A Very Special Birthday Cake

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My grandmother is an amazing lady.  You can feel the force of her love for her family—she wears it . . . she EXUDES it.  When I knew I would be visiting my family for her 80th birthday (and knowing that she hates “fuss” over her birthday), my mom and I plotted over a suitable excuse to make her a killer birthday cake.  We decided to claim we were “combining” my couple-weeks-late family birthday celebration and her on-time one, knowing she’d never say no to her granddaughter getting a little birthday party.  My grandmother has made me tons of special birthday treats throughout my life (mostly her homemade vanilla ice cream–a post on that soon!), so I was very excited for the opportunity to make one for her.  And I knew just the cake.

This cake started its life as my favorite cupcake recipe.  A few years ago, I discovered a cupcake blog by baker Cheryl Porro (now defunct, sadly, although the delicious archives are still there!), and the most delicious little specimen of cupcake I had yet come across:  Lavender Cream with Citrus Cream Cheese Frosting.  Now, you may love the SMELL of lavender but never considered it something to cook with–well, let me assure you, it is a stellar, creative, and versatile ingredient in sweet treats.  Lavender honey is divine, lavender infused sugar adds a gorgeous scent and depth of flavor to baked goods, and lavender syrup whipped into fresh, homemade whipped cream is really special.  I made some adaptations to the original recipe: namely substituting her cake recipe for my favorite, easy, almost 1-bowl cake recipe.  It’s the classic “1-2-3-4″ cake recipe, named such for the ingredient ratios (1 cup milk and butter, 2 cups sugar, 3 cups flour, 4 eggs).  The lavender whipped cream and citrus cream cheese frosting are basically Cheryl’s, although I always up the citrus zest and lavender from her original recipe.

*A few tips for baking, and cakes in particular.  Room temperature ingredients are super important for the easiest and best end product.  Softening butter in the microwave is a shortcut, yes, but often results in your butter being TOO soft.  Melted butter won’t cream with the sugar properly.  Eggs and milk should also be, if not totally room temp, at least on their way there.  Don’t scrimp on the “creaming” stage.  Yeah, if you don’t have a stand mixer, it’s an arm workout to hold the mixer for 5 minutes or more, but it’s worth it in the texture of the cake.  And remember not to pack your flour!  I don’t have a sifter, so I just use a fork to sprinkle the flour into my measuring cups (don’t tap it on the counter either–that defeats the purpose) and the edge of the fork handle to level it off.

Lavender Cream Cake with Citrus Cream Cheese Frosting

(adapted with gratitude from Cheryl Porro’s Lavender Cream Cupcake with Citrus Cream Cheese Frosting recipe)

Ingredients:

Cake
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
3 cups sifted all-purpose flour, plus more for pans
3 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups granulated sugar
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup milk
1 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

Lavender Whipped Cream
1 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup water
1 rounded tablespoon lavender flowers

Citrus Cream Cheese Frosting
1 stick butter
2 8oz packages of cream cheese
2 teaspoons mixed citrus zest (from lemons, limes, oranges, whatever citrus you have)
2 teaspoons citrus juice (same as above)
4 cups confectioner’s sugar

Instructions:

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  1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Arrange two racks in center of oven.
  2. While your cake ingredients are getting to room temp, make the lavender syrup.  In a small saucepan, combine the 1/2 cup water and 1/4 cup sugar, and heat over medium-high heat until the sugar is dissolved.  Add the lavender and let sit on heat undisturbed for 3 minutes.  Remove from heat, strain into a small bowl and allow to cool completely.
  3. Spray three 9-inch round cake pans; line bottoms with parchment paper. Dust bottoms and sides of pans with flour; tap out any excess.
  4. In a large bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
  5. Cream butter on medium speed until softened, 1 to 2 minutes. Gradually add granulated sugar, beating on medium speed until lightened, 3 to 4 minutes; scrape down sides once or twice. Drizzle in eggs, a little at a time, beating after each addition until batter is no longer slick, about 5 minutes; stop once or twice to scrape down sides.
  6. On low speed, alternately add flour mixture and milk, a little of each at a time, beginning and ending with flour mixture. Beat in vanilla.
  7. Divide batter evenly between the prepared pans. Drop each pan from 3 or 4 inches above the counter once or twice to get rid of air bubbles and prevent the tops of the layers from doming.  Bake 25 minutes, then rotate the pans in the oven for even browning. Continue baking until a toothpick inserted into the center of each cake comes out clean, 10 to 20 minutes more. Transfer pans to wire racks to cool, 15 minutes. Turn out cakes; set on racks, tops up, until completely cool.
  8. While the cake is baking and cooling, make the lavender whipped cream and frosting.  For whipped cream:  Begin whipping your cream in a large bowl (or stand mixer if you’re lucky enough to have one) until soft peaks form.  Slowly drizzle in the lavender syrup and continue to whip on high speed until firm peaks form.
  9. For frosting:  Soften butter on high speed, add cream cheese and beat until combined.  Add half your sugar, citrus zest, and juice, and continue to beat.  Continue adding sugar gradually until the desired consistency is achieved.
  10. Remove the parchment from bottom of each cake.  Set aside the prettiest layer for the top of cake. Place another layer on a serving platter. Place a small dollop of the cream cheese frosting in the center (this helps “glue” the layer in place, since whipped cream doesn’t hold quite as well) and spread a layer of the lavender cream over the layer. Place second cake layer over the first, and repeat the process with the small amount of cream cheese frosting and larger amount of whipped cream. Top with the final layer, and frost entire cake with cream cheese frosting.  Garnish with addition citrus zest, lavender flowers, lime slices, whatever you think is pretty!
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Casey Clark