Yesterday, our little bear turned three which, you know, is impossible since we are unequivocally certain that we just brought him home from the hospital yesterday. Seriously, right here, through the door to my right and we put the carrier that he was sleeping deeply within on the table. It looked strange there [Also, we were hungry and unsure of the logistics — is it rude to eat lunch while your newborn is on the table? Isn’t it worse to place him on the floor?] Sure, there were one or two hundred fewer fire engine parts, stuffed hedgehogs and train tracks scattered across the living room carpet, and maybe we looked a little younger and better-rested; I probably didn’t have my iPhone wedged between sofa cushions the way I do right now so that my talking-walking-doing things mini-human couldn’t co-opt it to watch Elmo videos again (how does he find them?), but otherwise, nothing has changed. Nothing! Don’t say it. Didn’t your mother teach you to never argue with crazy people?
I know a lot of people who have had babies lately and I feel like I should say something wise here because I understand how utterly hectic the first few months can be, not because newborns are particularly difficult but because you’re terrified you’re going to break them, or maybe just a little shell-shocked in general. One minute they’re slumped over your shoulder snoring the tiniest snore ever emitted and you feel utterly centered, a sense of all the generations that came before this one gathered invisibly around their squished faces in beaming admiration, and the next they’re red-faced and full of rage, their squawking mouths in a perfect open circle, and you and your significant other are frantically running through the checklist you keep in your heads (hungry? cold? tired? wet?) which grows more complicated every few months (is your swaddle loose? did you roll over in the night again and can’t get yourself back? so help us, did we put you to bed with the little George and you wanted the big one?) and more complicated still (“Mommy, we have to take Ernie, Bert and Twacktor back to the park.” “Jacob, it’s 2 a.m. Please go back to sleep.”). I also have a bunch of friends who are quite close to deciding to have babies but they’re so understandably freaked out by everything they read about the crying and the not sleeping and the life will never be the same ever ever again that they’re terrified to move forward. But I can’t. I have no wisdom to impart, no pithy catchphrases that will cause it all to make sense. I can only say LOOK AT THIS. I can no longer imagine life any other way.
I’ve always found the practice of having themed children’s birthday parties a little strange — I mean, isn’t the theme the kid? And how awesome they are? — and yet when it came time for my own son’s party, a salient summary of all of his loves was so evident to us, the party nearly planned itself. You see, he’s has had two obsessions in the last year; the first one is “horsies,” by which he means carousel rides, which means that the location (the prettiest carousel in all the land) was a no–brainer. The second is “choo-choo trains,” by which he means subways. He does not care where we go or what we do, only that it involves a subway ride. He has turned into the children in this beloved book, occasionally throwing a fit if he wanted to take the N train but it was the 6 that took us where we were going. It’s an odd thing for tourists to see, no doubt.
I won’t lie, nor could I to people who know me too well: I spent a bit of time planning the cake. You see, I really wanted to do a subway-inspired design but there were so many things I didn’t want to do: individual train cars were nixed for seeming like they’d require a frightening amount of decorating and candy; I wanted to use regular cake ingredients and frosting (why eat fondant if you could eat cream cheese frosting?) and no matter how lovely an all-gray (like a subway car!) or largely red/blue/orange/yellow/green (like the subway line colors) would be, I did not, in fact, want to eat a bottle of food dye with dessert. Finally, when our estimated party of 30 turned into an awesome party of 50, I needed a cake that would feed a crowd. And, of course, I didn’t want any plain old cake.
When I made a Monkey Cake for my son’s first birthday, I hadn’t much considered at the time that I was starting a tradition, one in which I would invent him a cake every year based on his current loves. But by the second year — a Celebration Cake that now lives in the cookbook, thus I wouldn’t want to spoil it — I knew this was going to be one of my favorite parts of each birthday. This year, I wanted include even more: a celebration of fall, apples and honey (a nod to the Jewish New Year that falls on his birthday), his obsession with applesauce, his curious affection for deeply spiced cakes — this kid, he likes gingerbread. Like, the intense kind, although we kept this one lightly spiced, to not scare the other children). And although I have zero quibbles filling a child’s birthday cake with both butter and refined flour (because if not on your birthday, when?), I was still hoping to find some level of moderation. It needn’t use all the butter; it shouldn’t make teeth ache from with sweetness.
What resulted was one of my favorite cakes yet, that quickly went under toddler attack; a dense, insanely moist spiced applesauce and honey cake studded with chunks of roasted apples. It’s covered with a vanilla cream cheese frosting that can easily be tinted to doodle the design of your choice (in this case, an abstract NYC subway map). It tastes like September, like a harvest, like blue skies and a crisp breeze, like the first cool day we took home what we affectionately call “The Mop Who Came To Live With Us.” It tastes, fittingly, like one of the best things we’ve ever baked.
A few more party details: I’m not sure I encourage this level of insanity, but nevertheless… I made a few hundred homemade wheat thins (holler if you want the recipe) and a double-batch of our beloved whole wheat goldfish crackers, freezing them a week before the party. (I’d also hoped to make some mini-graham crackers and mini-apple butter pop tarts, but ran out of time.) There were a few subway-ish sugar cookies (originally, I’d intended to make them look like the train letters and numbers, then realized that such things were better left to the experts.) We had a ton of chopped vegetables with my favorite buttermilk dressing as a dip, plus more grapes than we’ll get through in a lifetime. My awesome mom made lightly sweetened sun tea and lemonade, neither of which survived the party (drat). And the “happy 3rd birthday jacob” cake banner was created with some feeble Photoshopping on my part, card stock, baker’s twine, a thick needle, two wooden skewers, Joy’s instructions, and a lot of stringing help from Jacob’s babysitter while he graced us with a nap. I made little notches in the skewers so that the three levels of strings would stay in place, but ended up winding the skewers a bit when the strings were too long. And how could I forget? For favors, the kids got subway bags with subway magnets with the first letter of their names, other tiny toys and … a little rodent. Just like the real subway.
Martha Stewart Living: In the final weeks before having a baby, I didn’t buy burp cloths. I didn’t read any parenting or birthing books. But I did make a lot of brownies. I have an essay about this disconnect in the October issue Martha Stewart Living and what with today being all about that once-newborn, it seems a fitting time to mention it here.
Book Tour: Thank you so much for your amazing response to the book tour announcement. I wish I could get to every city, too. Please keep checking back to the book tour main page, as we will be adding and tweaking the details of events as they get closer. We just added a downtown Chicago event in response to those of you that were concerned that the two area events were so far from the center city. It will be posted shortly.
Roasted Apple Spice Sheet Cake
Why roast the apples? I tested this cake both ways and while small (1/2-inch chunks) of apple will cook through in the cake’s baking time, a little preroasting gives them the soft pillows of apple pie-like puddles that I think makes this cake better. It also allows for slightly bigger chunks, if desired.
If you’d like to make your own applesauce for the cake, I promise, it’s even easier than going to the store and buying the bottles you’ll need (though they’ll work just fine here). For my standard recipe, a mild, unsweetened one that allows the apples to shine, use 4 pound of any apples you like to bake with, or a mix, peeled, cored and cut into chunks, 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon, four big lemon peels (you can use a peeler) and 1 cup of water. Bring it to a low simmer, covered, and cook the apples for 30 minutes. Fish out the peels and puree it with an immersion blender. This yields approximately 6 to 7 cups of heavenly, Jacob-approved applesauce.
Yield: The recipe below makes a double-layer sheet cake and more than enough frosting to fill, coat the sides and top and have plenty leftover to decorate. It’s a monstrously huge cake, however, and could easily serve 40 to 50. The more logical way to make it would be as a single sheet cake, frosted in the pan (i.e. just on top); a single layer sheet cake will serve 20 to 25. To do this, halve the cake recipe and 1/3 the frosting. Finally, you could also make this cake recipe as a two-layer 9-inch round cake (serving estimate: 16), which I did last night. [Yes, I made another birthday cake to serve with our holiday dinner, since it was his actual day of birthday and a lot of family gathered. Also, because my tenuous grip on sanity has been well-established here.] For this, you’ll want to use half the cake batter below (then divided between your two round cake pans) and two-thirds of the frosting (to give you enough to coat and fill the cake, plus a bit left to decorate).
Updated to add 9/29/14: I made these as cupcakes for my son’s class. The total yield was 54 cupcakes and the frosting was sufficient (but not insanely thick, so if that’s your thing, you might need a little more).
6 medium apples, any variety you like to bake with, peeled, halved and cored
7 1/2 cups (940 grams) all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons (10 grams) table salt
1 1/2 teaspoons (8 grams) baking soda
2 tablespoons (30 grams) baking powder
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons (3 grams) ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon (1 gram) ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon (1 gram) freshly grated nutmeg
1 1/2 cups (505 grams) honey
4 1/2 cups (
585 grams updated: 1170 grams) applesauce
1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups packed (285 grams) dark-brown sugar
6 large eggs
3 8-ounce (675 grams total) blocks cream cheese, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups (3 sticks, 3/4 pound or 340 grams) butter, at room temperature
1 tablespoon (15 ml) vanilla extract
6 cups (720 grams) powdered sugar, sifted
Roast apples: Heat oven to 375°F. Line a baking sheet or roasting pan with parchment paper. Arrange apple halves face down on paper and roast in a single layer until they feel dry to the touch and look a little browned underneath, about 20 minutes. Slide parchment paper with apples onto a cooling rack and set aside. Reduce oven temperature to 350°F.
Make cake layers: Butter two 9×13-inch cake pans and line the bottoms with a fitted rectangle of parchment paper. Butter the paper as well. Feel free to use a nonstick baking spray instead of butter, too. [If you, like most people, only have one cake pan, don’t fret. Just bake half the batter and as soon as you can flip the cake out of the pan, wash it and start again with a fresh piece of parchment, baking the remaining batter.]
In a large bowl, whisk together flour, salt, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, ginger, cloves and nutmeg. In a medium bowl, whisk together applesauce and honey.
In a large bowl with an electric mixer, beat the butter and dark brown sugar until very fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, scraping down the bowl between every other addition. Add one third of the flour-spice mixture and mix it until just combined. Add half the applesauce-honey mixture, again mixing it until combined. [At this point, if you, like me, have a 5-quart KitchenAid, things are going to get a little full in the bowl. I suggest stirring in the remaining additions carefully by hand.] Add the second third of the flour-spice mixture, the remaining applesauce-honey mixture, and the remaining flour-spice mixture, stirring between each addition.
Chop roasted apples into smallish chunks (1/2 to 2/3-inches) and fold into batter. Divide batter between baking pans and bake cake layers, rotating the cake pans top to bottom and back-to-front halfway through the baking time, about 35 to 40 minutes, until a tester inserted into the center comes out clean. Transfer baking pans to cooling racks and let rest for 10 minutes, before flipping out of the pans onto racks, removing the parchment paper lining, and cooling the cakes right-side-up.
[Do ahead: I pause my cake-making all of the time here. I freeze the cake layers overnight, or until needed (up to two weeks, longer if your freezer doesn’t make things smell freezer-y for a while), wrapped in a double-layer of plastic wrap. When you’re ready to decorate them, you can do so while the cake is still frozen — it will be easier to handle/move/trim. Simply leave it at room temperature for a few hours once it is decorated or in the fridge for a day to fully defrost. More layer cake tips live here.]
Make the frosting: Whip butter and cream cheese together with an electric mixture until light and fluffy. Beat in vanilla extract. Add powdered sugar and beat again until smooth and light.
Decorate your cake: Arrange first cake layer on cake board or serving platter, tucking pieces of waxed paper underneath the outer edges to keep your platter clean while you decorate (which I forgot to do, typically). Use a serrated knife to level the top, removing any dome so that the next layer will rest neatly on top. Thickly spread about 1/3 of frosting on the bottom layer, then transfer the cake to the freezer for just 5 or 10 minutes, to firm up the filling. Place the second cake layer on top of the filling. Trim the top again until level (if desired; seeing as you’re not adding another layer, it would be for a neat appearance, not for cake stability). If the sides don’t align perfectly with the bottom layer, you can trim them until straight as well. Thinly apply a coat of frosting over entire exterior of cake. Once again, you can get this to “set” quickly by sliding the cake into the freezer for 5 minutes. One set, add your final coat of frosting, a thicker more decorative one. (This is of course where you can add any decorations desired. You should have plenty of leftover frosting to go to town with.)
Remove bits of waxed paper and serve with a big “ta-da!” Should any survive the party, this cake keeps exceptionally well in the fridge. Five days out, our leftover pieces are, if possible, more moist than one day one.