Over-thinking a plate of cake.
January 5, 2011 12:43 AM   Subscribe

Cake dilemma: I want to surprise my friend with homemade birthday cake, but I don't know what kind of sweets he doesn't like. I have my own tentative solution (two or three small cakes) for which I need guidance and recipes, but I'm also open to other solutions.

A very close friend recently moved to the same city as me and my husband. It is wonderful to have him back and we have all been hanging out, but because of the previous geographical distance, we hadn't gotten to talk much at all for the past six or seven years. It feels just like old times and that's great, but unfortunately because of the time that's passed, I can't at all remember what kind of sweet stuff he likes and dislikes. All I have to go on right now is that he liked some strawberry cheesecake we split at a restaurant. I'm pretty sure he liked some Oreo cheesecake I made in college, but his tastes might have changed since then.

His birthday is coming up in a little over a week and I would love to surprise him with a cake, especially because he doesn't know very many people out here, but I have no idea what kind to make! I'm going to steer clear of nuts, citrus, coconut, and carrot cake -- he's not allergic, but those are common dislikes among the public. But past that, I'm not sure what to do. Some people don't like chocolate, for example, or they just don't like too much chocolate. I'm pretty sure he at least likes cake, and isn't terribly picky.

What would you do? I've thought of asking him, but that would ruin the surprise; next year will be easier once I find stuff out this year. I've also thought of letting him pick out a cake somewhere, but I think it's more thoughtful to bake it myself -- and I'm a very good baker -- plus it might make him feel weird to point at something and have someone else buy it.

My tentative solution is to make two or three small layered cakes, those narrow rectangles you see sometimes that feed roughly two people; that way, he'd get more variety, there's bound to be something he likes, and it would make for a nice presentation. It would also not be too much cake overall so he's not stuck with a bunch of stuff he can't or doesn't want to eat too much of.

However, I've never made cakes that small so I need some guidance and recommendations/recipes. I've been cooking and baking since I was a kid and can make just about anything, plus I have a good selection of kitchen equipment, including a good food processor and stand mixer. Difficulty level isn't an issue, nor is time or cost or nutrition. I'd prefer recipes that are just a tad involved/exotic without being too off-putting. I do not want anything involving a box mix because I enjoy baking from scratch (though box mixes are perfectly good otherwise).

Tentatively, I'm thinking the following categories might be reasonably safe:

1) moderately chocolately - white with chocolate icing, or maybe marble cake, or maybe chocolate with cream cheese icing, or maybe Oreo cake; considering loosening the nut restriction to allow for Nutella because I've never met anyone who doesn't like it.

2) white with raspberry filling -- he seems fine with berries; Nutella might be good here as well, but I want to avoid putting chocolate in everything in case he doesn't like chocolate.

3) toss-up: traditional birthday cake (seems a bit boring, but perhaps safe), traditional birthday cake with some added zing, red velvet cake

I'm also thinking I can afford to try at one unexpected, polarizing kind of cake if I make three, but only one. Thinking about presentation, it seems that at least one cake should have dark icing, a ganache, or berry spread on top.

Another thing: if I do this, is there a decent way to transport them? I just need to take them in the car. I expect to leave the sides un-iced because that's how I've always seen them and it shows off the layers. Are there pre-made cardboard separators or papers that someone can buy?

I'm a bit overwhelmed, so any advice, recipes, or things I haven't considered would be a huge help. Thanks!
posted by Nattie to Food & Drink (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
the only person i ever met who didn't like chocolate quite promptly began to display further, more serious character defects and we are no longer aquainted.
posted by sexyrobot at 1:00 AM on January 5, 2011 [4 favorites]

chocolate cake with chocolate icing. no nuts or other weird stuff.
not liking that is like not liking the Beatles.
who wants to know somebody like that?
posted by philip-random at 1:07 AM on January 5, 2011

I would make a chocolate cake (personally I prefer a very dark chocolate cake with white buttercream frosting for birthday purposes), because who doesn't like chocolate cake? Crazy people, that's who.
posted by scody at 1:16 AM on January 5, 2011

I think you are probably over-thinking this. Dessert isn't like other categories of food. Most people like most sweets. Few people are going to snub dessert, of whatever kind. Do you have reason to believe this person is unusually particular?

There are chocolate haters out there, even a few with otherwise good character. If I had your concerns I would go with a vanilla two-layer cake with white frosting. It's the most generic dessert out there, yet wholly satisfying when done right. Or else go with cheese cake. You know he likes that, right?
posted by reren at 1:31 AM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If you get a chance to see him before you make the cake, you could happen to be eating a good quality chocolate bar when you meet and ask him if he'd like some. And you can chat about the chocolate if you need to get more information (things like "I love dark chocolate better than milk chocolate, how about you?"). Or, if possible, take him out for ice cream and see what flavor he picks (or if he declines because of lactose intolerance and wants sorbet). There's lots of ways to pick up bits of information with idle chit chat and non-suspicious suggestions.

Don't overthink it and get overwhelmed. Making a cake, even if it's not his favorite, will be an amazing gesture and as long as he's not allergic to it, he'll eat it and enjoy the event.
posted by girlhacker at 1:49 AM on January 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Haha, the reason I'm sensitive to the chocolate issue is because I'm one of those people that doesn't like terribly chocolatey desserts; chocolate with chocolate icing is too much for me. If over a third of the dessert is chocolate it feels like too much. I do like chocolate in general, but only milk chocolate, which dark chocolate lovers think is weird of me. Off the top of my head, most people I know don't like too much chocolate, but my sample might be skewed. The weird skew of my friends might be why I'm over-thinking it, though; I don't have any reason to think this friend in particular will be picky, but somehow I've managed to acquire people with all sorts of aversions to certain kinds of sweets.

I have a friend that doesn't like caramel. True story, but that's definitely the weirdest. A couple hate peanut butter. Two of them hate strawberries. My husband hates banana anything. And for a long time, I didn't like lemon or coconut, though I do now. Now that I'm thinking about it, I don't like coffee-flavored things except in rare, rare circumstances, and I don't like mint in desserts either.

And I actually know a couple people that don't like sweets in general.

This has resulted in severe paranoia on my part. (Well, not really, but I like to bake for people so my mental spreadsheet is full of examples of people who are wrong about desserts.)

reren: I have considered cheesecake because he does seem to like it... I might still do that, good idea. :-)

girlhacker: that's a great idea! I kept trying to think of subtle ways to find that sort of thing out, but I couldn't think of any. If I can manage to see him this weekend, I might try that. The ice-cream thing seems like a good idea too, though he's Asian and I can't remember if he's lactose intolerant... I'll offer and see what he says.

Thanks so far, guys!
posted by Nattie at 2:49 AM on January 5, 2011

Response by poster: Oh, and my friend that doesn't like caramel hates the Beatles. So, you know, if that isn't evidence that the world is full of surprises -- horrible, horrible surprises -- I dunno what is.
posted by Nattie at 2:50 AM on January 5, 2011

Best answer: I am one of those untrustworthy sorts who "doesn't like" chocolate cake. What that really means for me is that if offered a choice between vanilla/vanilla and choc/choc cakes, I'll choose the vanilla one. Not that I haven't eaten (and enjoyed!) choc/choc cakes, just not my absolute favorite. I would concur with girlhacker - I think the sentiment is the most important part. And I think the assortment you have planned sounds really good.

Statistically, I would say it is unusual not to like choc/choc cake, given the astonishment I sometimes get. Heck, my own mom forgot once when buying my birthday cake! (I only teased her a leeetle bit - and still ate the cake.) So I think if choc/choc is your specialty, go for it - you're probably not taking much of a risk.

On not overwhelming with chocolate: Icing is the "most chocolate" part for me in terms of maxing out flavor/richness, so chocolate cake/white icing might be a good mix. Ice cream is also a good way of breaking up the flavor, so maybe serve that too? I find I like chocolate (in pastry or candy form) more in combination than solo, so chocolate + raspberry or chocolate + peanut butter is yum, but not those choc/choc/death by chocolate combos. Like my dad, who takes choc/choc cake, a scoop of chocolate ice cream, and serves it with lots of chocolate syrup.

If you do want to do multiple flavors, I know cupcakes might have jumped the shark or be "too cute", but that's where my mind goes when thinking about trying to offer a variety of cake/icing combos. I've done something similar for a party where I wanted to offer an assortment of flavors.

Transportation-wise, if you make the three smaller cakes, I have a sheet cake transporter with latches and handle and I'd probably just cut cardboard dividers and tape them into the lid, especially since the sides of the cakes won't be iced. For a more elegant solution, craft and cooking supply stores sell pastry boxes in all shapes and sizes, so each cake could have its own. That might make leaving the uneaten (or sending them home with him, depending on where you celebrate) a bit easier.
posted by clerestory at 3:15 AM on January 5, 2011

Clearly I should have previewed instead of fretting about admitting to my shameful non-chocolate-crazy ways!
posted by clerestory at 3:17 AM on January 5, 2011

Red velvet cake has a long history of being "the party cake," while hiding its cocoa underpinnings pretty well (and some recipes I've seen omit cocoa, altogether). Carrot cakes are generally well received, if not a usual birthday cake. In the South, we love any excuse for good coconut cake, and although I'm not a big Alton Brown fan, his recipe/method for coconut cake is spot on, for the "real" thing.
posted by paulsc at 3:43 AM on January 5, 2011

If you were my friend, and made me a birthday cake, I would think is was awesome and a very sweet gesture from you, even if I didn't get excactly the filling I liked, or it was dark chocolate in stead of milk chocolate or something like that. I say: Make a single traditional cake and go surprise your friend!

And, by coincidence, it actually is my birthday today! And there will be cake later!
posted by Harald74 at 4:14 AM on January 5, 2011

This is random, but your dilemma just gave me an awesome idea. Instead of making three very small cakes, you could make three regular-sized round cakes, cut each into thirds, then recombine a section from each into one cake of triple-awesomeness. Different icing on each section of course, so it would end up looking like a 3-color pie chart.

And bonus, you'd end up with two spare cakes to share with other friends! It's overkill and a little silly, but if you're gonna go all out, go all out, you know?
posted by ella wren at 6:03 AM on January 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

How about making him a cheesecake for his birthday instead of a cake-cake?

A data point to add to what other folks have said: I hate chocolate+fruit cakes/desserts. The balance never seems right. I much prefer straight-up fruit (cake/pie/etc.) or straight-up chocolate. Though if someone went to the trouble of making me a chocolate-raspberry cake, I'd be happy they did that for me and I'd eat the heck out of it. It really is the thought that counts.
posted by rtha at 6:37 AM on January 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

If you're feeling pressed for time or sanity and want a simpler solution than three separate cakes, do a single combo cake, to cut down on icing, assembly, and decoration time - think of a few basic flavors that go together well and stack them. Say, a vanilla layer and a chocolate layer stacked and covered in caramel frosting, and decorate the top with candles stuck into strawberries. If he doesn't like the fruit he'll pick them off. If he doesn't like chocolate, he'll only eat the top layer. If he doesn't like caramel or super-sweet things he'll leave the icing behind like my calorie-obsessed aunt always does. Statistically speaking, you're increasing the chances that he'll like at least half the cake, but you're also increasing the chance that he'll dislike at least 25% of it.

Or you can meet up with him for coffee and offer to split a small cake or pastry with him. Suggest two or three things out of the case, and then waffle back and forth, ask him questions about what he likes, in the context of helping you decide. Hhmmmm, that carrot cake looks good, I wonder if it has nuts, do you eat nuts? Oh, you like nuts but not carrot cake at all, eh? Well I can't stand walnuts in any case... so I guess it's either the caramel torte or the chocolate with fruit, I'm not as crazy about chocolate as most people but I do like raspberries, what do you think? Either one's fine?! That's no help! Are you pro-chocolate or anti-chocolate? etc.
posted by aimedwander at 6:54 AM on January 5, 2011

> the only person i ever met who didn't like chocolate quite promptly began to display further, more serious character defects and we are no longer aquainted

Not to be a Debbie Downer control freak, but my husband will eat anything and everything--nuts, coconut, raisins, weird fruits, liquored up bundts, ginger, molasses, organ meat, beets, chiles--EXCEPT chocolate from a source he didn't vet. He has a problem with the whole child slavery deal. I'm not nearly as dedicated (which I am a little ashamed of, yes) but I too tend to shy away and just wait to enjoy chocolate in my own kitchen, where I know the source isn't a problem.

I'm not saying he's common by any means, just throwing it out there.
posted by ifjuly at 8:25 AM on January 5, 2011

Why not just ask the guy which he likes better--cake or pie? Send him an email with a link to some news story about pie being the new cupcakes and say you and your SO are arguing over it. I think making 3 kinds of cake is overkill.
posted by Ideefixe at 12:49 PM on January 5, 2011

I have never met anyone who doesn't like lemon.

Make this lemon layer cake.
posted by chickenmagazine at 2:10 PM on January 5, 2011

This is overthinking on an epic level.

Unless the friend has previously revealed himself to be super-picky about sweets, I'd just do the classic yellow birthday cake, with either vanilla or chocolate frosting. If you must do layers, make the layers the same flavor as the frosting.

Who doesn't like classic birthday cake?

(If your friend honestly doesn't like classic yellow birthday cake, feel free to punch him in the eye and send the cake to me. Mine isn't till March, but I could use cheering up lately.)
posted by Sara C. at 6:18 PM on January 5, 2011

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