A daughter’s dilemma

3 Feb

Presents for parents. I think this is a constant issue that stumps many of us with parents who don’t have any big hobbies, never really need anything, or would enjoy things that we can’t afford.

My father, as much as I love him, is THE hardest person in the world to buy a gift for. He never asks for presents on Christmas or his birthday or Father’s day; instead he insists that he doesn’t need anything. And really, he doesn’t. He’s got the basic human necessities, so other than that, he needs a car and a computer and a bike to exercise. But he has them already! He’s a self-prescribed workaholic, so his job is his only hobby. How do I work with that, buy him another stethoscope or a set of scalpels? I don’t think so. And he’s always been interested in cars, but for me to buy him one would require spending an entire year’s salary.

But now that I’ve been (slowly) developing my baking chops, a whole new category of potential presents has opened up. For my Dad’s recent birthday, I was completely clueless on what to get him, until my mother casually slipped a suggestion in. We were just having a conversation about how Dad was coming up to visit, and she’s all, “Oh you should bake a cake for him,” – as if it’s something I do on a daily basis. I said, “Oh yeah! Good idea!” while in my head, I’m like, “Uhhhh….crap!”

I’ve only baked a cake from scratch once before, and that ended up being really thick and kind of intense, with chocolate ganache and cream cheese frosting and all. It also didn’t turn out as moist as I like my cakes to be, so I specifically Googled “moist chocolate cake” when I started doing my research for this. The cake also initially began in my head as a raspberry-chocolate concoction with ganache (Can you tell I love chocolate ganache?), which then evolved into two small chocolate and almond cakes, which finalized into plans of making one regular-sized chocolate-and-almond cake. (Ed. note: My sister thought of doing something chocolate and almond, because our father likes chocolate-covered almonds. So she helped a little. :P) I actually planned to put ganache between the layers, but upon seeing how thick the frosting was turning out while I was making it, I realized that would be overkill. I normally don’t attempt to experiment with baking recipes, but at least with the composition of the cake itself, I was able to make some last-minute changes that ended up being good decisions.

After completing the cake, I also developed an even higher regard for bakers than I had before, especially cake makers. How do they do this every day, on a budget, within deadlines, and to the specific desires of each client? I only managed to finish the entire cake before 11pm on a Thursday because DC was hit with a small snowstorm, so my office had closed early, allowing me lots of time at home. My knees even got sore from standing all afternoon and evening while making this. So to professional bakers: much respect.

But I did it, from scratch, and it didn’t look half bad. It ended up tasting pretty great as well. What really made it all worthwhile was seeing my Dad smile at my creation the next day, witnessing him enjoy each bite and telling me that it was good.

So once again, I had somehow managed to solve the riddle, “What the heck do I give as a gift for Dad?” Father’s Day, however, will be yet another enigma…

Chocolate Almond (Birthday) Cake

For the chocolate layer (slightly adapted from Lick My Spoon)


  • 2 cups all purpose flour
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
  • 1 cup hot brewed coffee
  • 2 eggs


I made the mistake of thinking that I needed to fit ALL of the batter in one 9-inch cake pan. Friends, when you’re baking a cake, take a good look at how much batter you have and how big your pans are. I could’ve easily made two layers with this recipe, but I thought I had to fill one pan as much as possible and just discard the rest. (Can you tell this was just the second time I baked a cake on my own?)

So start by preheating your oven to 350 F and place a rack in the middle of the oven. Grease and flour two cake pans (I find that vegetable shortening greases best). Cut two circular pieces of parchment paper the same size as the bottom of your cake pans, place those in the pan, and grease and flour those as well – this will allow the cakes to very easily remove from the pans.

In a large bowl, mix together all the dry ingredients. Create a well in the center and add the wet ingredients EXCEPT the coffee. Mix everything until just combined, then add the coffee. Mix the batter again (it will be more liquid-like than a regular cake batter). Pour into the 2 cake pans. Spread the batter evenly in the pans by rotating the pans back and forth (like a steering wheel). Bake for 45 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean. Allow to cool completely. Use one layer for the cake, and another for something else, like cake balls.

For the almond layer (slightly adapted from Italian Dessert Recipes )


  • 3/4 cups of butter
  • 1 1/2 cups of sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
  • 1 1/2 cups of flour


Being the novice that I am, I had pretty much chosen the easiest and simplest almond cake I could find, which turned out to be a cake that is usually meant to be eaten by itself, topped with sugar and slivered almonds. Whatever. Its preparation is slightly different than most cakes, which makes for a thicker, kind of gummier consistency (sort of like marzipan but not as chewy). I actually loved how it turned out and I would definitely make this on its own in the future. It didn’t end up weighing the chocolate layer down, thank God. And the two flavors went great together.

Preheat your oven at 350 degrees F. Grease and flour a 9-in cake pan (and add a parchment circle like the one above). In a small saucepan, melt the butter, then pour it in a large heatproof bowl. Stir in the sugar until fully incorporated. Allow this mixture to cool for a few minutes (you don’t want to scramble the eggs). Then add the eggs and stir until it’s a creamy consistency. Add the remaining ingredients. And stir until combined. Spread the batter in the pan evenly using the rotating motion. Bake for 40 minutes or until skewer comes out clean.

Chocolate-Almond Buttercream (from grouprecipes.com)


  • 1 pound or 3 ½ cups of confectioners’ sugar
  • ½ cup (1 stick) of room temperature unsalted butter
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
  • ¾ teaspoon almond extract
  • 2/3 cup cocoa powder
  • 4-5 tablespoons of milk (possibly more)


Sift the confectioners’ sugar in a large bowl. Sift again with the cocoa powder and salt.

In a large mixing bowl fitted with a whisk attachment, whip the butter until it becomes a pale yellow color, about 2-3 minutes. Add about a third of the powdered sugar/cocoa/salt mixture. Start the mixer on low to incorporate, then slowly increase the speed to combine. If need be, stop the mixer and use a rubber spatula to scrape down the sides and mix more.

Stop the mixer. Add another third of the sugar mixture, plus 2 tablespoons of milk. Mix again (slowly at first). When that is completely combined, stop the mixer again and add the remaining sugar mixture and 2 more tablespoons of milk. After mixing slowly at first and then increasing speed, mix on high to completely incorporate. (My frosting was actually very thick and difficult to spread at this point, so I added another 2 tablespoons of milk and mixed again. The frosting should be thick, but still easy to spread on cake).


This is totally up to you. I put the chocolate layer down first because I figured chocolate frosting right on top of the chocolate cake might make for too much chocolate on one end. I cut 4 pieces of parchment paper and arranged them on my cake pedestal, overlapping each other but covering the pedestal so as to not get frosting on it. I had to trim my chocolate layer (you probably won’t have to if you allot the batter to two pans). Then I put a plate on top of the pan and flipped it, and the cake slid right out. I put that on the pedestal, spread a thin layer of frosting on top, then removed the almond layer from its pan and placed that on top of the frosting. Then I frosted the whole thing using an offset spatula and removed the parchment papers from underneath the cake. Then I got a sugar high from licking the spatula…and the mixing bowl.


7 Responses to “A daughter’s dilemma”

  1. Angela February 3, 2011 at 9:29 pm #

    Ha! I really identified with…well, this entire post. The workaholic doctor dad, the inexperience with baking, etc. But it looks like you did a really nice job, especially considering that you chose a very involved cake (I have never made cake). I bet you’ll be an expert in no time!

    • TheNoviceNosher February 3, 2011 at 10:56 pm #

      Thank you Angela! It’s nice to hear that you connected with what I had to say. I still have much to learn about cakes…if I ever get to expert status by the time I hit retiring age, I’ll consider myself a lucky woman!

  2. Shan February 4, 2011 at 1:49 am #

    delish! props to you for being creative, stepping out of the box, and looks like to me — succeeding!

    • TheNoviceNosher February 4, 2011 at 4:40 pm #

      Thanks so much! That means a lot coming from a baker!

  3. Noelle February 4, 2011 at 3:21 am #

    Umm…. YUM!

  4. katshealthcorner February 5, 2011 at 8:12 pm #

    Ohmygosh, that looks SO good!!! Can I have a slice?

    • TheNoviceNosher February 6, 2011 at 1:53 pm #

      Hehe thank you!! If I could, I’d have given you half the cake – we had so much left over!

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