The original, Marathi version of this article appeared in Loksatta on Saturday, August 4, 2012. Click here to read the Marathi version.

We never bought cake. Definitely not for an occasion. My mother always, always baked a cake for our birthdays. She’d save good, pure, homemade white butter for weeks so she had enough to make a large birthday cake. She used her trusty pound cake recipe as a base and built the cake from there, adding the flavors and colors the birthday kid wished. She’d get very adventurous with shapes, especially for my brother. One birthday, when he was in a particularly intense Hot Wheels phase, he wanted a 3-dimensional car. She spent days planning the cake and cutting it up in her head and piling it one on top of the other and carving some more to get the shape of a car. She stuck on chocolate wafers for the windshield and windows and crafted axles and wheels using dowels and thermocol. The cake, by the end of it all, could actually be pushed back and forth. I will never forget the look on my brother’s and his friends’ faces when they saw the thing—even with one of his front teeth missing, it is one of his best pictures to date.

I was relatively easy (read “predictable”). I wanted light, vanilla or fruit based cakes in girly shapes and colors. The heart shaped cake tin that my mum used to make my birthday cakes is now with me, and although a bit of its bottom is dented and beaten, it still turns out the best cakes! Once, however, I made an exception; I stomped my foot down like a spoilt brat and asked mum to get me a cake from a local bakery. This was at a time when there were no chains of cake shops and local bakeries were all you had. Every birthday party I went to had cakes that were decorated like they were out of a fairy tale—with roses and leaves and what-nots. (This was also a time when cartoon characters had not yet entered our lives in a big way—I knew no one apart from Mickey-Donald-Goofy). I was smitten by their beauty. So a few days before my fifth birthday, my mum threw her hands up in the air and took me down to the best possible local bakery to order my cake. (I am now certain that she must have known that it would be the first and last time that we’d go to the bakery.)  I still remember dreaming about the cake every waking minute before the actual birthday arrived.

It arrived in a cardboard box, perfectly iced. Orange and pink roses in several shapes and sizes adorned the top of the cake. There were also longish fern-like leaves iced around the cake and a liberal scattering of tiny silver balls. It looked perfect. I cut it happily while my friends clapped and sang the birthday song, their mouths watering with anticipation. They probably also went home satisfied. But when I sunk my teeth into the rose adorned piece I got, my heart sank like never before. The cake was dry and toe curlingly sweet. The icing was made from vanaspati ghee or emulsified vegetable oil and copious amounts of icing sugar so that when you ate a bit of icing, the temperature of your mouth first melted it and the sugar rushed in while the poor quality fat stuck to your palate and made you want to go and brush several hours before bedtime. The cake itself needed much persuasion, often the assistance of a drink to gulp it down. I knew right then that my mum’s cakes were the real thing.

A few years later, when we moved closer to the city, a brand new chain of cake shops suddenly mushroomed everywhere. With their “fresh cream” (which is actually dairy-free soy-based cream; fresh cream is too expensive and difficult to manage) fruit cakes and black forest “pastries,” they won over the city and continue to do so today. They make cakes with photographs printed in edible ink nowadays. And in colors you probably never imagined could be on a plate. Never mind the fact that these commercially sold cakes contain glycerin and other chemicals to make them soft. Ever since I’ve got to know that, the mother in me cannot bring herself to even think of buying a cake no matter how famous the cake shop may be. Go ahead and call me old-school if you will, but I think there’s nothing to beat a simple, elegantly decorated home-style cake. You know what’s going in, you source the best of ingredients, and most importantly, you pour all your love into making it. I, for one, would be happier to receive a slightly uneven, slightly ugly but perfectly delicious cake made at home by a loved one over an elaborate, fancy cake from an expensive patisserie.

This is my absolutely favorite cake recipe for a birthday. It is quite simple to make, and is quite rich from the dark chocolate ganache. The decoration options are endless—here, I’ve just used a simple scattering of golden sugar balls but you could use anything from a variety of candies and chocolates, crushed chikki, fresh fruit, or simply, some coarsely crushed nuts. This cake is always greeted with oohs and aahs and is quite easily polished off.

(Makes one cake to suffice 8 people generously)

Ingredients for vanilla cake:

  • 2 eggs
  • 100 gms. Flour
  • 100 gms. Caster sugar
  • 100 gms. Butter
  • ¼ cup milk
  • ½ tsp. baking powder
  • ½  tsp. vanilla extract or 1 vanilla bean, scraped

Ingredients for chocolate cake:

  • 2 eggs
  • 75 gms. Flour
  • 30 gms. Cocoa
  • 100 gms. Brown sugar
  • 100 gms. Butter
  • ¼ cup buttermilk
  • ½ tsp. baking powder
  • ½  tsp. vanilla extract or 1 vanilla bean, scraped

Ingredients for decoration:

  • 3 cups good quality dark chocolate, chopped
  • ½ cup cream or whole milk
  • 1 and ½ tbsp. butter

Method:

  1. Place the rack in the center of the oven and set it to preheat to 180 degrees centigrade.
  2. Place the eggs, butter, and sugar in a mixer and run until combined and creamy.
  3. Add the vanilla and milk/buttermilk and run the mixer again.
  4. Sieve all the remaining dry ingredients together into a large mixing bowl.
  5. Tip the egg mixture into the dry ingredients and mix very lightly with a wooden spatula. Do not beat the batter or you will have a very dense cake.
  6. Pour the cake batters into greased and lined 8 inch round cake pans and bake for about 40-45 minutes.
  7. Meanwhile, make the ganache. Place all ingredients together in a bowl and microwave for a minute. Remove and stir until combined. If the chocolate has not melted yet, microwave for another 30 seconds. Stir and keep aside.
  8. Test if the cake is done by inserting a toothpick in the center; if it comes out clean, the cake is done.
  9. Cool for about 5 minutes in the tins and then invert. Cool completely.
  10. Slice each cake into half horizontally. Place one half of any cake on a plate. Pour about 2 tbsp. of the ganache on top of this cake and spread evenly using a spatula. Now pace a cake half of the other color on this and repeat. Stack up all four halves of the cake sandwiching them with the ganache.
  11. Use all the rest of the ganache to cover the top and sides of the assembled cake. The ganache will seem a little runny at first, but it will set in time. Smooth the edges as best as you can.
  12. Decorate the cake using your choice of toppings. Cool in the refrigerator. Bring to room temperature about 20 minutes before you want to serve.