Updated (again) photo from Christmas 2016 remake– update at the bottom!
You know how athletes often learn to visualize a victorious race or a perfect routine? When I’m baking something new, especially something exciting and beautiful, I often have a mental image of what I want it to look like; it’s usually pretty, elegant, professional-looking, and maybe it even has a little glowing aura around it. As is written in the recipe introduction in Baked Elements, this Holiday Spice Cake with Eggnog Buttercream from the Cinnamon chapter is a *special* cake, and I wanted to do it justice. I had an image of it looking similar to a photo posted on BAKED’s Facebook page, in which it was decorated with their signature frosting swirl and a dusting of spice around the edges. Unfortunately, when I try to visualize a successfully decorated cake, the actual results often look nothing like the image in my mind. Full-sized layer cakes are not my specialty, though I enjoy the challenge; I feel like they usually end up looking clumsy or juvenile. I’m happy to say that my cake tasted delicious, even though it was not the visual delight I had hoped for. I am tempted to re-bake when an important recipe goes awry, but I wasn’t able to do so this week, though I had to at least re-do the frosting so I could sleep at night– and it was a good thing I did!
The assembled Holiday Spice Cake is the quintessential sugary expression of the holiday season. I would describe the cake portion as a light gingerbread cake, as that is basically what it is: fresh ginger, dark molasses, vanilla, cinnamon, and allspice, albeit not as dark as traditional gingerbread. Despite a long list of ingredients and a few extra preparation steps, the cake is completely worth the time and effort, I assure you. Use the best possible ingredients that you can, as their quality will be reflected in your finished cake. I suppose that pre-ground ginger would work fine, as would jarred minced ginger, but using the freshly grated ginger prescribed in the recipe will give your cake a richer spicy depth. On the recommendation of the BAKED masterminds themselves, I used organic Blackstrap Molasses– this stuff is blaaaaaack. I thought it might be too intense, but it gives the cake its gorgeous honey brown color and deep flavor. As always, I recommend Penzey’s Vietnamese Extra Fancy Cinnamon and Nielsen-Massey Vanilla Extract— the good stuff. Make sure your allspice is fresh; I hadn’t used mine in a while and realized that it didn’t have much of an aroma when I opened the container, so I bought a new one– HUGE difference.
The cake is made by creaming the butter and vegetable shortening (*shudder*) in a stand mixer, adding the sugars and vanilla, and then a whole egg. The pre-sifted dry ingredients (except the spices) are then added, alternating with additions of water. Next, you will combine the ginger, cinnamon, and allspice in a small bowl with the molasses. And quite possibly, you will feel immediate intoxication when you sniff this heavenly mixture– it smells just like gingerbread!
You will then add the thick, syrupy goo into the mixer bowl and fold it (gently by hand with a spatula) into the batter. The spices and brown color should swirl beautifully into the white mixture. Finally, whip the egg whites to soft peaks and fold them in to finish the cake batter. I whipped mine in a mini Kitchen Aid bowl with its smaller beater/whisk tool, and this did not work terribly well; I had quite a bit of liquid egg at the bottom of the bowl, but I folded it all in anyway, and the batter looked great. It was a dark yellow color, flecked with the spices, and had a medium-thick consistency.
The recipe calls for three 8-inch cake pans, which I don’t have. My choices were 6-inch or 9-inch pans, and I decided on the 6-inch pans because my intimate Christmas gathering did not warrant a massive 3-layer cake. Also, that way I had enough batter left over for six cupcakes. This was pleasing to me. 🙂
The suggested baking time for the cakes is 25-28 minutes, but my little munchkin cakes were still not done in the centers at 32 minutes. The aroma in my apartment was downright sublime as they baked– I knew this would be a wickedly delicious cake! I took them out at this point because I didn’t want to dry out the edges, crossing my fingers that the cakes weren’t raw in the middle… I don’t believe my layers were unreasonably thick so as to cause uneven baking, so perhaps I could lower the oven temperature slightly or move the cakes around the oven more next time? Two of the cakes did sink a bit in the center, but after they had cooled, all three layers were quite usable.
This is one of my cake layers from 2016 so you can see what it should look like (not the messy 6″ ones that I originally made).
I then put in the cupcakes, which took about 19 minutes– no complications were had. Ah, I love cupcakes for so many reasons.
I wrapped up all the cakes overnight and made the frosting the next day. When I was looking over the recipe for Eggnog Buttercream, at first I thought there was a typo– where was the eggnog? Then I realized that I didn’t exactly know what eggnog is made of, and once I looked it up, I was pleased to note that I was essentially making the eggnog flavor from scratch. (Although double-fisting one glass of eggnog for drinking and one for baking is not a half-bad idea… 😉 )
The frosting recipe is unique because it’s like a hybrid of American “buttercream” (i.e. not cooked) and a traditional cooked buttercream, though it’s cooked in a different way than classic European versions. The cooking part involves making a roux-like concoction of sugar, flour, milk, and heavy cream; normally cooked frosting calls for boiling a sugar syrup or warming egg whites with sugar. (Take care not to overcook the mixture, as it will stick to the bottom of your pan and you will end up with browned chunks in your frosting.) The roux is then beaten to room temperature in a stand mixer, at which point you add the butter; it should then begin to resemble fluffy frosting… I would like to say that my buttercream was smooth, luscious, and creamy, but… it wasn’t. This was the second time I had made a version of BAKED’s buttercream, and both times I had similar problems. The taste was divine, but the texture was all wrong (sort of curdled-looking), so the frosting was not exactly attractive…
I pressed on anyway, adding the eggnog flavoring components: dark rum, vanilla extract, cinnamon, and nutmeg. I would venture to say that the depth and quality of flavor in this frosting relies heavily on the quality of these ingredients. I used my precious Belizean “One Barrel” rum (which I hoard for special baking purposes only), vanilla, cinnamon, and freshly grated nutmeg. (The difference between freshly grated and pre-ground nutmeg is pretty amazing; trust me, it’s worth the time and extra expense.) Unfortunately the frosting texture did not improve once all the ingredients had been incorporated. Bah humbug.
Being short on time every that day, I had to use my less-than-desirable buttercream to frost the Christmas cake– no time to troubleshoot. Even though it didn’t have a smooth texture, I was able to fill and cover the cake– that was one tall, skinny cake! If you own a cake decorating turntable, I highly recommend busting it out, as it really makes frosting the cake so much easier. I first applied the “crumb coat”, a thin layer of frosting all over the cake to seal in any loose crumbs.
And for contrast, this one is from 2016.
After chilling the cake briefly in the fridge to firm up, the recipe advises to decorate it very simply; its inherent elegance does not need much embellishment on the outside. As I mentioned earlier, what I picture in my head is rarely what materializes; I planned to dust the cake with cinnamon infused with Disco Dust (edible glitter), then garnish with a few fondant snowflakes.
Even though this sounded fairly simple, it still managed to look a little gaudy, in my opinion. Nevertheless, I am thrilled to say that the cake tasted pretty damn fantastic! It was moist and decadent, despite a complete absence of chocolate. (I know, it’s a nearly inconceivable notion…) The warmth of the spices and the depth of the dark molasses paired with the eggnog goodness… It was like Christmas cheer in my mouth.
However, my buttercream woes weighed heavily on my mind; this frosting quandary could not be left unanswered. I promptly consulted with my Baked Sunday Mornings homies to brainstorm solutions for successful buttercream execution. Sometimes frostings appear “broken” (separated or curdled) right before they magically come together in creamy, emulsified perfection; would it have done so if I had kept beating? I suppose it will forever remain one of the great unsolved mysteries of our time. *sigh*
Fortunately, my second try was much more successful. I received the following invaluable advice from my fellow bakers:
- Pour the roux through a sieve before beating to ensure a smooth mixture.
- It is absolutely crucial to add the butter pieces G-R-A-D-U-A-L-L-Y. The first time, I dumped it all into the mixer, and it was a mess. I suspect that this made all the difference!
- Optimal butter temperature is very important. The recipe calls for “cool, but not cold” butter, though I felt that it was too cold to beat into the roux smoothly. For the second batch, I used room temperature butter, bordering on softened. It whipped into the roux much more easily, and there was no trace of curdling or other such textural conundrums.
Once my frosting had achieved the right consistency, I added the eggnog ingredients. They whirled into the buttercream seamlessly, and I ended up with a smooth, velvety mixture that truly tasted just like eggnog! I’m not a huge fan of very boozy desserts, and this was just the right amount of rum to provide the necessary flavor without the boozy kick; adjust according to your preferences.
Whereas my first batch was overly fluffy (if you can call it that), the second batch was on the soft side. I was in a rush making it, so my roux was ever-so-slightly warm when I added the butter. Also, the butter was maybe a touch softer than needed. I would say room temperature, but not softened, would be ideal. As instructed by the recipe, I stuck the bowl in the fridge for a bit to firm up, and then re-whipped… Oh my, who even needs cake when you can eat this straight from the bowl?? 😉
Eggnog Buttercream Batch #1 (left) followed by the much more successful Batch #2 (right)
In case you were wondering what happened to my six cupcakes, they had a very happy ending. My Eggnog Buttercream v2.0 was the perfect consistency for piping plump, creamy swirls. I transferred the frosting to a pastry bag and chose a large open star tip. I felt like I was onto something with the glittery cinnamon and fondant snowflake toppings, so I took a chance on them again. For some reason, my decorating style seems to be more suited to cupcakes than full-sized cakes; this very same decoration that looked clumsy on the big cake was simple, elegant, and delightfully expressive of the winter holiday season on the sweet little cupcakes.
Sometimes recipes need to be altered slightly for cupcake adaptation by adding an egg yolk or some such minor change. In this case, I did not feel that the batter needed to be changed in any way. The cupcakes were moist, yet held their shape and supported a thick layer of frosting with no apparent discomfort. (No cupcakes were harmed in the making of this blog post.)
I’ve been told that I have a “cupcake face”, meaning that when I eat a really good cupcake (or cake, or chocolate, or any enchanting dessert, for that matter), apparently it elicits an expression of pure confectionary ecstasy. Let’s just say that Cupcake Face was in full effect with this cake. 😀
If you are looking for a spectacular cake for your Christmas dinner or holiday party, look no further! Visit Baked Sunday Mornings and you shall find the recipe for this beautiful and delicious Holiday Spice Cake with Eggnog Buttercream.
Thank you for coming along on this Stellina journey with me in 2012– there are many more delicious recipes coming in the New Year, and I hope you’ll continue reading! Happy Holidays to you and your loved ones! 🙂
UPDATED 2/15/2015: I finally made this again for Christmas 2014 and was able to make a cake I was proud of… until it completely broke earthquake-style during transport to our dinner destination, but that was my fault for making it last-minute and not giving it time to set in the fridge! Fortunately I managed to snap a few photos before that happened. (And it was still totally delicious and got devoured, for the record.) I bought 8″ pans immediately after making this cake back in 2012 for all the BAKED cakes that I knew I would make, so this second one was the proper size. However… I could not believe that the same thing happened with the curdled-looking frosting! I’ve made BAKED frosting so many times now with great results, so I thought I had it down, but this one showed me that I can never take it for granted. What was awesome was that I was able to rescue it pretty easily by heating the bowl gently over a pot of simmering water, then chilling, and re-beating. It really does come down to the butter being the right temperature to smoothly incorporate into the cooked flour/milk mixture– warm room temperature, but not quite softened. I. LOVE. THIS. CAKE. *sigh*
UPDATED 2/3/2019: So for reals it took me another four years to update this post with better photos. After my earthquake cake, I made the cake yet again two Christmases later (2016), and it was the prettiest one yet. It is staggering to look at my cake-decorating and frosting-making skills now versus back in 2012! Unfortunately I don’t have any shots of the pretty cake after cutting for some reason, but that way you can see the terrible frosting and decorating that I started off with… OOF.
(P.S. If you are learning how to decorate cakes and not feeling great about your current skills, take this as proof that if you practice and keep doing it, you will improve immensely!)
© Dafna Adler & Stellina Sweets, 2012, 2015, & 2019.