Wednesday, July 23, 2014

S'mores Layer Cake (and a five-year-old birthday)

I should admit it: I made a S'mores Layer Cake for Cedar's birthday out of guilt. I was trying to abate the feeling that I have robbed him of the cool things of childhood. The bags of candy. The television. The noodles and the juice. This is the kid who eats kale for breakfast. By choice. This is the kid I insist balance "all that fruit" with a healthy handful of cashews, "so you don't get a sugar overload." And as of a few days ago, he didn't even know what graham crackers were.

But he turned 5 on Friday. In just one month he will be walking into kindergarten. And though mostly I am just deeply thankful the earliest years are over, that we have the kid's science museum and California history and lunch boxes (!) in our immediate future, I'm also way too aware of all I failed at these five years. Too many times when I said "no." Too many times didn't let him try and make a mess. Too little focus on the process.


So it isn't only about the s'mores-y sugar; it is what the sugar represents. Freedom. Frivolity. Fun. Lightheartedness. These are not my strengths.

Usually I make a summer list for myself, things I want to do or see or eat in a season. But this time I only made a Cedar list. It is a guilt-ridden last ditch effort before he starts school to imprint positive, golden-edged memories in his rapidly maturing five-year-old brain. Camp in the woods. Climb at the gym. Popsicle date. Sushi date. Swim at the pool. Eat s'mores. Play at the beach. Bake a batch of jam filled flower cookies. And (aah!) have an extra special five-year-old birthday party, with kids.

In the next two weeks we'll tick off a few of the list items in one day. And over last weekend, my parents hosted Cedar's official five-year-old birthday party. There were kids. And cousins. And friends. So what if most of the "kids" happened to be siblings of just one family. It was just enough. The result was four little boys running amok, digging in dirt, catapulting into the blowup swimming pool, laughing hysterically, scaring the wits out of spectators (young and old), and throwing their mothers into a sentimental fit.

I say "mothers," ha! It was only me. I paced around wringing my hands, repeating over and over "my baby, my baby; he's five he's five." Becoming, I am sure. Maybe nobody noticed?


I guess I need say it: where have all those years gone?! Sentimentality is so easy when you work so gosh darned hard to make a person, keep them alive and reasonably loved, and walk with them through the terrors of meeting the world for the first time. Cedar flipped out of the pool into the pear tree when trying to slide into the pool on Saturday, and he paused for only a moment. Then he made the same rambunctious attempt again. Later, he got hold of a sheet of bubble wrap and stamped and popped and made a ruckus like anyone else. This is the boy who used to scream at the sight of said bubble wrap because he knew how loud it was. Or grab at his ears wailing when surprised by the coffee grinder. Or cower at the sight of the vacuum.

And yet - there were no candles this time. He didn't want us to sing. And it took hours and a slice of cake and four small, nagging children to get him to open his gifts. He doesn't like the attention. Good, then. He is only five. Perhaps there is still time.


Time, maybe, not to make amends but to keep walking forward together? I mentioned my sentimental motherly woe to Kevin's aunt the night after the party and she was wise. Acknowledge failure in parenting, she said. (Done.) Apologize for true wrongdoing. (Done.) But don't mourn over situational should-haves. Children are new at life and don't know what they are missing. They don't do much blaming at age five. So take a deep breath and decide, quietly, what to do differently tomorrow, and what to do the same.

Well then. Cedar, you don't have to blow out candles. We don't have to sing you happy birthday. And you don't even have to open presents when you are supposed to. Sugar is not a food group, but I will bake you s'mores cake and let you lick the beaters and the spatula and the bowl. You can sift the flours, and you can make a mess. We will eat the cake at the party after dinner. And we will eat it the next night - after the peach and cashews - together. Happy birthday my big little one. May you see in my efforts not the guilt of regret but the hope of my parenting best. Enjoy.

S'mores Layer Cake   

Adapted from The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, by Deb Perelman

I'd like to think I am too sophistocated for a cake like this, all marshmallow sweet and graham cracker fun.  And toasted! But this is every kind of s'mores nostalgia. It is gooey and dark and over-the-top, and I am - ha! - smitten. Next time I will make double the marshmallow frosting and split the layers in half. Because the kids left cake on their plates but ate all the frosting, and I, too, wanted a more balanced cake to icing ratio. The frosting is sweet, but also light, and with my tweaks to the chocolate and icing instructions, I believe the cake needs it. Halving the cake and baking it in six-inch pans (and still splitting the layers) would have the same effect. Take note.

If you need to spread out the cake production, the ganache and the cake can be baked a day or two ahead of time, but the frosting is best used immediately, so says Deb. I concur. Serve as soon as possible and refrigerate if it is warm. The frosting will deflate a little and sort of melt as time goes on, which I thoroughly enjoyed, but fresh is best.

Serves 16

For the cake:

1 cup unsalted butter, softened, plus more for pans
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups honey graham cracker crumbs, finely ground and sifted (from ~14 sheets)
2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoons fine grain sea salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1 cup dark brown sugar
4 large eggs, warmed to room temperature
2 cups old-fashioned buttermilk (not non-fat)

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter two 9-inch round cake pans and line each bottom with a disk of parchment paper. Butter the parchment and lightly coat the whole sh'bang with flour.

In a medium bowl sift together the dry ingredients: flour, graham cracker crumbs, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon. Whisk and set aside.

In a large bowl cream the butter and sugars until pale and fluffy, about five minutes. Crack the eggs and slip them into the bowl, one at a time. Beat well and scrape down the sides after each addition.

Add the flour in three additions, alternating with the buttermilk. Stir in additions until just combined every time. Scrape down the sides as you go.

Pour even amounts of the batter into the prepared pans, spread evenly, and slide them into the hot oven. Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until a skewer poked into the center of each cake comes out clean.

Cool in the pans for about ten minutes, then run a knife around the sides to loosen and turn out onto racks bottoms down. Cool completely. 

For the ganache:

I used 6 ounces Scharffen Berger milk chocolate and 3 ounces 61% Valrhona Le Noir chocolate. It was just right. I could handle darker, too. But note that Scharffen Berger's milk is quite a bit darker than most milk chocolates. If you want the same effect without using the same brands, use about half milk chocolate and half bittersweet.

9 ounces mixed milk and dark chocolate, ones you'd like to eat
3/4 cup heavy cream
2 pinches sea salt

Put the chopped chocolate into a medium heat-safe bowl. Bring the heavy cream and salt to a boil in a small saucepan until it bubbles in the center as well as the sides. Pour the hot cream over the chocolate, cover with a plate, and let sit for a couple minutes. Then whisk until smooth and glossy. Place in the fridge to cool, stirring every so often. Or, if you are rushed, stir over an ice water bath until thick and set. (The latter is quick as a church wedding kiss.)

For the marshmallow icing:

4  large egg whites
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Combine the egg whites, sugar, and cream of tartar in the bowl of a stand mixer set over (not in) a small pot of simmering water. Whisk constantly until the sugar is completely dissolved and the whites are warm to the touch. This should take a few minutes. (I use the whisk attachment of my mixer to do this, so I don't have to wash another utensil.)

Take the bowl off the heat and attach it to the stand. Beat with the whisk, starting at a low speed and increasing to a high speed (to reduce splattering and spillage), until glossy and voluminous and stiff peaks form, 4-7 minutes. Stir in vanilla. Use immediately.


Level the tops of the cake layers with a serrated bread knife if they are wonky. Set the first layer on a serving board or platter and dollop about half the ganache in the middle. Spread evenly just barely to the edge of the cake. Spoon the frosting into a piping bag fitted with a large round piping tip (or a Ziplock with a corner snipped off) and pipe big, billowy, marshmallowy mounds (about 2 1/2 inches in diameter) all over the surface. This doesn't have to be perfect, but keep each dollop touching the next. If you happen to have a blowtorch kitchen torch, clear the area of people, animals, plants, and objects, and brown the mounds. I like my marshmallows dark, so feel free. Don't forget to turn the cake to get all the sides. Note that the tips of the mounds will likely flame up. It helped to have Kevin close and me ready to blow out flames as needed. Repeat with the top layer, setting it on top of the first layer bottom side down. I made this cake naked, without icing on the sides, and with the toasted marshmallow frosting it had a bit of wow factor to it. So use all the icing. Be generous. There is the perfect amount for these two layers. Serve at room temperature as soon as possible. (Mine waited around for four hours at 750-80 degrees. A little smoosh-y and slide-y.) Enjoy!


  1. Regarding the ratio of frosting to cake: I LOVED IT. This was one of my favorite cakes. Not quite the ultimate white/rainbow cake (with the missing recipe), but it was SO good. The marshmallow did not overwhelm the cake, but it was gooey goodness that was present enough to delight and mix with the chocolate. Just wanted to mention how much I liked the cake to counter the frosting-loving kids. =)

    1. Thank you for piping in, Mara. Always good to hear from the peanut gallery!