Every year I make family members their favorite birthday cake. My brother’s favorite cake is a dark chocolate cake covered completely in a thick Coconut Pecan Custard — traditionally used for a German’s Sweet Chocolate Cake — and he likes it to have tons of maraschino cherries.
Normally I make a 4 layered cake, but limited time and being short on ingredients I only had enough to make two layers for the cake pictured. It is decorated very simply using only drained maraschino cherries forming a border along the bottom edge of the cake and a few on the top center in what we refer to in our household as a “Shriner’s hat” design.
However, due to only having two layers the cake pictured looks less like a tall Fez and more like a simple, old fashion, lady’s hat. It also has drizzles of cherry and caramel syrup although they don’t really show up well in the photo.
Sometimes I decorate it very elaborately and others very simply. It just depends upon the occasion, how much time I have, and — in particular — how well I am doing at the time.
All of the various decorating techniques I frequently use for this particular cake are included — but you can pick and choose any or all as desired — or do something entirely different.
The only thing I did not include is piping on chocolate frosting decorations. I do not wish to give lessons on how to do that — especially right now — while still trying put my house back in order after the loss of my husband earlier this year and having just had sub-flooring and other unavoidable major household repairs taking place. Plus, my piping skills aren’t as polished and pretty as they once were due to arthritis and old injuries resulting in surgeries on my hands and wrists and some days I can’t pipe at all.
I recommend taking a cake decorating class or even looking for free instructional videos online. It is tons of fun and even therapeutic — you can really lose yourself in the creativity, and focusing on the techniques, thereby leaving all your worries behind.
I recall last year I was searching for an intricate piped basket weave design that I hadn’t done in a very long time to see if I could find a quick refresher. Not only did I find what i was looking for, but I also saw that there are tons of free instructional videos for beginners on cake decorating.
Some are done by amateurs and some are actual classes with instructions given by professional decorators, but the majority of those that I looked at appeared to be very well done no matter who was providing instruction.
Anyway, here is the recipe for my brother’s birthday cake and various other decorating ideas and other tips.
Dark Chocolate Cake with Coconut Pecan Custard
This is my brother’s favorite dark chocolate birthday cake covered with his favorite “frosting” which is the same Coconut Pecan Custard used for a German’s Sweet Chocolate Cake.
Yield: 1 four layer cake
For the Cake:
3-1/2 cups granulated sugar
2-1/2 cups cake flour
1-1/2 cup Hershey’s Special Dark cocoa powder
2-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
2-1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
4 large eggs, lightly beaten, room temperature
2 cups buttermilk, room temperature
1 cup canola oil
1 Tbsp. vanilla extract
1-3/4 cups boiling water
For Coconut Pecan Custard:
1 cup dark brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup butter
5 large egg yolks
1 can (12 ounces) evaporated milk
1 Tablespoon vanilla extract
2 cups chopped pecans
2 cups shredded coconut
2 small jars stemless maraschino cherries
2 Tbsp. fruit pectin
2 to 4 Tbsp. chocolate fudge sauce or chocolate syrup
12 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips or discs
2 to 4 Tbsp. caramel sauce
1-1/2 cups heavy whipping cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup confectioners sugar
1 quality chocolate bar
Preheat oven to 375°F.
Grease the bottoms and sides of four 8-inch round baking pans. Cut a round piece of wax or parchment paper for the bottom of the pan. Press it smoothly so that it sticks well to the greased bottom of the pan. Lightly grease the top of the paper. Recommend greasing with hydrogenated vegetable oil or butter. Do not use spray oil.
When greasing cake pans, create a visible but thin, even, and translucent (see through) layer without clumps or globs. Be sure to get into the creases along the edges — and if using square or rectangular pans be sure to get into the corners. If needed, use a paper towel to spread the grease evenly and get into the creases or corners. Hold the pan up to a light source if needed to make sure that it has a reflective shiny coating grease and is completely covered.
If flouring is required, sift all purpose flour (or better still use cake flour) and apply a thin, even coating without any clumps. Bang the pan to release any clumps or excess flour. Clumps will result in holes or indentations rather than a smooth surface as well as leaving excess flour stuck to the cake that is unpleasant in both texture and taste when eaten.
If using waxed or parchment paper, cut to fit the bottom of the pan without any edges sticking up on the sides and press it onto a greased bottom so that it sticks snugly against the bottom of the pan to reduce the chance of the paper edges curling up and for some batters — especially thinner batters — from running underneath the outer edges. The paper will also peel away much easier after baking if lightly greased.
Do not grease or flour pans if making an angel food (sponge) cake which is made without any leavening agents (baking soda or baking powder) and needs to cling to the sides of the pan to avoid collapse. Use a spring form pan if possible and line only the inner portion of the bottom of the pan leaving about 1/8 to 1/4 inch of the the outer edges uncovered.
Line 2 baking sheets with waxed paper. Place in the freezer to chill.
Keep the juice from the jars of cherries and set aside.
Place maraschino cherries on a thick layer of paper towels to drain.
Combine whipped cream and 1 tsp. vanilla. Whip until thickened.
Stir in 1 cup confectioners sugar and 2 Tbsp. maraschino cherry juice. Whip until combined.
Pipe or spoon small mounds of whipped cream to serve as “nests” for the cherries onto the chilled, waxed paper lined baking sheets.
Using only one of the jars of cherries, place a cherry so that holes are hidden and only smooth intact sides are visible and gently press down to seat slightly into the center of each nest so they will not roll off. Place uncovered into the freezer.
For the remaining cherries, replace the paper towels with fresh ones, and leave the cherries to continue draining.
Grate the chocolate bar into fine granules. Set aside at room temperature away from any source of heat.
It is too soon to work with the semi-sweet chocolate chips or discs or other items at this time.
Sift together the sugar, flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda and salt into a very large bowl.
In a separate bowl combine the eggs, buttermilk, oil and vanilla. Beat with an electric hand mixer until well combined.
Stir the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients.
Beat with electric hand mixer until smooth and well combined.
Stir in boiling water then whisk by hand for 1 minute.
Pour batter into prepared pans.
Bake 30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.
Cool for 10 minutes in the pans.
Run a rubber spatula carefully around the outer edges. Invert pans to remove cakes. Place on cooling racks. Allow to cool completely for 2 to 4 hours.
For Coconut Pecan Custard:
In small bowl, whisk egg yolks until pale yellow. Add evaporated milk, sugar, and vanilla. Whisk together. Set aside.
Put thinly sliced pats of unsalted butter into a large saucepan or Dutch oven.
Warm over low heat just until the butter melts. Stir occasionally.
Slowly add a thin stream of the custard mixture to the pan while rapidly whisking continuously.
Increase the heat bringing the custard to a simmer over a medium heat setting while stirring.
As soon as it begins to bubble slightly, begin whisking continuously until well thickened, about 14 minutes.
Pour the custard into a bowl.
Stir in coconut flakes and chopped pecans.
Beat with an electric hand mixer until thick enough to spread.
Divide into two portions (approximately 1/3 and 2/3) and set the smaller one aside to cool and continue to thicken more.
Using the larger portion, spread a quarter of it over top of each layer of cake as it is added.
Set cake in refrigerator uncovered for 20 minutes.
Remove the cake and spread the remaining frosting evenly around the outside of the cool cake.
Using the side of a flat pastry cutter, press lightly to form an even and smooth coating all the way around and on top of the cake. If any frosting left over, use to fill in where needed to create a smoother, straighter sides or add to the top of the cake.
Cover with cake lid and return to refrigerator.
Preparing decorations continued:
Pour the reserved maraschino cherry juice into a saucepan and simmer over medium heat. When it is warm warm but not yet bubbling, whisk in 1 Tbsp. fruit pectin. Bring to a boil and simmer stirring until thickened to desired syrup consistency for drizzling. Set aside to cool.
Place a large sheet (or several) of waxed paper on a firm smooth work surface.
Temper the semi-sweet chocolate chips or discs.
For proper tempering techniques:
Pipe or drizzle any desired chocolate designs onto the waxed paper. You can even write Happy Birthday to lay across the top of the cake or that can be stood up by adding some chocolate pegs in which to stick down into the cake. You can make designs for putting on top of the cake or adding to the sides of the cake.
If preferred, pour the tempered chocolate into properly prepared molds. Prepare molds if required according to manufacturer’s directions which varies according to the type and material from which the molds are made.
Be sure after cooling and set that you go back over any piped or drizzled designs on the waxed paper with additional tempered chocolate at least once more (or repeat as often as needed) so that the design will be sturdy and not break easily. Make at least two or more of each design so that you will have back ups in case some should break.
Wait until fully set to carefully peel off of the waxed paper.
Any designs that break can be re-tempered and the chocolate used again.
While tempered chocolate designs are cooling and allowed to set, begin decorating the cake.
Remove the cake from the refrigerator and the baking sheets (one a time) from the freezer. Begin placing the whipped cream nested cherries around the base of the cake and the top outer edge. They may be placed touching to form a solid line or spaced apart as desired.
Drizzle thin lines or swirls of chocolate sauce or syrup as well as caramel syrup onto the cake. Check the cherry syrup to see if it has fully cooled. If so, drizzle onto cake.
Apply tempered chocolate decorations as desired.
Press the grated chocolate bar onto the side of cake to create a decorative bands going around the cake (also a good way to cover any indents that may have occurred between the layers) or sprinkle over top of the cake as desired.
A cookie cutter can be used as a guide or mold when sprinkling grated chocolate on top of the cake to create chocolate shadow picture patterns if desired. Work fast and try not hold on to the grated chocolate for long as it will melt quickly.
If you are not comfortable working with tempered chocolate or using grated chocolate, substitute chocolate sprinkles or use pre-made edible decorations.
Use the remaining cherries (whole or sliced in half) as desired to finish decorating the cake.
You can also simply line the bottom and top edges of the cake with cherries if desired and place them decoratively on the top or sides of the cake.
If not making for my brother’s birthday, I usually like to frost the sides with chocolate flavored buttercream, sour cream, cream cheese frosting. I’ll pipe some plain frosting without any added chocolate on top in the center, add a few decorative cherries, and place a few shaved chocolate curls or tempered chocolate decorations. I also carve indented lines in the frosting around the side of the cake using a decorating tool designed for that purpose. However, if you have a steady hand, you can do the same using the tines of a dinner fork. Next, I press tiny pecan bits onto the lower third of the frosting on the side of the cake. Then, I finish it off by piping a chocolate frosting border along the bottom and create a border of alternating chocolate and plain frosting stars, kisses, flowers, or shells on the top edge.