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Monday, 7 February 2011

Birthday cake (Κέικ γενεθλίων)

for a more traditional Greek birthday cake, make karidopasta tourta.

I'm not much of a baker. I bake when I have to. My baking exploits usually run as far as making a batch of biscuits once a month and mixing up a cake batter once a week, which is nearly always turned into muffins rather than a cake, for the purposes of portion control. In this way, it's also easier to put it into the children's lunchboxes (which begs the question: when the children aren't children any more, will I stop bothering to make cakes?). Another bonus about these 'healthy' low-in-sugar cakes is that no one else in the house eats them; my husband believes that they are simply not sweet enough. Good thing, in my opinion; some of us do not need to eat cake much these days. Since my baking is done mainly for functional reasons, I never ice cakes and biscuits. I find just the idea of icing anything exceedingly tiring, not to mention extra fattening. I usually think: "Why bother"? All that work, on top of all those calories, just to impress. Is it really necessary?

chocolate beetroot muffins apple pie muffins
Chocolate beetroot muffins; apple pie muffins -  the kids never complain, which gives me a good excuse to carry on with the same old routine. Even this year's vasilopita got a muffin makeover.

I recently held a birthday party for my son, and decided that this time, I would have to bother, it is really necessary to do something different, and yes, I was out to impress. Commerically bought birthday cakes are expensive: such a cake, yielding 20 servings, will cost about 35-40 euro at a zaharoplasteio, plus, it's likely - no, 'it will' is more correct - to contain artifical flavourings, artificial colours and fake cream.

I have no culinary decorating/icing skills, so I was a bit sceptical if I could pull it off myself. I decided to stick to family favorites, using the same cake recipes that I usually make. Here's how I turned an ordinary banana/zucchini cake into something more spectacular.

You need:
1 banana cake, made according to the recipe, and baked in a 20x30cm dish/tin
1 zucchini chocolate cake, made according to the recipe, and baked in the same 20x30cm dish/tin
orange marmalade - I had some home-made stuff; whatever you use, make sure it's high-quality! (raspberry or strawberry jam can also be used instead)
chocolate icing - this needs a bit of explanation...
decorations of your choice - mine were overly simple, yet very effective

Special healthy birthday cake

Make up each cakes, and let them dry overnight. In this way, they will be firm and more easy to play around with. If they have risen too much, they need to be flattened: I did this once they had cooled down by slicing off their tops and making them look like flat rectangular slabs. Don't worry too much if you break up a corner; this can be repaired.

In the morning, place the darker (chocolate zucchini) cake on a prepared base. (I made mine from a large piece of cardboard which I covered in aluminium foil.) Spread a thin layer of jam/marmalade over the top of the cake. Now place the lighter (banana) cake over the chocolate layer and press it down firmly. Any broken bits can be repaired at this stage by 'sticking' them with jam/marmalade. Leave a light weight (eg a baking tin with a packet or two of beans or rice) over the cake slabs to ensure a more even finish.

Icing is a challenge for the health-conscious (and amateur) cook.  Ready icing (of the type that we read about in US/UK blogs) is not easy to find in Hania. In any case, icing invariably involves sugar, fat and chocolate, all of which I try to avoid as much as possible. Such ingredients are found in excess in the food that my family consumes outside the home, at any rate. The Little Laughing Olive Tree happened to be visiting me at this stage and she suggested that I use a packaged chocolate glaze for the cake which she says she's used before with great success. "You'll only need about 2 packets," she said helpfully, "and it spreads in minutes." We went shopping together to find it. When I saw the size of the packets at the supermarket, I began to doubt her advice (and culinary experience). I bought 6 packets (instead of the 2 that she suggested).

Since the Little Laughing Olive Tree was in town, I decided to make some afghan biscuits, a rich favorite Kiwi dessert which is usually topped with chocolate icing. I never ice them, but on this occasion, I thought of the experience as a trial run for my debut icing foray. Boy, am I glad I did: After applying 5 of the 6 packets of the ready glaze, the sides of the birthday cake were still bare! At the last minute, I then made up a batch of this icing (1 cup icing sugar, 5 tablespoons of very hot water, 2 tablespoons of cocoa powder), which turned out to be more than enough to finish the cake. Spreading the icing wasn't as difficult as I thought it would be, while the decorations were all made according to simple designs. We also managed to place a white ribbon round the edges of the cake to give it a clean fnished look; all's well that ends well!

birthday cake
Birthday cake with a sapce theme (see slideshow for instructions on how to make the planets)

When the time came to cut the cake, I realised that, because the cake was 'tall' and very filling (it tasted almost as rich as a fruit cake, which it practically was with all the fruity flavours of so many organic ingredients), the children only needed a small piece to satisfy their taste buds (before they disappeared from the bowling alley where the party was held, and got lost in the electronic games parlour of the establishment where the party was held), so about half the cake was left over, which we took back home with us. 

I thought I'd be able to get away with putting the cake into the kids' lunchboxes for the rest of the week, but that's not the way things turned out for the leftovers at all. Instead, I found my husband hiding pieces of the cake to ensure that he would get his fill (we're talking about the only person in the house who rubbishes my healthy cakes). Obviously, the zesty orange marmalade filling and the sweet chocolate icing gave those banana/zucchini cakes a whole new lease of life...

birthday cake
I didn't expect this cake to end up looking so perfect, both inside and outside.

This cake reminded me of the kind of cakes we used to have in New Zealand with coffee. It didn't need refrigeration, unlike the store-bought Greek birthday cakes from the zaharoplasteia. Because it turned out so well, I am actually looking forward to making something similar and more elaborate, but no less healthy, for my daughter's birthday. I'm not alone in the quest for cheap and healthy fancy cakes: they are less costly and  healthier, and in the end, the cook feels good about her efforts.

Much as I ultimately enjoyed this experience, I have to say that my own birthday celebration will be a much quieter one; if you are in the vicinity of MAICh today, I'll shout you a coffee!

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