Play With Your Food: Simple the Hard Way

By Nick Wuest,
ICC Pastry Arts student
(read more about Nick)

Birthday cakes are cool but do you know what’s even cooler? A billion birthday cakes.

If you can’t already tell I have a penchant for complicating simple tasks.

Some friends had birthdays recently that I wanted to celebrate since I sold my soul to James Beard and haven’t seen them in a while. So being a student of Pastry Arts I volunteered to make dessert and that obviously had to be birthday cake. And since I’m still more child than adult I wanted to make something silly.

Silly, irreverent, hands on. These are the words you’ll get used to seeing around here. “Play With Your Food” doesn’t just apply to me having fun making things. Like I mentioned in my last post eating should be an experience for all of the senses. I cut my teeth in BBQ and grilling (yes, they are very different things we’ll talk about later) so I’m real big on eating with my hands. Seriously, pick up your food (wash your hands first!) and bite it like you’re the only person in the room. Of course I’m exaggerating here and understand that decorum should prevail through most plates.

This is not one of them.

This particular creation uses two recipes that are not my own so I must credit Thomas Keller’s Devils Food Cake from Bouchon Bakery and Christina Tosi’s (an ICC alum and recent James Beard Award winner) frosting from Momofuku Milk Bar.

*A quick note on how to read these posts. I list the recipes in the order they should be prepared. If there’s an overlap from a passive task like creaming butter and sugar there’s no reason you can’t start prepping another task.*

Special Equipment:

  • Metric Scale
  • Stand mixer with both whisk and paddle
  • 2 ½” round cookie cutter
  • Piping bags with #1/2 plain, #3/4 plain, and #3 star tips

Devils Food Cake

devils food cake

Ingredients: (this is a double batch – halve it to make a single sheet or ~12 cupcakes)

  • 202g all purpose (AP) flour
  • 62g unsweetened Dutch cocoa powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • ¼ tsp baking powder
  • ¾ tsp salt
  • 112g eggs (should be 2 eggs – an egg weighs about 50g)
  • 252g sugar
  • 4g vanilla paste (this is actually vanilla seeds suspended in bourbon syrup – yeah.)
  • 172g mayonnaise
  • 210g water, room temperature

Preheat oven to 325F and set 2 racks around the middle of the oven.
Line 2 full sheet pans with parchment paper, spray them with non-stick spray and set aside.
Sift flour, cocoa, baking soda, and baking powder into a bowl, whisk in salt. Set aside.

Whisk egg, sugar, and vanilla paste in mixer at low to combine then increase to medium and whip for ~5min until thick and pale. Scrape bowl and whip another for ~5min until mixture falls from the whisk in a slow dissolving ribbon. Add mayo and whip to just combine. Fold the flour mix and water into the mixer bowl with a spatula in 2 batches to form a smooth batter.

Divide the batter between the two sheet pans and spread it into even layers about 1/4” thick. It probably won’t reach the edges of the pan, which is totally fine.

Bake each cake for 5min then rotate the pans and switch their shelves. Bake for another 5-7 min or until a toothpick comes out mostly clean with a little crumb on it. Cool the cakes in their pans on a rack. Once they are close to room temperature wrap them up and place them in the freezer (don’t stack them) for at least 3 hours or up to 3 weeks.


This frosting is awesome. Depending on its temperature it can be used to spread, pipe large amounts, or even do fine designs. Mess around with it while you have some and you’ll see what I mean. I modified this from the original recipe in that I use vanilla paste instead of imitation vanilla, which I find to be too weirdly sweet. I also don’t measure my vanilla when I use it and go mostly by eye/smell/taste so what I’ve put below is a lowball guess to start you with.

Ingredients: (this is also a double batch since it’s used in every area of assembly)

  • 210g unsalted butter, room temp
  • 90g vegetable shortening
  • 116g cream cheese, room temp
  • 4 Tbsp light corn syrup
  • 1 ½ Tbsp vanilla paste
  • 310g powdered sugar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • ½ tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp lemon juice

Beat the butter, shortening, and cream cheese in the mixer with a paddle at medium-high until smooth and fluffy ~3-4min.

Scrape bowl, turn the mixer to low and slowly stream in the corn syrup and vanilla paste then beat at medium-high until silky and glossy ~3min.

Scrape the bowl and add the sugar, baking powder, salt, and lemon juice to just combine. Taste it here and add more vanilla if you’d like (I like).

Once you’re happy with the flavor crank it to medium-high and beat until it’s very white and smooth ~4min. Store chilled in an air-tight container for up to 1 week.

Bourbon Sugar

bourbon sugar recipe

Make it, try it, and put it on everything.


  • ½ C raw sugar
  • ½ tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 Tbsp bourbon

Mix all ingredients in a bowl. Spread on a parchment lined pan and dry in a 150 degree oven for ~3 hours or until dried. Cool and break up back into its original form. Keep in an air-tight container at room temp for up to 2 months.


birthday cakes recipe

Cut out shapes from frozen cake sheets, in this case 39 2 ½ inch rounds. Chill the cut rounds until they’re needed and save the scraps (seriously, if you throw them out that’s just messed up).

Remove the frosting from the fridge and work it over with a spoon or fork to make it more malleable. Remove ~1/3 of the frosting to a smaller bowl and mix it with food coloring to the desired hue. Place this bowl back in the fridge. Fill a #3 or #4 plain piping bag with ~1/2C of the white frosting and chill the rest.

Assemble the cakes by piping a layer of frosting on a round, placing another on top, piping a second layer, topping it with another round, and finishing with your best piped layer on top. Work fast, the icing will get slick as it warms and the cake rounds may begin to slide. If you feel you’re not working fast enough then take a break and chill everything for 20-30min before doing more.

cake assembly

Once the cakes are assembled work the colored frosting until it’s malleable. Use 2/3 of it to fill a #3 star tip bag. Fill a #1 or #2 plain tip bag with the remaining 1/3. Using the plain tip letter the center of each cake with your message then pipe a border of stars around the top of the cake. Carefully sprinkle the star border with the bourbon sugar making sure to keep as much of it off of the white area as possible.

Keep the cakes chilled and serve them cold.

happy birthday cakes

These are a lot of fun to make and, since the components keep so well, they can be made over a pretty long time or in a few hours like I did. They’re great for practicing several piping techniques and the frosting is so cooperative you can really be mindful of the work you’re doing and adjust your form as you go along. Up close and in person it was clear that from “H” to the second “P” I was still figuring most of it out and by the time I got to the “B” things really clicked. You’ll probably notice that the “Y” is gross. That’s because I tried to frost them all around but decided against it. Like any mistake I make that little cake will haunt me forever.

So how do they taste? I’ve learned the best way to tell how well you’ve done with a dish is to listen to the room when you serve it. Do you know what you’re listening for? Nothing. Complete silence. You can probably guess what I heard when I handed these out. Find a reason to make these cakes and I promise you’ll start making them just to celebrate the day of the week.

Thanks for reading everyone. I’ll be back soon with something to beat the heat of a New York City summer.

Stay hungry,

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