Saturday, June 20, 2009

Green Tea and Guinea Pigs

Emi's upcoming 1st birthday has me in a tizzy over all the party planning details. Okay, sure it's still more than four months away, but I don't even have a theme yet! Last weekend we went to my friend's son's 1st birthday party and I was inspired by her toy blocks cake (which took her six hours to decorate.) On the way home I resolved to bake and decorate Emi's cake.

But what kind of cake should I make? And how should I decorate it? Should I go with something commercial like Sesame Street, or was there some way to incorporate Emi's favorite board book Where is Baby's Belly Button by Karen Katz? I quickly discarded both ideas - one was too easy, the other too hard. My sister wanted to make panda bear cupcakes, but I wasn't totally sold on the idea.

The next night I was up late watching "Cake Boss" when my muse struck. I remembered a beautiful wedding cake I saw on Charm City Cake's web site. It was covered in a pale green fondant with dark tree branches wending up along the sides. Delicate, pink cherry blossoms added another dimension to the cake, which was topped by an origami-like crane. I loved this cake.

"This cake is so amazing, it would almost be worth divorcing you and getting remarried, just to have this cake at my wedding," I'd told Brandon.

Not exactly appropriate for a 1 year-old's birthday.

But that didn't mean I couldn't play around with the motif, right? I'd made Emi's birth announcements using Japanese washi paper that had hopping bunnies and cherry blossoms ... Come to think of it, we had green tea cupcakes topped with fondant cherry blossoms cutouts at my baby shower.

"Brandon, I know what kind of cake I'm going to make for Emi's party!" I exclaimed, shaking my slumbering husband. "Green tea cake filled with fresh strawberries and whipped cream frosting, decorated with bunnies and cherry blossoms. What do you think?"

"I think you should go to sleep!"

But I laid awake for another hour, finalizing the details in my head. I decided to do a practice round using my Auntie Midori's family as guinea pigs. Brandon and my dad were going to play in a Bay Area golf tournament the day before Father's Day, so the whole family planned to spend the day visiting Auntie Midori.

I started baking late Thursday night, after the summer heat had waned from 96 degrees to somewhere in the low 80s. My initial plan was to use a recipe I found on the Internet, which I'd used to make green tea cupcakes for my baby shower last year. But after 45 minutes in the oven the center still jiggled slightly, while the edges were already well past "golden brown."

I decided to try a different tact.

Grabbing my copy of "Barefoot Contessa" from the cupboard, I scanned Ina's recipe for chocolate buttercream cake and a plan began to take shape. I just omitted the cocoa powder and vanilla, and substituted green tea for brewed coffee. Here's what I did:

Green Tea Cake
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
3/4 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
2/3 cup granulated sugar
2/3 cup light brown sugar, packed
2 large eggs, room temperature
1 cup whole milk
1/2 cup sour cream, room temperature
2 tbs. green tea "matcha" powder

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line the bottoms of two cake pans with parchment paper, then butter the paper and pans before dusting with flour. Tap the pans to remove any excess flour. In a bowl, combine flour, baking soda and salt.

Using another bowl, whisk together milk, sour cream and green tea until well combined.

Cream together butter and sugars using an electric mixer set on high. Lower the mixer's speed and add the eggs. Set the mixer to low and alternately add the milk mixture and flour in thirds, starting with the milk and ending with flour.

Pour the batter evenly into the two cake pans and bake on the middle rack for 25 to 30 minutes. Let the cakes cool for 10 minutes on a rack before removing from pans. Cool cakes completely before icing.

While the cakes were baking in the oven, I started working on the decorations. I kneaded food coloring into some fondant and rolled out pink and green pancakes, before cutting out floral and leaf shapes with vegetable cutters I'd bought at Nishiki Market in Kyoto. But I had used too much rose-colored icing gel and ended up with bright, pink flowers - day-glow bright.

They were also flat and uninteresting. I tried adding some dimension by curling up the petals using my thumbs since I didn't have one of those ball tool thingies I'd seen professional pastry chefs use on TV. But all I did was overstretch the fondant. Frustrated, I scrapped the flowers and rolled them back into a ball, deciding to tackle the issue later.

I was still chewing over the problem the next morning when Brandon came into the kitchen and started examining my cake decorations. "Are they supposed to be this hard?" he asked, tapping one of the leaves. "Is it edible?" Opening another container, he pulled out the fluorescent pink sugar ball I'd abandoned the night before. "What is this?"

"Fondant," I replied defensively. "It's for the cherry blossoms."

He looked at the fondant skeptically. "Maybe you've been watching too many cake shows."

But another idea had come to me during the night. After shooing Brandon out of the kitchen, I used a knife to carefully etch veins on the now-hardened sugar leaves. It worked! The additional detailing gave the fondant leaves more depth. I used the same technique to give the flower petals some definition.

Ha! Eat that Brandon!

ince it was summer, I wanted to keep dessert light and refreshing so instead of the traditional buttercream frosting, I went with a chocolate whipped cream icing recipe I found on epicurious and just left out the cocoa.

I sliced some strawberries and dusted them with powdered sugar to take away some of the tartness. While the berries macerated in the fridge, I took out the first cake layer and placed it flatside up before carefully spreading a layer of frosting over the surface with an offset spatula. Next, I arranged strawberry slices over the frosting, making sure fruit covered the entire cake, and added more frosting. Then I carefully plopped the second cake layer on the filling, flatside up, and began frosting the rest of the cake.

When it was time to serve my dessert, I arranged three blossoms and three leaves in the center of the cake. In the end, the cake looked pretty, but the taste was only so-so. It was a lot denser than I thought it would be, and you could barely taste the green tea. I left the cake uncovered in the fridge for several hours, so that most likely contributed to the denseness and probably flavor as well.

Ultimately, I realized green tea cake with strawberry filling is probably too sophisticated for a 1 year-old. I still think it's a great flavor combination, and I'll probably tinker with the recipe a bit more. But for now, I've got to practice making white cake with buttercream frosting.

The other night I had another great idea - making homemade ice cream for Emi's birthday. I decided to let her eat cake and ice cream for the first time at her party...


  1. I laughed outloud when I saw the day-glo flowers. It reminded me of when you came back from China with that neon yellow dress after I told you to wear more color. This green tea cake recipe/adaptation sounds much better than the ones we were looking at for the baby shower. Cannot wait!

  2. For Valentine's day I cut out hearts from fondant and left them out on a rack to dry for a day or so- as long as they stay out in the air, they'll stay hard. You could probably curl the leaves by drying them out over a spoon or something.