When I try to explain to acquaintances what sort of a person my father is, I tell them about how much he’s done for me and Mike in the three years since we’ve bought our house. He started with painting, installing a new toilet, tiling the entryway, and laying down a vinyl plank floor in the kitchen. Then he moved on to wiring our garage and installing new counters and a dishwasher. We helped somewhat–Mike much more than me, because my impatience and high-strung personality combine to make me the DIYer from hell–but the knowledge was all Dad’s, gleaned from years of working on his own houses and an intrinsic mechanical aptitude (he’s a retired electrical engineer). This litany of projects usually impresses, and that’s the point. He’s a capable person, generous with his time and talent.
It goes deeper than remodeling. He taught me how to knit, how to make tuna noodle, and the importance of always having a piece of scratch paper when working on a math problem. He builds things–a swing set made from pine trees he cut down and stripped of their bark, a compost bin made from an old plastic barrel. He bakes clover leaf dinner rolls in muffin tins, cardamom bread dripping with icing, and cinnamon rolls, the dough sliced carefully with a length of dental floss to keep the swirl intact. He can change motor oil, butcher a deer, and cleanly flip a 9×13 cake out of its pan, into his hand, and then onto a cooling rack.
He has his faults: a streak of stubbornness, a tendency to grow too many rutabagas and then try to foist them off on me, and using what my kindergarten teacher would call his “outside voice” whenever he talks on the phone. But what sums him up is something that my mother said to me years ago, during my teenage phase of anguished embarrassment at my parents’ existence. “I married your father,” she said, “because he was so nice.” What I think she was trying to express didn’t sink in until years later, after I had left home and saw my parents through the lens of adulthood. My mom didn’t mean that my dad was merely pleasant, the person who always asks how your weekend was and genuinely cares about the answer (although he does). I think she was trying to say that there are people who look at each day as a chance to give instead of simply take, people that are level-headed and unbelievably kind. There are too few of these people in the world, but my dad is one of them.
And this is his sixtieth birthday cake.
The cake recipe is from Ina Garten, as published in Food & Wine. The buttermilk lends a moistness with a light touch, and the coffee, although quite assertive in the batter, just adds a hint of depth to the finished cake. I used instant coffee–I dissolved a rounded teaspoon of coffee into one cup of boiling water, and let it cool for about fifteen minutes.
The original cake recipe features a chocolate buttercream frosting, but I wanted something lighter for an 85+ degree day and used a whipped cream frosting from Epicurious. I only needed about 3/4 of the frosting, but you could use all of it if you like your cakes thickly coated. Otherwise, you can reserve the leftover frosting for a later use. Frankly, chocolate whipped cream is a lovely dessert in its own right, especially layered with fresh raspberries in parfait glass.
The cake can be prepared a day ahead of time, and should be stored covered in the refrigerator.
2 cups granulated sugar
1 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup canola oil
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup hot coffee
1 cup powdered sugar
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 cup milk
pinch of cream of tarter
2 cups chilled heavy whipping cream
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Spray two 9-inch round baking pans with baking spray.
Combine sugar, flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl. Mix until completely incorporated.
In a medium bowl, beat the eggs with the buttermilk, canola oil, and vanilla. Add to dry ingredients and mix just until dry ingredients are fully moistened.
Using an electric hand mixer, mix the batter on low speed, gradually adding the coffee, until batter is smooth and coffee is fully incorporated. Pour batter into prepared pans.
Bake for 30 minutes, or until a cake tester or toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Cool cake layers in pans on wire racks for 30 minutes, then remove from pans and place on wire racks until completely cooled.
If needed, level the top of the cake layers with a large serrated knife.
In a container with a tightly fitting lid, beat together the sugar, cocoa powder, milk, and cream of tarter until smooth. Cover and refrigerate until chilled, 1 to 4 hours.
Transfer sugar mixture to a large bowl. Gradually beat in the cream with an electric mixer, 1/2 cup at a time, until fully incorporated. Continue to beat until stiff peaks form.
Place a cake layer on a platter or cake stand. Thickly spread the top of the cake layer with frosting.
Add the second cake layer and spread frosting over the top and sides of the cake. Cover cake and refrigerate until serving.