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Operation Birthday Cake: A New York City Black & White

When tapped recently to help out with a good friend’s birthday party, my thoughts immediately went–as they generally do–to cake. The birthday girl is something of a tough cookie herself, though, and tends to get more excited about chopped liver than confections of the sweet variety, so I had my work cut out for me.

But in thinking about cookies, tough and otherwise, reminded me of the hundreds of tiny black & white cookies I’d made for her bridal shower several years ago. She’d loved the tiny versions of the New York City bakery staple, which are really just small, lightly lemony cakes with chocolate and vanilla icing.

I thought that since I’d gone tiny once, I could go HUGE this time. Like, four layers huge. So, I baked off a pale yellow cake, rubbing lemon zest into the sugar to give the lemon flavor in the cookies. (Which I still think is bizarre, but then I’m not a New Yorker.)

I vacillated for quite sometime about the icings. Part of me–the part of me that thinks confectioners’ sugar icings are a cop out–really wanted to get all fancy and do chocolate and vanilla Swiss meringue buttercreams. But, the traditionalist in me managed to intervene and I stuck with the fondant-y icing that crowns the cookies and sets hard and crispy. I was still worried that the cake/cookie to icing ratio would be way off, but ultimately, the ratio was perfect. Just like biting into a black and white cookie, but times four!

Be sure to rotate your icings unless you you have a fiercely partisan vanilla/chocolate household. I find getting a little of everything in each bite to be much tastier.

New York City Black & White Cake
Yield: 12 servings
Adapted from Dorie Greenspan & the Internet

For the cake:

2 c cake flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/8 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
10 tbs unsalted butter, softened
1 c sugar
zest of 1 large lemon
3 large eggs
1 large egg yolk
1 tsp vanilla extract
3/4 c milk

Center two racks 1/3 and 2/3 from the bottom of the oven and preheat to 350°F.  Butter two 9×2″ cake pans, line with baking parchment, butter again, and add a little flour (regular, not from the ingredients above). Swirl the flour around the pans to coat evenly and knock the excess into the sink. Set prepared pans aside.

Wash the lemon well in hot water. Using a Microplane or something similar, finely zest the lemon into a medium bowl. Add the sugar and work the zest into the sugar until evenly distributed, lightly moistened, and fragrant. Set lemon sugar aside.

In a large bowl, combine cake flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Whisk to combine and break up any lumps. If your flour is clumpy pass the mixture through a sieve. Set dry ingredients aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and lemon sugar together till light and fluffy–about 3 minutes on medium speed. Add the eggs (and yolk) one at a time, beating for 1 minute after each addition. Beat in the vanilla.

Put the mixer on it’s slowest setting and, alternating between them, add the dry ingredients (in three additions) and the milk (in two additions). Mix only until each addition has been fully incorporated, stopping to scrape down the bowl as needed.

Evenly divide the batter between the prepared pans and smooth the batter with a spatula.

Bake cakes 28-30 minutes, rotating the pans top to bottom and front to back halfway through the baking time. When done, a cake tester, toothpick, or thin-bladed knife inserted into the center of the cake will come out clean.

Remove cake pans from oven and cool on racks for about 5 minutes. Run a metal spatula or thin-bladed knife around each cake, invert onto a rack, then reinvert (tops back up) to finish cooling. When completely cooled, wrap the cakes tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate if not using immediately. If you are getting ready to assemble and frost, wrap in plastic wrap and pop cakes in the freezer to firm them up for splitting.

For the icings:

6 cups confectioners sugar
4 tbs light corn syrup
3 tsp fresh lemon juice
1/4 tsp vanilla
~1/2 c hot water, divided
1/3 c unsweetened Dutched cocoa*

Sift the confectioners sugar into a medium bowl. (Yes, sift it. I don’t tell you to sift unless you have to. Carry on.) In a small liquid measuring cup, combine the corn syrup, lemon juice, vanilla and water, mixing till totally combined. Gently whisk the liquid into the sugar until the frosting comes together. Scrape a scant half of the mixture into another bowl and mix in the cocoa and melted chocolate. You will need to add a little more hot water to the dark icing as the cocoa will stiffen it. Add a little at a time till you get a nice smooth fairly loose consistency. Scrape both icings into ziptop bags, squeezing out all the air. Use immediately.

To assemble:

Retrieve your cakes from wherever they’ve been cooling their heels. With a long, sharp, serrated knife, even the tops of the cakes. If one is just slightly domes, leave that one as it is and use it as the top layer of the cake. Once evened, split the cakes horizontally. Using the same knife, make a shallow cut in the side of the cake while rotating it to make a channel for the knife to go. Once you’ve gone all the way around take the knife all the way through, making sure to keep lined up with the channels you’ve already cut.

Dab a little icing on your serving plate or platter. Center one cake layer on the plate. Using the long knife, gently run a line down the middle of the cake. Snip a corner off each of the icing bags and pipe/spread a thin layer of white icing on one half, and do the same with the chocolate icing on the remaining half. Artfully dribble a little of the icing over the edges, if you like. Remember, though, you have three more drippy layers to go, so go easy with this on this first layer. Be sure to get the icings right to the edges of the cakes to seal the cut surfaces, which’ll help prevent them from drying out.

Place a second cake layer onto the first, frosted layer, divide in half as above, and frost, alternating chocolate and white icings. Repeat with the third and then the final layers, dribbling a bit more aggressively down the sides.  Let the icing set a little bit before serving.

A domed cake plate would be great for protecting this cake and keeping it fresh, as it’s not totally covered in protective frosting. Don’t use plastic wrap right against the icing. It will ruin the pretty finish.

Notes & Variations
If your chocolate icing is not dark enough, you can add 1 oz unsweetened chocolate, melted and cooled.  Or, if you are especially dedicated, you can use black cocoa instead of the Dutched for the very blackest black. I get mine from KAF.

Greenspan, Dorie. Baking: From My Home to Yours. (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) 2006.

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