Please excuse the rather plain cake plate for serving; I do believe that Mom deserves the frilliest, prettiest of cake stands, but for fear of losing it all in transport, I had to err on the side of (dowdy) sensibleness.

Now with the holiday season in (almost) full swing, one might be expect to find me knee-deep in mistletoe and ornaments. And while those baubles have a place in the house these days, there are also cake pans laying about, a box of icing tips open and waiting, and some birthday candles at the ready.

Today is someone's birthday.

I am lucky enough to have both a Mum and a Mom. "Mum" is my own mother, a woman after whom I follow in many ways - our humour, our aesthetic, and our looks (though neither of us truly see it), are rather in sync. We have a shorthand version of communication, where I can simply describe a situation, often searching to find the right words, and even with those gaps she instinctively knows what I mean and how I would react; because, in truth, she'd most likely react the same way.

My "Mom" is my husband Sean's mother. Coming into my life when I was already headstrong and full of opinions, she is the person who has brought me a new perspective. With distinctly different backgrounds and experiences, it is because of our divergent styles that she has shown me new avenues to expand my horizons. For instance, I never knew how much I adored Depression Glass until I saw her charming collection, and she is now the one with whom I am happy to wander antique markets and country stores.

She is a quilter, whereas I come from a family of knitters; it has been her love of that art that has taught me to appreciate the details of a well-stitched piece, and the beauty in fabrics. It is with her that I have enjoyed conversations over a cup of tea, shared at a tiny table laid perfectly with china and silver and a tiered tray with filled with dainty sandwiches, delectable sweets and delicate scones with cream.

She was the one with whom I bought my earrings for my wedding day.

But most of all what Mom has brought into my life has been enthusiasm; whether it be for the seasons (she has a greener-than-green thumb), the holidays or her grandsons, Mom is one that is ready to embrace each one, with arms open wide. In truth, my celebratory efforts seem minimalist in comparison to hers, me with my clear lights and greenery, her with kaleidoscope of fantastic rainbow-hues and sparkles for days.

Today is her birthday, and in the midst of all the snow outside my window, a winter-white cake seemed apt. Four moist layers of warmly-spiced carrot cake sandwich luscious cream cheese frosting, crowned with a delicate circle of floral-ish decorations. Charmingly vintage, I do hope Mom will approve.

Have a wonderful day.

MOM'S BIRTHDAY CARROT CAKE

I originally came up with this variation on a recipe from Dorie Greenspan for our housewarming party. Mom had spoken fondly of a carrot cake from her childhood, and I was attempting to recreate it for her - happily, she said my efforts were a success. The use of both fresh and dried ginger adds another dimension of subtle, spicy heat.

INGREDIENTS

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 3 cups of grated carrots
  • 1 cup chopped walnuts, toasted
  • 1 cup sweetened, shredded coconut
  • zest of half an orange, grated fine
  • 1/4 teaspoon fresh ginger, grated
  • 1/2 cup golden raisins
  • 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup of dark or old-fashioned brown sugar
  • 1 cup, plus two tablespoons canola oil
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 batch Cream Cheese Frosting from Ina Garten, I omit the almond extract

METHOD

Preheat the oven to 325°F (160°C). Butter four 8-by-2-inch round cake pans. Dust with flour, and tap out any excess. Set aside.

Into a medium bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda, spices and salt. In another medium bowl, stir together the carrots, walnuts, coconut, fresh ginger and orange zest. Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, add the oil and sugars. Beat, on medium high speed, for about five minutes or until the mixture is smooth and light. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula now and again.

Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition and scraping down sides of bowl. Reduce speed to low and add the flour mixture, blending just until all the flour is incorporated. With the mixer still on low, add the carrots and stir to combine.

Divide the batter evenly between the four prepared cake pans and bake until golden and a wooden skewer inserted into the center comes out clean, about 25-30 minutes. Cool in pans on a wire rack for about 10 minutes, then turn out to cool completely (turn the cakes right side up).

Smear a bit of frosting on the base of your cake plate or stand. Place one layer on the cake plate, then place four strips of parchment paper around perimeter, tucking the edges under the cake - this parchment will keep the cake plate neat.

Spread between 1/4 to 1/3 of a cup of frosting over the cake (I never have measured, you are aiming for a thin, even layer), then place another cake on top. Repeat process with the next two layers and top with last remaining layer.

Spread top and sides of cake with thinly with frosting, forming what is called a crumb coat. It does not need to be perfect, but the cake should be completely covered so that crumbs will not migrate into the final coat. Chill for at 30 minutes or until the frosting is slightly firm to the touch.

Use the remaining frosting to coat the top and sides of the cake, as desired. Use a thin-bladed knife to score where the frosting meets the parchment paper to break the seal, and remove.

Makes one 8-inch cake.

Notes:

• This cake is exceedingly tender, which is why I use multiple cake pans instead of splitting the layers. You could easily use two pans to make two layers, adjusting the cooking time accordingly.

• The Cream Cheese Frosting is very soft, and not the easiest to pipe. If it gets too warm, chill both the cake and frosting for about 10 minutes to firm up. Even with such measures, keep in mind that this is not the type of frosting that allows for a perfectly-smooth finish.

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Shown here surrounded by toys at a family picnic, Martha Stewart's One Bowl Chocolate Cupcakes and Beatty's Chocolate Cake from Ina Garten were combined in a multi-layer cake. Photos courtesy Deep Media.

As anyone familiar with the recipes and columns featured on this site might assume, I am pretty much my family's unofficial baker. One could also rightly assume, seeing my penchant for chocolate, that this fondness might run in the family.

And so, with birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, family reunions and all other manner of festive events, I bake a lot. Not that I am complaining; far be it in fact.

Sometimes there is nothing I would rather do than to pull out my beloved mixer and spend the afternoon measuring, beating and baking. Nowadays I am most often aided by the efforts of my rather endearing assistant, who particularly enjoys sifting dry ingredients and feels it his birthright to lick the bowl whenever possible.

But I digress. Back to the chocolate. Since this love for all things to do with the cacao bean seems to be part of our familial DNA, chocolate cakes are often the request for our celebratory events. Every time I am asked, these words activate my June Cleaver gene; I become consumed with the desire to make the most delicious, most gorgeous, most towering creation of irresistible, indulgent cake and decadent frosting imaginable.

A few years ago I started making the One Bowl Chocolate Cupcakes from Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook to satisfy this task. They were met with resounding accolades as everyone proclaimed them to be the "best ever." I made these for picnics, frosted with chocolate buttercream and decorated with accents of Martha Stewart's signature jadeite green. Truly a one-bowl wonder, I made them in a layer cake variation for a joint birthday party and was later told tales of attendees fighting over the last slice.

Then along came Beatty. I never met her, but was introduced to her legacy by Ina Garten on the show The Barefoot Contessa. It seems that this wonderful woman, the grandmother of Ina's friend Michael the florist, made a fantastic chocolate cake. Like Martha's, hers came together with a single bowl and beater and was advertised as delicious. Who was I to argue with Ina? So the next family event rolled around, and out rolled Beatty's cake. Now this recipe was deemed supreme, and all others were said to pale in comparison.

"What about Martha's?" I asked my family.

"This is better." They replied.

The problem was, I know better than to trust my family and friends. See, I know them. They are a fickle, fickle bunch. Easily swayed by the power of chocolate, give them a slice of homemade cake and they will pretty much say whatever you ask them to. They know cake that is in front of you will always be far superior than the cake that has long been eaten.

I had to find out for myself.

It just so happened that recently I was contemplating the task of a cake for an annual family picnic. It was to celebrate a six-year-old's birthday, and when I asked for particulars I was told "chocolate, no nuts." Armed with this instruction, I decided that purity was the way to go; chocolate upon chocolate. And layers. Lots of layers. What child (or adult for that matter) doesn't catch their breath just a little at the sight of a towering slice of birthday cake?

I was perusing recipes when I realized the opportunity at hand. I could finally settle my chocolate cake conundrum - whose cake was better, Ina's or Martha's? I did the math - one single layer 9"x13" cake (or double layer 9") serves about 16 people. If I took two recipes for cakes that size, I could easily serve my 30.

Then I ran into a problem. If I did one layer of each cake, they may bake up to different textures or colours. That would not work. As anyone who knows me can tell you, I am a stickler for consistent results in baking.

But I did not want to pass up this chance to finally try these cakes side-by-side. I considered my options and came up with an unorthodox plan.

Make each recipe to the letter, or at least to the letter of the notes I have made over the years. Take one 1 1/4" ice cream scoop of each batter and bake until done in a miniature muffin pan. Take the rest of the two batters, combine them, weigh them, then divide them evenly between three 9"x13" pans for baking. I would have two pure testers to compare, and three identical layers for the picnic.

It was just crazy enough to work. And, well, require a heck of a lot of dirty bowls and two nights of staying up well past my bedtime. And yes, I am fully aware of my obsessiveness.

But it was so worth it. Battle chocolate cake has a winner - Martha*.

I wish I had taken a photograph of the miniature cupcakes, but it was later than I would like to admit and there was no way I was pulling the camera out at that hour.

Take my word for it, Martha's baked up with a beautiful, glossy-smooth crown and sprang back jauntily to the touch. Ina's was slightly more reticent to recover and flatter on top - a trait helpful in layer cakes, but for a cupcake it looked a little depressed. However, the dark, peat-like colour of each was strikingly similar when compared, as was the crumb. Both cakes boasted a texture that was well-formed, open and moist. If I was pressed to note a difference, Ina's was ever so slightly more moist and delicately-elastic to the tongue.

And now the taste. While Ina's did have a prominent cocoa flavour balanced by a subtle coffee undertone, Martha's was somehow more intense, without being overbearing. I could not put my finger on it, but there was something that gave the latter more character. I am sorry and mean no offense Beatty, but something about your cake (while exceedingly tasty) was a smidge reminiscent of a boxed cake when put up against Martha's. Truly, Ms. Stewart's was that good. It was richer, deeper, chocolateyer. I found it was every -er I could hope for.

I knew it was not a good idea to listen to family members on a chocolate high. Sometimes due diligence, along with a bunch of eggs and a box of cocoa, is the only way.

* Some commenters are surprised at Martha's win. To be frank, I was too; I love Ina's cake. Upon reflection, I wonder if Ina's was a victim to its texture; its light sponginess melts in the mouth, while Martha's edge in structure allows it to linger. In short, you simply have more of an opprtunity to taste the latter. It should be noted though, that I did alter Martha's original recipe (see below), so the victory is subject to a condition.

Epilogue:

For those wondering what the layer cake was like after I combined the two recipes, it was sinfully yummy. The layers baked up exceptionally even, but their size and tenderness did make them a somewhat delicate to handle.

I am fairly sure that the number that ended up at the event was somewhere closer to 50, and the cake served the crowd handily. Everyone came back with glowing reviews. I would almost hazard to say the cake was better than Martha's cupcake, but I am scared to start down that slippery slope. Goodness knows, I can't make a behemoth like this one for every event, now can I? With results like this though, I won't say I'm not tempted.

You will note I have not included the recipe for the frosting, because that research is still ongoing. In this instance, I used a loose adaptation of a few recipes for chocolate buttercream between the layers, covered with an improvised ganache smoothed over top.

ONE BOWL CHOCOLATE CUPCAKES

From Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook (Clarkson Potter, 2005).

As the recipe is subject to copyright, I have only included my notes here. However, a quick search does find it published online (not through the official site, not the one that begins with 3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder).

Notes:

  • In lieu of milk alone, I use 1/2 cup sour cream plus 3/4 cup milk. Alternatively, I have had success swapping in some buttermilk.
  • As many may remember, I am an addict when it comes to espresso and chocolate in combination; so I use about 1/4 teaspoon of espresso powder dissolved in the warm water. If espresso powder is unavailable, I recommend at least 1/2 cup of prepared coffee substituted for the same amount of water (combined with enough warm water to meet the recipe's specification).
  • If using kosher salt for baking, I sometimes will stir it into the liquid ingredients instead of sifting it into the dry. This way you ensure that it is fully dissolved.