Make a perfect, 'smash' worthy birthday cake

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When you're a 1 year old, you want to have your cake — to play with — and eat it, too.

I'm sure when I turned 1, my mother bought a cake at the local grocery store, cut me a slice and let me play with it in front of our family and friends, oohing and ahhing over my chubby cheeks covered in cake crumbs and frosting-coated curls. It's tradition to let the almost toddler, but no longer baby, tetter into the next phase of life holding a clump of sugary perfection.

But today, the stakes — and the cakes — are higher. When planning my son's first birthday, my sister asked me if I wanted her to order a cake for the guests and a smash cake for my son. For those who aren't up-to-speed on the latest food-trend lingo, a "smash cake" is a personal-sized cake for the birthday babe only, to paw at, eat two or three bites of and then possibly cry over. Gone are the days of my mom's sheet cake special, the single slice for my birthday consumption. The cakes my sister showed me were towering works of art, covered in fondant in fun animals shapes, cartoon themes and color coordinated.

"But he's 1, he won't know the difference," I said to her. Plus, I thought, how will he dig into a cake covered in gummy fondant that I often have trouble cutting through at weddings? "No, I appreciate the offer, but I'm going to make my own cakes."

I'm no baker, by any means, but I gave birth to this bouncing boy a week after his due date, working right up until the early hours of labor on deadline. I can bake a darn cake from scratch. Right?

Armed with a KitchenAid mixer and Google, I set out to find the perfect cake recipe. My criteria was simple: I needed a highly rated recipe that required common ingredients and a deliciously moist outcome.

I decided to test two recipes — a Hershey's chocolate cake with buttercream frosting and a King Arthur Flour white cake that promised to be tender. Over the hum of my electric mixer, while covered in cake flour, I separated egg whites and tediously measured out cups of fine sugar and inhaled cocoa powder — not as tasty as it sounds. What resulted was far superior to any box mix I'd ever tried to pass off as "homemade."

After rigorous testing, and many glasses of milk, my husband and I agreed the chocolate cake was the clear winner. It was easy, rich, yet perfectly sweet, and stayed moist after days of waiting for the party to start.

In honor of my son's love and reverence of garbage trucks, we threw a trash-truck-themed party, complete with a homemade cake from his mama — decorated with green-dyed buttercream frosting and his favorite dump truck spewing crushed chocolate cookies and gummy worms and fish.

And for the birthday boy, an 8-inch round chocolatey smash cake covered in a healthy thick layer of gooey frosting, which he quickly dipped his little fingers into before we could blow out the candle and then spent an hour shoveling fistfuls into his mouth. I'd say it was the perfect birthday cake.

Perfect chocolate cake

Ingredients:

2 cups sugar

1-3/4 cups all-purpose flour

3/4 cup cocoa

1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1-1/2 teaspoons baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

2 eggs

1 cup milk

1/2 cup vegetable oil

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 cup boiling water

Directions:

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour two 9-inch round baking pans. Stir together sugar, flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda and salt in large bowl. Add eggs, milk, oil and vanilla; beat on medium speed of mixer 2 minutes. Stir in boiling water (batter will be thin). Pour batter into prepared pans.

Bake 30 to 35 minutes or until wooden pick inserted comes out clean. Cool completely. Frost with chocolate frosting.*

Chocolate frosting

Melt 1 stick of butter. Stir in 2/3 cup cocoa. Alternately add 3 cups of powdered sugar and 1/3 cup of milk, beating to spreading consistency. Add small amount additional milk, if needed. Stir in 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract. About 2 cups frosting.


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