{recipe/parenting} Time, Love & A Chocolate Fire Truck Cake

October 21, 2011

Fire Truck Cake

I’ve always been confused by the way that time moves. Sometimes quickly, other times slowly. Motherhood has only intensified my confusion. Nothing makes time slow more than spending an entire rainy day indoors with a little one. And nothing makes time feel like it’s going bewilderingly fast more than waking up to your kindergartener brushing his own teeth to get ready for school.

When did he learn to do that?!

Time doesn’t seem to flummox others the way it does me. Maybe it’s because I’m a control person or maybe because I’m foolish (probably because I’m both)—I’m always trying to beat time. Instead, over and over again, it beats me and I’m never sure how. All I know is that I look up and another year has passed.

Last weekend, we celebrated the Hungry Baby’s second birthday with a fire truck party.

Fire Truck Party

It feels like we celebrated his first just yesterday. It also feels like the emotions I felt this time last year faded a million years ago. We’re in such a different place.

This year came with a whole new set of emotions. Some to be expected, some totally out of left field. See, the week before the Hungry Baby’s birthday (and, yes, I will continue calling him the Hungry Baby—probably for years to come), he suddenly started limping. It was the second time this happened in six months. We immediately brought him to the doctor where we ruled out the obvious stuff: he wasn’t in pain, there wasn’t a splinter on the bottom of his foot, his shoes weren’t too tight. We were sent to the emergency room to get x-rays, which revealed that his bones were completely intact, without even a hairline “toddler” fracture, as they’re called. We had to see a specialist.

We spent the entire week before birthday week taking him to doctors and waiting on blood tests to rule out scary things like leukemia and juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (a disease that runs through my side). The limp presented on Saturday and we didn’t get news that his blood work looked clean until Friday (at 3:30 pm, to be exact). I’ve never been so scared in my life. Time had never moved so slowly.

When I got off of the phone with our pediatrician on what I now call “good Friday,” I wiped the tears from my eyes, hit the playground for celebratory fun, then went home and passed out. When I woke, the birthday countdown began. The Hungry Baby is healthy and, goddamn, we were going to celebrate two like it had never been celebrated before. Emotionally and physically exhausted, I powered through a week of firehouse party prep.

I put together party bags, complete with NYPD-branded matchbox cars, Fire Truck by Peter Sis, kazoo & finger beams, naturally red Yummy Earth lollipops, firehouse-themed sugar cookies, stickers and, of course, fire chief hats.

Fire Truck Goody Bags

Then I planned a menu: firehouse chili, cornbread, mashed sweet potatoes and a fire truck cake!

Fire Truck Cake side

The week flew by. I was saved only by carefully selected recipes—all foods that could be made in advance—and a prep schedule that I’ll share with you soon.

Last Saturday—two after the limp started—was finally party day. It started slowly and then, as guests arrived, picked up speed. There’s a feeling I get when I host parties, like, for once, I’ve mastered time. It’s flying by, but I’m so organized and prepared that it can’t beat me. I watch the clock and know exactly when to move my guests from drinks to apps; when to warm the food; when to serve; when to give a break before dessert. I’m in the zone. I felt that feeling coming on about 15 minutes after kids started showing up. After all, we had to make a trip to the firehouse before coming back to eat—I had a schedule to keep! And then I looked at the Hungry Baby. Healthy, if a little tired and overwhelmed by the attention, and time stopped.

I can’t believe it’s been two years. Two of the hardest and most glorious years yet. I know time will continue to confound me but, damn, I get to spend mine with two of the most amazing hungry boys in the universe. Who cares if it moves fast or slow because, when all of my time has passed, having been with them is all that will matter.


I’m going to post more on my party plan and menu soon but, in the meantime, here are the deets on the fire truck cake.

My first instinct was to make a sheet cake shaped like a fire truck using this Wilton fire truck cake pan, but then I decided to go 3-D. I found this great video on how to assemble a fire engine cake on the Betty Crocker site. Like fireman, this video is a lifesaver. I’m good at making things taste good, but not so great at decorating baked goods. If my cake can come out this decent, anyone’s cake can:

Fire Truck Cake top

If you ever plan on making a firetruck cake, watch the video.

Once I had a handle on how to make the cake, I needed a chocolate cake recipe. Last year’s chocolate birthday cake was spectacular, but I couldn’t bring myself to make it again. Not because I didn’t believe it would be good—it’s a great cake—but I’d come across this recipe and couldn’t get it out of my head. When a cake makes Deb of Smitten Kitchen carry on like this and makes the staff of Gourmet “swoon,” you’ve gotta be curious.

Well, indeed, this cake is the one—a perfect, old fashioned chocolate layer cake. Deb and the folks at Gourmet did not exaggerate.

Fire Truck Cupcakes

Baking note: I doubled the cake recipe below to make three 10.5×6-inch loaf pans plus 1/2 a dozen cupcakes, which will serve at least 24 guests. To make a smaller cake that will serve 12 people, you’ll only need three 8×4-inch loaf pans. The recipe as written here will probably make enough batter but, to be sure, I’d make 1 1/2x’s the amount. Better to have extra than not enough.

I also found my new favorite icing.

Swiss Meringue Buttercream

Once on Smitten Kitchen, I decided to poke and found the Swiss Buttercream recipe that Deb used to make a wedding cake several years ago. I’d never made a meringue icing before and decided to do a little research. As it turns out, these icings get their shape from the egg whites in the meringue not just from tons and tons of confectioner’s sugar.

Icing on Whisk

That makes swiss meringue buttercream icings less sweet than most other icings. It is not austere, but it’s also not bracingly saccharine. I love it. And, as Deb points out, it’s awesome to work with. It spreads nicely and holds up even after sitting on the counter for 24 hours. You’ll understand why this is key when I share my prep schedule.

Baking note: Having doubled the cake recipe, I also doubled the icing recipe indicated for a 9-inch cake. It was just enough. If you stick with the 3 smaller loaf pans, though, you should be fine with the icing recipe as written for the 9-inch cake. But again, to be safe, you might want consider making 1 1/2x’s Deb’s recipe.

To make a fire truck cake you must turn some of your gorgeous white icing into fire engine red icing.

Fire Truck Cake front

Now—here’s where I hang my head low—this, sadly, cannot easily be done with natural food dye. I encourage you to a) try anyway, b) report back with details if you succeed or c) decide not to care if the color isn’t perfect. I, in all of my exhaustion and emotional upheaval, got absurdly wrapped up in making the icing the perfect red and, in doing so, doused the icing for my baby’s cake in bottles and bottles of red gel food dye. The icky kind. The kind I’ve been indignant about on this very blog. I am a shamed woman. I crossed the line for very red cake and all I can say now is that I’m back on our side. (Remind me of this as the Hungry Boy’s birthday approaches in early January, please.)

Red dye and weepy musings on time and motherhood aside, I encourage you to bookmark these recipes, even if you’re sure you’ll never have occasion to make a fire truck cake. Both the cake and icing are wonderfully practical and all-purpose. Both are delectable.

Swiss Buttercream from Smitten Kitchen
(can be shared with kids 12+ mos)*

Double Chocolate Layer Cake from Gourmet, March 1999
makes two 10×2-inch round cakes (or see baking notes above for fire truck cake size)
(can be shared with kids 12+ mos)*

3 ounces semisweet chocolate
1 1/2 cups hot brewed coffee
3 cups sugar
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch process)
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
3 large eggs
1 1/2 cups well-shaken buttermilk
3/4 cup vegetable oil
3/4 teaspoon vanilla

1. Preheat oven to 300°F and grease pans. Line bottoms with rounds of wax paper and grease paper. Finely chop chocolate and add to a bowl along with hot coffee. Let mixture stand, stirring occasionally, until chocolate is melted and mixture is smooth.

2. Sift sugar, flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, salt and baking powder together into a large bowl. In another large bowl beat eggs with an electric mixer until thickened slightly and lemon colored (about 3 minutes with a standing mixer or 5 minutes with a hand-held).

3. Slowly add buttermilk, oil, vanilla and melted chocolate mixture to eggs, beating until combined well. Add sugar mixture and beat on medium speed until just combined well. Divide batter between pans and bake in middle of oven until a tester inserted in center comes out clean, 1 hour to 1 hour and 10 minutes. (Note: my very full, larger loaf pans baked for nearly 2 hours. If you are not making 10″ rounds, start checking on your cake after 1 hour. Once the top looks just baked—no longer like wet batter—start testing the cake with a toothpick, removing it from the oven when the toothpick comes out clean.)

4. Cool layers completely in pans on racks. Run a thin knife around edges of pans and invert layers onto racks. Carefully remove wax paper and cool layers completely. Cake layers may be made 1 day ahead and kept, wrapped well in plastic wrap, at room temperature. (Note: I made my cake many days ahead and stored it in the freezer with great results. Once the cake is completely cooled, wrap it well in plastic wrap and freeze. You do not have to defrost it before icing, so long as you’re icing at least 6 hours before the party. In fact, doing your crumb coat on a frozen cake makes the job much easier!)

*Note: Though it is not unsafe to share these delicious recipes with beginner eaters, I recommend holding off on sharing them with kids under 12 months due to their high sugar content. No matter at what age you share this, be sure to serve age appropriate portions. A little of this cake goes a long way!

4 Responses

  1. Happy birthday to the Hungry Baby! So glad the health scare was nothing but a scare.

    I did the same exact cake, from the Betty Crocker video, for Harry’s 4th last year. He LOVED it.

  2. Lani says:

    Happy birthday Hungry Baby! I will certainly try out your swiss buttercream (great find) – I need practice for my little girl’s next birthday, only 7 months away 😉

    Ps. Did you find out why he was limping?

  3. They think that he has something called transitive synovitis. The orthopedist described it as a “runny hip” (as in “runny nose)”. It’s a reaction—a painless inflammation of the hip—that some kids have to some viruses. The problem is that there’s no “proof” of TS. It’s diagnosed as other things are eliminated, which I find really stressful. I just want to KNOW for sure what he has. We’ve ruled out most major things that even relatively fit his symptoms, so we’re good for now. There may be more tests, though, if/when it happens again. Thanks for asking… and for the birthday wishes. (He’s suddenly *such* a 2-yr-old!)

  4. sweet tooth says:

    looks better than my cake

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