The birthday cake search, and last year's espresso chiffon cake with fudge frosting

When you love to bake, making your own birthday cake and having someone else clean up the kitchen is like a present to yourself. The hard part is choosing which cake to make.

Laura Edwins/The Christian Science Monitor
This espresso chiffon cake is light and moist, with a strong coffee flavor. Substitute decaf espresso if concerned about caffeine, and top with fudge frosting.

Last year, for the first time, I baked my own birthday cake. It's not as sad as it sounds. 

My boyfriend is not a cook, much less a baker of cakes. Scrambled eggs and Ramen noodles are about the extent of his repertoire. My mom, sister, and grandmother, all wonderful bakers, live 1,400 miles away in Florida. I have a roommate and friends who would be more than happy to buy me a cake, but in my opinion, icing tastes best when licked off the mixer beaters. 

I love to bake, and don't get to do it as often as I would like, so my birthday is the perfect excuse for an extravagant baking project. I get to break out the stand mixer and the cake decorator and go to town.

Every single birthday growing up I requested the same cake, the Southern Living Coca-Cola Cake, a chocolate sheet cake that calls for 1 cup of Coca-Cola in the cake, and 1/3 cup in the chocolate frostingThe Coca-Cola cake is divine, amazing, maybe my all-time favorite, but last year I figured it was time to mix it up (and maybe grow up a little). So I hit my favorite food blogs, and quickly found Smitten Kitchen's espresso chiffon cake with fudge frosting. The chocolate addict within me swooned, and soon I was convincing myself buying a third cake pan to make the three-layer cake was an excellent investment. 

Though I made some minor adaptations to the recipe, the cake came out moist and light, just as the recipe promised, and tasted like a chocolate espresso-laced dream, plus, my boyfriend cleaned up the whole cake, frosting, decorating mess (it being my birthday and all). The cake has a very strong coffee taste, which I loved, but if you're concerned about caffeine, substitute some or all of the espresso for decaf. 

With my birthday coming up again I've been on the hunt for this year's cake. I'm open to new ideas, though my one requirement is that chocolate must feature heavily, either in the cake, the frosting, or both. I've narrowed it down to four finalists.

There's the orange cake with dark chocolate and cream cheese frosting from Stir It Up! guest blogger Mollie Zapata, a classic yellow birthday cake with fluffy chocolate ganache frosting from Boston-area chef Joanne Chang, another Smitten Kitchen creation, a sour cream-chocolate cake with peanut butter frosting and chocolate-peanut butter glaze, or the classic Monitor chocolate cake, which rumor has it, is the best chocolate cake ever. 

Right now I'm leaning toward the Monitor chocolate cake with vanilla butter cream icing, so I can use sugared flowers to decorate it, but there's still a couple weeks until my birthday, and I'm having trouble getting that espresso chiffon cake out of my mind. 

Espresso chiffon cake with fudge frosting
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen
Makes an 8- or 9-inch triple-layer cake

1/4 cup vegetable oil

6 eggs, separated

6 tablespoons (a little more than 1/3 cup) freshly brewed espresso, cooled to room temperature (may use decaf espresso) 

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1-1/3 cups flour

1-1/2 cups sugar

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar

1. Procure your espresso. I took a measuring cup to a coffee shop near my apartment and just had them fill it up to 2/3 cup; that covers the cake and the espresso syrup (see recipe below). It cost me about $2.50. To get exactly 6 tablespoons and 1/3 cup you can add a tiny bit of water to the espresso.

2. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line the bottom of three round cake pans with wax paper. Cut some extra strips of wax paper to keep your platter clean while frosting the cake (see instructions below). 

3. In a large bowl, sift together the flour, 1 cup of the sugar, the baking powder, cinnamon, and salt. Set aside.

4. In a medium bowl, combine the oil, egg yolks, espresso, and vanilla; whisk lightly to blend. 

5. In large bowl, using an electric mixture, whip the egg whites with the cream of tartar on medium-low speed until frothy. With the mixer on high, gradually add the remaining half cup of sugar. Continue to beat just until soft peaks form.

4. Add the espresso-egg yolk mixture to the dry ingredients and fold together just enough to combine. The batter will be really runny. Add one-fourth of the beaten egg whites and fold them in to lighten the batter. Fold in the rest of the whites just until no streaks remain. Divide the batter among the three prepared pans.

5. Bake the cakes for about 18 minutes each, or until a cake tester, or wooden toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool the cakes completely in the pans, then run a butter knife around the edge of the pans to release the cakes. Invert onto wire racks and remove the wax paper.

6. To assemble, use a flat plate or platter and place strips of wax paper around the edge of the first layer of cake. This will keep the icing from getting all over your plate. Place the first layer, flat side up, on the plate. Brush the cake with 1/3 cup of the espresso syrup. Spread fudge frosting (see recipe below) evenly over the top of the layer. Repeat with the next two layers, then frost the sides. I like to use just a regular butter knife for frosting cakes. For the frosting decoration, I used the drop flower tip on the Pampered Chef cake decorator, which I borrowed from my mom.

Espresso syrup
Makes one cup

1/3 cup hot, freshly brewed espresso (may use decaf espresso)

1/3 cup sugar

1/3 cup water mixed with 1 tablespoon vanilla extract

In a bowl, stir together the espresso and sugar until the sugar dissolves. Add the water and vanilla and let cool to room temperature.

Fudge frosting
Makes about 5 cups

6 ounces unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled

4-1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar

3 sticks unsalted butter, softened

6 tablespoons half-and-half or whole milk

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

The Smitten Kitchen calls this "instant fudge frosting," and says to place all the ingredients in a food processor, pulse to incorporate, then process until the frosting is smooth. I don't have a food processor, so I used a hand mixer which took a bit longer, but worked fine.

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