs to a medium bowl.  Add the remaining 1/4 cup dry milk to the bowl and stir well to combine.  Add the melted white chocolate and stir well.  Put the bowl in the fridge and stir the mixture every 5 minutes.  Once the white chocolate has solidified, break up any large pieces into pea-sized chunks.

Pulverize the freeze-dried blueberries either in a mortar and pestle or spice grinder.  Add the powdered blueberries (about 5 tablespoons) to the milk crumbs and mix well to combine.

Refrigerate until ready to use.

Blueberry preserves

Add all the ingredients to a small saucepan and cook over medium heat until 2/3 of the berries have burst and the mixture is thick, about 10 minutes.  Transfer the preserves to a small bowl and set aside.

Cream cheese frosting

Add the cream cheese to a medium bowl and beat well until very smooth.  Add the butter and vanilla and beat well until incorporated.  Add the sugar and beat until combined.  Set aside.

Assemble the cake

Use a 6" cake ring to cut two circles out of the carrot cake.  For the first circle, position the ring so that the right side is in the center of the cake and the bottom edge is nearly flush with the bottom edge of the cake.  Cut the second circle similarly, with the left side of the ring at the center of the cake.  Use a large offset spatula to transfer the two cake rounds to a wire rack.  Cut a crescent shape out of the remaining cake by positioning the ring above one of the cut out circles, with the top edge of the ring aligned with the top edge of the cake.  Cut another piece of cake, this time with the bottom edge of the ring aligned with the top edge of one of the cut out circles.  (See this tutorial in the Washington Post for some tips on cutting the cake rounds and assembling the cake.)

Wipe the ring clean, then center it on a 7" cardboard cake round set on a small plate  Line the ring with one of the acetate strips.  

Place one cake round in the bottom of the ring and press it so that it fits snugly.  Top the cake with half of the blueberry preserves and 1/2 cup of the milk crumbs.  Portion out 1/3 of the frosting and drop it in dollops on top of the milk crumbs.  Use a small offset spatula to gently spread it around, being careful not to pick up too many of the milk crumbs.

Insert the second acetate strip between the cake ring and the first strip so that approximately 3" are sticking out at the top.  Top the frosting with the larger crescent shape piece of cake.  Fill in the gap with the smaller cut out piece.  Pull off small pieces from the remaining cake and use those pieces to fill in any gaps.  Top the cake with the remaining blueberry preserves and another 1/2 cup of the milk crumbs and 1/3 of the frosting.

Top the frosting with the remaining cake round, the remaining frosting, and 1/2 cup milk crumbs (you'll have about 1/3 cup of small pieces left - use them for something else).

Place the cake in the freezer for four hours to set the layers.  Remove the cake from the freezer and take the cake off the plate.  Hold the cake in one hand use the other to gently push the cake ring down off the cake.  Set the cake back on the plate and gently peel off the acetate strips.  Refrigerate the cake for several hours, then serve.

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