Baking For Others: Alex’s Birthday Cake

EVENT: Alex’s Birthday Dinner
VENUE: DuMont, Williamsburg
TYPE: Dinner & Cake
MENU: Burgers for most, Mac ‘n Cheese for some; Pecan-Espresso Birthday Cake with Coffee Cream for all

Though we have people over for dinner and brunch fairly often, special occasions are sometimes harder to host. Phoebe did kindly host my bistro-ish birthday dinner this year at her place, and I hosted a holiday party at my coffee table. But there are moments when it’s time to say sayonara to the kitchen, the “dining room,” and the coffee table, and head out to the restaurants. (This also gives us more street cred: As home cooks, we arguably don’t eat out in NYC as much as we should, and when fellow food people try to get us to weigh in on their favorite restaurants, we don’t always have an answer.) As I was helping to brainstorm Alex’s birthday celebration this year, it became more and more evident that going out was the best plan.

Though I was happy to leave the dinner to the restaurant pros, there was one thing I insisted on making: a cake. Birthdays deserve cakes, and restaurants seem to be happy enough to slice and serve the ones that you bring.

If you’ve been reading for a while, you’ll have noticed that Alex eats dairy free. I’ve been pretty successful at tweaking my everyday favorites and removing the butter and milk (it doesn’t hurt that I can always eat grilled cheese for lunch), but cake is another story altogether. Half of cake batter is butter, and it’s certainly the main ingredient in icing. Last year, I made Alex a mini dairy-free carrot cake, which we ate at 2am on his birthday Sunday, when we got home from a night out. It was a fabulous cake. I could have repeated it, and if Jordana had had her way, I would have. But I also wanted to branch out.

The most triumphant part of 2010’s cake, in some way, was the icing. I love Tofutti cream cheese, and I used it to make a cream cheese icing that was at least as good as the kind made with dairy.

After a lot of thought, some gchatting, and a few rejected flavor combinations, I found a cake that sounded perfect for 2011. I’d make two layers of a simple pecan torte and then sandwich and ice them with a coffee buttercream. The cakes, which I made the day before, came out wonderfully: moist and rich and flavorful. But the coffee buttercream, though it looked and felt like butter-filled buttercream had a vaguely chemical aftertaste from all the margarine and shortening I’d had to add to it. I thought about serving it, but in the end it had to go. I wasn’t just making cake for a dairy-free dude, after all, I was also serving a group of people who eat plenty of butter, and I had to be certain the cake was up to par for them. As in the year before, I opted for Tofutti cream cheese icing, flavoring it with coffee extract to match the nutty, espresso taste of the cake layers.

After the surprise appearance of Alex’s brother on our doorstep, we went off to dinner, sat in the “tree house” at DuMont, and ordered wine, scotch, and burgers nearly all around. The waiter came over and asked if we wanted to sing. (Of course we did!) He brought out the cake with candles, and as he cut it into slices for us all, I found myself a little nervous about how it would go over. But that didn’t last long. Within a minute or two, everyone’s slice was gobbled down, with not a morsel left on the plates.

From my kitchen, wishing Alex a now-belated birthday, to yours,







Pecan-Espresso Birthday Cake with Coffee Icing
Serves 14

The cake layers are adapted from a recipe in Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Rose’s Heavenly Cakes. Don’t be put off by what seems like a vast amount of pecans and eggs in the batter–remember, there’s almost nothing else in it besides that!


For the cake:

1 1/2 cups sugar
5 1/2 cups pecans halves
2 tablespoons instant espresso powder (I use Medaglia D’Oro)
14 large eggs, separated
1 3/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

For the coffee cream and decoration:

16 ounces Tofutti cream cheese, at room temperature
8 ounces Earth Balance natural shortening, at room temperature
4 ounces Spectrum organic all-vegetable shortening, at room temperature
1 3/4 cups powdered sugar
1/4 cup maple syrup
about 1 1/2 tablespoons coffee extract, or to taste
1/4 cup chocolate-covered espresso beans, coarsely chopped

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease the bottom of two 9-inch round springform cake pans, then cut a circle of parchment paper to fit over the greased bottom. You don’t want to grease the sides.

Toast the pecans on a baking sheet for 5-7 minutes, stirring once. They should be fragrant and taste toasty. Let them cool to room temperature, then put them in a food processor with 1/2 cup of the sugar. Grind for just a few pulses, until the pecans are fine but not oily. Set aside.

Put the egg yolks and 3/4 cup sugar in a medium mixing bowl and beat them with a handheld mixer for about 5 minutes, until the yolks have lightened in color and are thick and fluffy. Fold the pecans into this mixture.

Rinse the beaters really well and dry them thoroughly.

In another mixing bowl, beat the egg whites and cream of tartar with the clean beaters until the whites form soft peaks. Add the remaining 1/4 cup of sugar slowly as you beat, and stop when the egg whites form soft peaks when the whisk is raised.

Add about one-quarter of the egg whites to the pecan-yolk mixture and fold to combine. In three parts, add the remaining egg whites, folding gently but thoroughly. You want the whites to be completely incorporated, with no streaks left.

Divide the batter evenly between the two pans and smooth the top. Bake for 30-35 minutes, until the cakes are springy to the touch and no longer jiggly. Remove from the oven and invert the cakes immediately on a lightly greased rack. Let them sit until cool to the touch, about 45 minutes, then run an offset spatula or butter knife around the edges, then loosen the pans and invert the cake onto baking sheets. Remove the pan bottom and the parchment, and let the cakes cool completely.

Combine all the ingredients for the icing in a food processor and process until smooth. Taste for balance of flavors, adding more sugar or coffee flavor as needed.

Place one cake layer on a serving platter. Top with about 3/4 cup of icing and using an offset spatula or butterknife to spread evenly across. Put the second layer on top. Because the cakes are a little crumbly, you’ll want to frost the outside in two steps. First, spread a thin coat of icing all around the top and sides, filling in any gaps. Don’t worry if crumbs get into the icing. Put the cake in the refrigerator for about half an hour, to let the icing set. Then spread the remaining icing all around the top and sides.

Sprinkle the chopped espresso beans across the top. Serve room temperature or cold.

Posted in: Baking For Others
  • Alex

    Awwwww thank you! The cake was so delicious it didn’t stand a chance!

  • Frankie

    I have problems with dairy too so I just thought cakes are out. Now what’s holding me back is I’m afraid if I made this recipe I’d eat the whole thing.

    • BGSK

      You just might, Frankie. You just might.

  • julie

    how is a cake with eggs dairy free?

    • Alex

      This is a common misconception. Dairy means “Containing or produced from milk”. Milk is “A white liquid produced by mammary glands of female mammals for feeding their young”. Eggs are ova, “The female reproductive cell”. The most common egg used in cooking are chicken eggs. I am lactose intolerant, meaning I can’t digest a the lactose sugar in milk, so I have to eat dairy free. I can’t digest cow milk or goat milk or dog milk or walrus milk or even human milk, but I can eat all the eggs in the world!

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  • disqus_UJmF9JD07n

    Hi… I am making this cake now and see that there is not any direction as to when to add the espresso to the cake. Am I reading this wrong?? I’ve read it over and over. Unfortunately, I’ve already made the batter and am concerned that if I add the espresso (powder) now it will ruin the consistency of the egg mixture. Help!!!


    • disqus_UJmF9JD07n

      I only have one springform pan and the first layer is baking in the oven now. I’ve 20 minutes to decide if I’m going to throw in the espresso powder and cross my fingers. If I decide to do this and it turns out, I’ll let y’all know.
      I would still like to hear from the author about this… perhaps an edit to the recipe would help future bakers??… Am I the only one baking this?!!! I see it’s been 3 years since the original post, anyone out there???!!

      Thanks again!!

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