happy birthday, dear Chicago

I don't like cake.  I avoided birthday parties growing up because I dreaded the inevitably tense discussion with a perky mom who just couldn't wrap her head around a weirdo kid who didn't want any cake.  After politely declining several times, I usually ended up caving and pushing around a dry square coated in a cloying layer of icing with a plastic fork for a few minutes.  Then I pawned it off on another party guest, scraped it into the trash cleverly disguised in a napkin, or hid the plate behind a plant on the kitchen counter.     

For my own birthdays, I preferred to wolf down cheesecake - not really cake - after eating an adult portion of lasagna at Papa Frank's, a neighborhood favorite that was forced to relocate by the massive flood in 1993.  I got older and started celebrating birthdays with friends at pizza places with animatronic bands.  The masses were appeased with fancy (notable themes included NKOTB, 90210, Chicago Bulls) concoctions purchased from a decorator friend, but I did not partake.  For my family celebration, at a restaurant of my choosing, I preferred to order pie or ice cream.  Anything but cake.

                               chubby Allison, age 3, eye on the prize

It took awhile to realize that I only hated bad cake, of which, there seems to be an abundance in the world.  Cake can be good: moist, flavorful, filled, covered with good buttercream, layered to the ceiling.  Strawberry cake my Grandma Georgia makes with the Summer garden's bounty.  Chocolate cake smothered with ganache eaten with my fingers while watching cartoons in bed.  Pineapple upside-down cake to serve 300 people - the first cake I made all by myself as a grown-up.  If a cake has frosting leaping forth like flames from the sides and top, I'll probably like that cake.  If a picture can be scanned onto the perfectly smooth top, I probably don't like that cake.

Last Cinco de Mayo, err dos de Mayo, I made my first tres leches cake.  The architecture of the cake I planned with two thick layers, heavy with milk syrup, covered with fresh whipped cream was not suitable for travel across the city.  Not on a bus or in a taxi, where I probably shouldn't trust the driver with my life and definitely not a cake.  I packed up some springform pans, bags full of dairy ingredients, and fresh strawberries, lugging them to the party to make a mess in someone else's kitchen for a change.  That cake was so damn good.  The hauling of the hand mixer to Kris and Frankie's apartment was definitely worth it, but I immediately began hatching a plan for a commute-friendly version for the future.  Cupcakes, if a little cute and over done, are pretty great travelers.  And they eliminate the need for plates and forks.  They are perfect for tres leches, I figured.

                                tres leches cake, dos de Mayo 2009

Last weekend I confirmed my gut feeling. Successful, wet cupcakes were had by many a tipsy reveler at Jonathan's impromptu birthday party.  One attendee refused, saying he had given up sweets for Lent, but a nearby party-goer branded them "epic" and had another one on his behalf.  You should make these to celebrate Chicago's Birthday.  Or just Thursday.  I have some leftovers and I think tonight I'll celebrate having driven home from the suburbs, during rush hour, without killing anyone.  Provided I accomplish that.

Tres Leches Cupcakes
cake and syrup recipes adapted from Michael Lomonaco,
Epicurious 2002

Spicy Sponge Cake (makes 16 - 20 cupcakes)
1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 1/2  teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon ground ginger
4 eggs, separated
1 1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup whole milk
pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 350°F. Line a muffin tin with foil cupcake liners and spray inside each liner lightly with canola oil baking spray.  Whisk flour with baking powder and cinnamon, cardamom, and ginger in a medium bowl.  Separate egg yolks from whites.  Using a standing mixer with the whisk attachment, beat egg whites until frothy, then slowly add sugar to tighten whites to semi stiff peaks. Add yolks one at a time. Alternate adding the flour mixture and the milk until well mixed.  Using 1/3 cup measuring cup, pour batter into cupcake liners, filling 2/3 way up side of liner. Bake for about 20 - 22 minutes or until the middle springs back when touched and tops are slightly brown, turning once halfway through baking to ensure even cooking. Cool thoroughly on a wire rack.

Rum Milk Syrup
1 can evaporated milk (12 oz.)
1 can sweetened condensed milk (14 oz.)
1 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 tablespoons dark spiced rum (optional)

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