Sunday, May 1, 2011

How NOT To Bake A Birthday Cake; My Lever House Cake Made From Scratch' Gets Scathing Reviews; Plan 'B' Saves the Day

I have a cookbook in my collection entitled 'The Lever House Cookbook." It was published in June of 2006 and I had never paid much attention to it until searching for a cake to make from scratch to celebrate my son-in-law's birthday this weekend. My daughter, as I've mentioned before, has a cake baking business but wanting to give her a day off, I volunteered my services. I was also cooking dinner and decided at the last minute to make a fresh fruit salad as an alternate dessert. It was a good thing I's always smart to have a 'Plan B'.

Make no mistake, the tepid reaction to my cake was no doubt in part to my making some changes in the recipe and not the fault of the master chef associated with Lever House. But when I realized that the cake was going badly I went into overdrive (as I am known to do) and overcompensated by throwing more sweet stuff into the mix..... in a manner of speaking.

But first, let me tell you a few things about the history of the Lever House. I only knew it as a skyscraper on Park Avenue and was confused why they had a cookbook. Lever House, the restaurant, opened in 2004 and was nominated that year for best new restaurant by the James Beard Foundation. Lever House Executive Chef Dan Silverman was one of Food & Wine magazine's Ten Best New Chefs of 1997. Mr. Silverman along with Joannn Cianculli are the authors of the book. But as things go, the luxe restaurant closed in 2009 and was replaced in 2010 with a restaurant called Casa Lever, a Milanese-style restaurant with a superb menu from Chef Mario Danieli.

Lever House, the building, was the American headquarters of the British soap company Lever Brothers. Designed by Gordon Bunshaft it is located at 390 Park Avenue in New York City. When it was completed in 1952, it was the first curtain wall skyscraper in New York City. The building contains a courtyard with gardens and public space. In 1982, Lever House was designated an official landmark by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission though by that time much of Lever House's original brilliance had deteriorated. When Unilever, the parent company of Lever Brothers decided to move their headquarters to Conn., the company began vacating the building, retaining only the top four floors. The property was sold in 1998 and a multi-million dollar renovation was begun and now includes marble benches and a sculpture garden in the building's plaza. In 2003, the Lever House Restaurant opened.

But enough of the history, let's get back to my cake. The recipe called for buttermilk, I used 2 percent. The recipe called for mayonnaise, I used the low fat kind. The cake never achieved the chocolaty look I expected but looked a bit mocha-colored and I'm not sure why. The recipe called for three round pans to be filled 2/3 full. I did not have enough batter to achieve that and should have adjusted, instead using two pans. As a result, the three layers were a bit flat and didn't allow me to shave too much off the top to make the layers flat. The cake was listing like the Titanic two hours after being hit by the iceberg!

The original recipe called for ganache, brittle crunch for the layer filling and chocolate buttercream icing. 
I made vanilla butter cream icing and filled in some of the gaps with the sweet confection. Not leaving well enough alone, I topped the cake with mini-chocolate chips and sprinkled some on the sides. Them in a fit of what could only be called sheer madness, I melted and drizzled light blue chocolate over the whole thing. Yikes! It was a cake only a dentist looking for work would love!

Worse than that, it really didn't taste great. The cake's texture was a bit muffin-like (coarse) and the icing was way too sweet. There was some left on everyone's plate and no one asked for seconds, not even my two-year-old grandsons who wouldn't think twice about eating sugar straight out of the bowl if they could get away with it! But through the miracle of trick photography, the cake (pictured above) looks about the best it could, but I urge you to follow this recipe to the letter and hope for better result....or even better...maybe use a cake mix.

Tomorrow (Monday) is my son's birthday. He lives in Massachusetts and if he reads this, is probably happy to be spared the experimental cake that I gave my son-in-law. Sometimes, distance is a good thing! By the way, the fresh fruit salad was a big hit.

Lever House Favorite Birthday Cake
1 3/4 cups of cocoa powder
1 1/2 cups boiling water
3 1/2 cops all purpose flour
1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup mayonnaise
3 1/2 cups light brown sugar, lightly packed
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups buttermilk


  • Preheat oven to 375 degrees
  • Coat three 9 inch round pans with no-stick cooking spray and dust with flour.
  • Cut rounds of parchment paper, place in pans and spray lightly.
  • Put cocoa powder in bowl and pour boiling water over it. Stir until completely mixed. and is smooth and glossy. Cover and set aside.
  • Sift together flour, baking soda and powder and salt. Re-sift.
  • In standing mixer, put mayonnaise, eggs, sugar and vanilla in large bow. Mix for about 4 minutes.
  • Add sifted dry ingredients to mix.
  • Add buttermilk and mix until there are no lumps.
  • Add chocolate mix by hand, folding in until completely combined.
  • Bake on middle rack for about 15-20 minutes until cake springs back.
  • Cool for about 10 minutes and remove from pans.
  • Ice cake with your favorite icing.

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