It's been a sweet year for cake! Our 2019 Recipe of the Year — Classic Birthday Cake — was one of our favorites. We spent months developing, testing, tweaking, and tasting the recipe to create the perfect version. Iconic and traditional with a close, moist, golden crumb and a mellow, rich chocolate frosting, this is the cake everyone dreams about for their birthday.
We spent the entire year celebrating this cake in all its glory. We walked through the recipe, step-by-step, showing you the unique hot milk mixing method. We showed you why natural cocoa powder is the key to the comforting, nostalgic flavor of the frosting. We broke down the method for turning it from a layer cake into a sheet cake.
We made it for countless birthdays of friends and family. We even baked and donated some cakes to a local Vermont non-profit which helps people struggling with poverty and homelessness.
And you all celebrated right alongside us! You posted your stunning photos throughout the year, letting us share in your own happy life moments, from birthdays of all ages to spring parties to special occasions. You topped it with candied flowers, styled it like a butterfly, turned it into cupcakes, and even made it into a Cat in the Hat book scene!
We couldn't let 2019 end without closing out this delicious cake-filled year in style. But given that it's New Year's Eve, we wanted to pull out all the stops. We wanted glitz and glam and show-stopping decorations! We wanted Champagne! We wanted cocktails!
Our 2019 Recipe of the Year is a perfect starting point for an over-the-top, impressive New Year's Eve-inspired cake.
So, we turned to an expert in over-the-top, gorgeous cakes: pastry chef Jessica Shearman. Jess is a baker who lives on the North Fork of Long Island, where she turns out incredible desserts inspired by local ingredients at a little pizza spot called 1943 Pizza that counts Ina Garten among fans. Her husband is the executive chef, overseeing the brick oven and dreaming up special toppings like slow-roasted lamb shoulder with caramelized onions or fresh local peaches with herbed ricotta and prosciutto.
Outside of the desserts she makes at the restaurant, Jess does special custom orders, relying on her culinary school education and endless imagination (see some of her creations here). Her cakes are anything but ordinary: Picture a three-layer carrot cake topped with real candied carrots, or a chocolate hazelnut cake topped with shards of caramelized hazelnut bark.
She was the perfect person to take our Classic Birthday Cake and give it the New Year's Eve treatment. Although her decorating techniques go beyond what we'll cover in this post, we'll give you an overview of how she created such a striking cake, and offer some tips for how to transform the recipe into your own boozy party-worthy version.
Transforming the flavor
First, Jess started by doubling our basic recipe, which yields two or three layers, so she'd have four extra-thick layers. You can easily do this too, but know that the resulting cake will get heavier as it gets taller, so it's harder to keep the edges perfectly straight.
Not to worry! Extra frosting hides any imperfections! Just make a double batch if you want a bigger, taller cake. (Leftover frosting is really just an excuse to make a baker's top secret dessert: frosting-covered waffles.) For even more tips, watch our video series on cake decorating, which will guide you through leveling your layers and more.
Before building and frosting the cake, we gave it the New Year's Eve touch with a booze soak! This is an optional, but simple, step to add flavor to any layer cake.
Simply place 1 cup (227g) of water and 1 cup (198g) of granulated sugar in a small saucepan set over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the sugar dissolves.
Stir in 1/4 cup (56g) of your desired alcohol; for this cake, we love to use Kahlua, Amaretto, or Frangelico.
Use a pastry brush to brush the syrup generously over the cake layers while still warm, then continue assembling your cake.
Once the layers were soaked, Jess stacked them, adding swathes of frosting between each layer, and then covered them all with a smooth outer layer of more frosting.
Tip: To get nice, clean lines on the sides and tops of the cake, use a bench knife to smooth the edges.
Making the decorations
Once the cake was frosted, she got to work on the decorations. We wanted to nod to the idea of a bubbly glass of Champagne without being too literal, so Jess created a flowing sculpture of chocolate balls, which she then painted silver and gold.
To create the balls, she uses a half-sphere silicone molds. She pours in melted chocolate, lets it set, then peels off the mold. She uses a kitchen torch to heat the edges of the two half-spheres, presses them together, and sprays them with a food-safe freezing spray to chill them and set them into a perfect round globe.
To fit them together, she has an ingenious trick. She heats up the edge of a stainless steel pastry tip, then presses it into the sphere to cut out a hole. This allows the balls to stack against each other.
She paints each ball with food-safe paint using a food-safe paintbrush.
These are all tools and tricks of a professional pastry chef! If you want to try your hand with some of these techniques, look in specialty baking stores or cake-decorating stores to find items like the paint, silicone molds, kitchen torch, freezing spray, and paintbrushes.
Now for the fun part!
Assembling the cake
Jess stacked the balls on top of the cake, reserving some halves to press up the sides of the cake, giving it the look of bubbles drifting. As she worked, she used her kitchen torch and freezing spray to stick the balls together (the heat seals them together and the freezing spray prevents them from melting and losing their shape).
The final result? A towering four-layer version of our Classic Birthday Cake with chocolate "bubbles" and deliciously decadent booze-soaked layers.
Now it's your turn! Ring in the New Year, and send off the old one, with a bang and bake your own over-the-top take on our 2019 Recipe of the Year.
Try a flavored soak on the layers, shower it in glittery gold sprinkles, or just forget the fancy decorations and toast the occasion with an overflowing glass of bubbly.
After all, what's a party without cake?
Thank you for making 2019 so sweet! Stay tuned for an announcement in the next few days about our 2020 Recipe of the Year. It may not be as sugary, but it's just as worthy of baking again ... and again ... and again.
For a look at all of our Recipe of the Year posts through the years, from banana bread to this classic cake, see our entire collection of blog posts.