birthdays are important
Around here, birthdays are important.
I learned this from my mom, who knows how to make birthdays special. On our birthdays, she would open a space for my sister and me to glow with the gladness only the birthday girl can have. On every birthday that I’ve had memory for, my mom has woken me up at 6:51 am and recounted to me the afternoon English lesson with the Chinese man, the unfamiliar sensations she later identified as contractions, the overnight labor, the waiting for the doctor, my pointy head. She makes the spiced prune cake that I eat as breakfast and snack for the next three days, too. For my sixteenth birthday, she and my sister stuck sixteen notes in my calculator and in my chemistry book and on the mirror and in my shoes. I glowed all day.
So when Dan was set to turn 25 on October 25, I knew I had to make it special. This was only his second birthday as my husband, and I’m much more practiced at received the specialness of a birthday than creating it for someone else, so I plotted carefully.
We drove out East, while the weather was still warm and before Sandy hit, to visit our friends. In Ann Arbor, Jeanne and Nate fed us well and reminded me how to play Euchre and told us about other kinds of graduate school, namely medical and dental. We’re so happy that there are people learning to diagnose us and mend us and clean our teeth, but we’re even happier that we are not those people.
We crossed Ohio on Saturday morning while listening to Over the Rhine and marveling at the brilliance of the rest stops along the turnpike. Food! Gas! Restrooms! And no need to leave the highway!
In the afternoon, Pennsylvania’s hills exposed the blooming autumn color, spreading the trees like clusters of fire and giving us a view from the top of the bluff. But we recommend avoiding the southern route, I-76, and instead traveling the northern route, I-80. Trust us. You could get a good meal out of the money we paid in tolls, and the vistas are at least as beautiful.
We arrived in Richboro, PA, just in time for dinner with Ryan and Jaci. Their home in the parsonage is both gorgeous and comfortable, and I slept nearly ten hours that night, if that gives you any indication of the kind of house they keep.
The four of us drove into Philadelphia on Sunday to eat what might have been the most-anticipated meal of year: Philly cheesesteaks from Tony-Luke’s. Somehow, I had made a terrible deal with Dan that required me to eat a cheesesteak with Cheez Whiz. When I chickened out and ordered mine with provolone and sautéed spinach, he offered me a bite of his but made me promise I wouldn’t change my mind and regret not ordering mine “whiz wit.”
After our goodbyes, back in the car we went, past a field overrun with pumpkins, onto the highway, and into New Jersey to see Jeff and Amanda. We’d feel gypped if we saw these two and didn’t play at least one board game, and, true to form, we had barely taken off our shoes before we were deciding whether San Juan or Carcassonne should occupy us before dinner. We ate at Nomad Pizza, a little outpost of light in the New Jersey darkness, and devoured our pizza right up to the crust just so we could take our time with that band of chewy, blistered perfection.
The next day held a six-mile hike through the Sourland Mountain Preserve, which was harder to navigate in fall, when the leaves weren’t so much fallen as completely obscuring the path. But Jeff led, and we each marched in the footsteps of the person ahead of us, comparing seminary stories and envisioning the church in ten years and trying not to catch our toes on tree roots.
We said another goodbye the next morning before the sun was quite up, drove back across Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan. The trees’ luster diminished the farther we traveled, but we didn’t mind. Back home there would be cake.
Chocolate-Banana Layer Cake
I must warn you: this is not a simple cake. I was inspired by Sarah Britton’s chocolate-banana birthday cake, but I worried Dan would be turned off by the overt healthfulness of the whole thing. Plus he doesn’t like nuts disturbing an otherwise good cake. So, hunting for something a little more indulgent, I looked to Deb Perelman and found a chocolate cake and a banana cake, both originally from Gourmet, and adapted them as a layer cake: two chocolate layers sandwiching one banana layer, filled and frosted with chocolate ganache.
With limited counter space and only one stand mixer, I had to wash dishes at every step, all the while telling Dan to stay out of the kitchen. But the effort was worth it. We sliced ourselves each a thick piece on his birthday and then wrapped it up to share with our friends later.
I recommend that you mix and bake the chocolate layers first and then make the banana layer while they’re in the oven. When they’re done, turn up the oven, bake the banana layer, and make the ganache.
Double Chocolate Layer Cake
3 ounces semisweet chocolate
1 1/2 cups hot brewed coffee
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup white whole wheat flour
1 1/2 cups unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch process)
2 tsp. baking soda
3/4 tsp. baking powder
1 1/4 tsp. salt
3 large eggs
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
3/4 tsp. vanilla
Preheat oven to 300ºF and line two 9-inch round cake pans with parchment paper cut to fit the bottoms.
Finely chop chocolate, put it in a bowl, and pour hot coffee over it. Stir occasionally until the chocolate is melted.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the eggs until thickened, foamy, and the color of butter (3-5 minutes). In the meantime, in another large bowl, sift together sugar, flours, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Set aside. When the eggs have thickened slightly, slowly add the oil, buttermilk, vanilla, and coffee-chocolate mixture, mixing until combined. Add the dry ingredients and beat until well-combined.
Divide the batter between the pans and bake, rotating halfway through, until a toothpick comes out clean, about 1 hour to 1 hour and 10 minutes.
Cool layers completely in pans on a wire racks. Run a knife around the edges, invert the pans, and slide the cake onto the rack. Remove the parchment paper.
1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup white whole wheat flour
1 tsp. baking powder
3/4 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
2/3 cup brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 cup mashed ripe bananas (2 or 3 large)
3 Tbsp. plain, whole-milk yogurt
1 tsp. vanilla extract
Turn up oven to 350ºF. Line another 9-inch round cake pan (a springform, if you have one, to make the removal easier) with parchment paper.
In medium bowl (not stand mixer yet), sift flours, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. In stand mixer, mix butter and sugar until blended and fluffy. Beat in one egg at a time, then the mashed bananas, yogurt, and vanilla. Finally, beat in half of dry ingredients, stirring until combined, and then the remaining dry ingredients, until just combined. Scrape batter into pan.
Bake until toothpick comes out clean, about 40 to 45 minutes. Cool on wire rack, cut around the cake, and invert. Remove parchment paper.
1 1/2 lb. semisweet chocolate
1 1/2 cup heavy cream
3 Tbsp. sugar
3 Tbsp. light corn syrup
6 Tbsp. (3/4 stick) unsalted butter
Finely chop the chocolate. In at least a 1 1/2 quart saucepan, bring cream, sugar, and corn syrup to a boil over low heat, whisking until sugar is dissolved. Remove pan from heat and stir in chocolate, whisking until melted. Add sliced butter into frosting, whisking until smooth.
Scrape frosting into a bowl and cool until spreadable, stirring occasionally. This can be done in the refrigerator, but you must be vigilant about stirring, or it will get lumpy and uneven. Better to place the bowl in another bowl of ice water and stir.
Assembling the Cake
When layers are completely cool, use a serrated knife to slice off the domed top of the banana layer and one of the chocolate layers. Save to eat for breakfast or a snack. Working on a plate or the bottom of a springform pan (this will get messy), spread ganache on the dome-less chocolate layer, set the banana layer on top, spread ganache over that layer, and then stack the final chocolate layer on top. Smooth the remaining ganache over the sides and top of the whole tower. Carefully slide the cake onto a cake stand or other serving platter. Here are helpful instructions (with photos) for assembling a layer cake.
Cake keeps covered in the refrigerator for five days. Bring it up to room temperature before serving.