As I mentioned in the last post, I put together a birthday party for Aaron this past weekend. The party he threw for me back in September was incredible and I wanted to at least partially return the gesture. I know it isn't a comparison game, but I really wanted to make sure he felt as loved and celebrated as possible this year.
So I schemed a bit and tried to sketch out what an "Aaron" birthday would look like. What I came up with was roughly as follows:
- A small group of people, of course, so we could all be in the same conversations together.
- Good food.
- Records on the turntable.
- A cozy ambiance.
- Something involving an amaro.
- A few personal elements to tie it together.
And then the wheels were a'turning. Food should be something fun and fondue immediately popped to mind. We're both cheese fiends, so what better way to celebrate than to turn all the rest of the food into cheese vehicles? Perfection.
And boy oh boy was it tasty. I'll be sure to include my fondue recipe in a future blog post, but for now I'll just say it's made up of white wine and three tasty cheeses. Heaven. I scattered the "vehicles" around on a board to create the feel of an ordered, communal chaos - a pile of bounty that was strewn out where everyone could partake. We've used a variety of things for fondue dippers in the past, but this time I settled on pretzel bread, apples, hard salami, radishes, and broccoli.
To set the ambiance, I screwed a few small hooks into the walls up near the ceiling so I could drape strands of large-bulb lights around the room. It really added a nice warmth and festivity, and gave an almost cafe feel to the apartment.
To add some personal significance to the occasion, I used the "choose your favorite Aaron" fondue sticks and drink identifiers I posted about earlier this week. They were definitely a hit! A side bonus is that Aaron has been leaving the clip versions of them in various places around the apartment ever since. I even found one in my lunch bag at work on Monday and he lives on my pencil jar now.
While I love the Small Aaron stickers, I wanted to be sure that wasn't the only personal element. So I modeled the design of the cocktail menus off of his favorite Apica notebooks. (Seriously, the man loves notebooks. And pens. It's the best.) And I have to tell you, I was quite thrilled with the end result. How classy are these menus?
So then to incorporate an amaro. We've talked elsewhere about how much he loves amaros, so clearly this needed to be part of the occasion. I wanted to make it something special, so I decided to create a cocktail for the occasion that was made specifically with things he loves. And so was born the Averna Surely. It's full of wonderful things like fennel and anise, Averna amaro, bitters, and Campari. Campari, by the way, is his downfall. He inevitably orders drinks that have it and inevitably receives very pink beverages. It's one of my favorite out-to-dinner amusements. But once I got started on inventing the Averna Surely, I couldn't quite stop myself! There were too many other runners up, so I ended up creating three cocktails for the occasion. It made sense - it was his 33rd birthday, so of course the cocktails should come in threes. Plus, then people would have options and hopefully there would be something for everyone. I failed miserably at getting decent photos of them during the night, but I'll do separate posts in the weeks to come that go into more details on these winners. For now, I'll just show some candids of them below. Here you can see Aaron's Averna Surely featuring his "choose your favorite self."
The Grey Havens, made of earl grey tea, lavender infused gin, honey syrup, and lemon:
And Aaron stealing a swig of my Basil Rathbourbon (bourbon, grapefruit juice, basil simple syrup, and Peychaud's bitters, and the spirit of my favorite Sherlock Holmes portrayal). Thief!
But as delicious as these were, the star of the show had to be the Earl Grey Chiffon Cake with Lavender and Lemon. I ran across an image on Pinterest that described an earl grey sponge cake, but honestly I didn't feel like dealing with a finnicky Victoria sponge in an already hectic weekend. So I gave it a good think and decided I could simply adapt my family's Grapefruit Chiffon Cake with similar flavors to suit the need. And guys. It was so good. SO good. Again, I failed to actually take time during the party to photograph it in any semblance of proffesionality, but trust me (and Aaron's speechless two minutes after taking a bite) that it is well worth your time.
And now I'll leave you with that cake recipe and a few additional photos of the evening. Please take note of Lila in a party hat. It's possibly my favorite thing to have come out of that entire party.
earl grey chiffon cake with lavender & lemon
yield: three 9" cakes (I only used two layers and saved the third, but you could make this a three layer cake)
EARL GREY CAKE
2¼ cups sifted cake flour
1½ cups sugar
3 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
contents of one teabag of earl grey
8 eggs, separated
½ cup vegetable oil (I used canola)
¼ cup fresh lemon juice
½ cup brewed earl grey tea (strong), cooled to room temp
2 tsp vanilla
zest of one lemon
½ tsp cream of tartar
In a large mixing bowl, sift flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt and mix together.
In a separate bowl, mix egg yolks, oil, earl grey tea, lemon juice, vanilla, and lemon zest until thoroughly combined.
Make a well in the dry ingredients, then add the liquid mixture all at once and stir until the batter is smooth.
In a standing mixer or large mixing bowl, beat the egg whites and cream of tartar until stiff peaks form.
Pour the batter over the egg whites and fold it in gently but thoroughly.
Distribute the batter evenly into three ungreased, 9" cake pans or into one ungreased 10-inch tube pan.
Bake at 325º for 60-65 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean.
Remove the cake(s) from the oven, invert them on cooling racks, and cool completely.
Turn the cakes out of the pans.
EARL GREY SYRUP
½ cup granulated sugar
½ cup water
1 earl grey teabag
½ teaspoon vanilla
In a small saucepan, combine the water, sugar, and tea bag and heat over medium-high heat until the sugar has dissolved, stirring constantly. If the bag bursts, don't worry. There's already loose earl grey tea in the cake, so having some extra in the syrup won't hurt. You can also strain this out if it happens and if you so desire.
Continue to stir until the mixture darkens from the tea and begins to thicken slightly into a loose syrup. It will continue to thicken as it cools, so don't stress about it too much.
Remove the syrup from the heat, stir in the vanilla, and allow it to cool to room temperature.
2 cups heavy cream
2 TB sugar
2 tsp vanilla
In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, combine cream, sugar, and vanilla and beat until the cream just holds its shape. You can beat it to your desired consistency, but I personally like it just a little looser so it spreads more evenly across the cake and allows for some draping.
Note that if you are assembling a three layer cake, you should up the quantities to 3 cups, 3 TB, and 3 tsp.
Place one layer of cake on a cake stand and brush it thoroughly with the earl grey syrup. I had syrup left over after brushing both layers, so don't feel that you need to completely saturate the cake. I probably just used a couple tablespoons for each layer. Note: we did notice that the flavor was even better the second day as the syrup had infused more thoroughly in the cake, so if you're making the layers in advance, you can brush the syrup on before wrapping them so it can work its way in.
Next, top it with enough whipped cream to provide a thick layer. Do not spread it all the way to the edges as it will spread further once the second layer is placed.
Add the second layer and repeat step 1. If you are using three layers, then repeat this process for each.
On the top layer of the cake, spoon out the remaining whipped cream and spread it to the edges. I pushed a few bits over the edge with some extra dollops to make it roll down the side a bit, but that's personal preference.
If desired, top the cake with a sprinkling of fresh lavender petals and lemon zest.