three 6-inch cake pans; cardboard; thick straws; wooden skewers, optional
For the "better than box mix chocolate cake": Whisk the dry ingredients together in a bowl: the flour, granulated sugar, cocoa powder, buttermilk powder, baking powder, salt and baking soda. (You can keep the mixture in a ziptop bag or a large jar ahead of time and have in your pantry, ready to go at a moment's notice, just like a box mix.)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Spray the bottoms but not the sides of three 6-inch cake pans with nonstick spray and line with parchment paper.
Add the dry ingredients to a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Add the butter in small pieces and the oil. Mix until the mixture looks like damp sand. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well between each addition. Add the coffee, vanilla and 1/2 cup water, and mix on high for 30 seconds. Divide the batter evenly among the 3 prepared cake pans.
Bake for 30 to 35 minutes or until the cakes spring back when gently poked. Cool the cakes, then wrap in plastic wrap and freeze for 30 to 40 minutes until firm but not frozen through. Slice each cake in half horizontally to create 2 layers.
For the cream cheese frosting: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, add the cream cheese and mix until smooth. Add the butter and beat on high until smooth. Add the vanilla and, with the mixer on low, slowly add the confectioners' sugar and salt. Once the confectioner's sugar is all added, raise the speed to high and beat until light, fluffy and smooth.
For the assembly: Cut three 6-inch rounds of cardboard and place a 6-inch round of parchment on top of each.
Place a bottom cake layer from each of the halved cakes on each of the parchment-lined cardboard rounds. Top the 3 rounds with 1/2 cup frosting each, then top with another cake layer and press gently to adhere so you have 3 double-tired cakes.
Using a small offset spatula, frost the tops of the cakes smoothly and frost the sides roughly to resemble bark. Place in the refrigerator until set, about 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, gently melt the chocolate over a saucepan of simmering water or in the microwave. Transfer the chocolate to a pastry bag fitted with a small open tip. Pipe several thin concentric circles on the top of each cake to resemble tree rings.
Stack the 3 cakes in a zigzag configuration, placing thick straws into the first 2 layers to add stability where the cakes overlap. If you're afraid that the layers are unstable after they're stacked, secure them with wooden skewers: poke the pointy ends down and through the cakes and tap gently with a hammer to force the skewers all the way through the three cakes and into their cardboard rounds (but remember where the skewers are so you can remove them before serving). Top with a Gingerbread Ax before serving.
Yield:2 large ax cookies and 1 dozen small cookies.
Make the cookies: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, ground ginger, cinnamon, white pepper, salt, baking soda, nutmeg and cloves. Set aside.
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together the butter, brown sugar and barley malt syrup until smooth. Scrape down the bottom and sides of the bowl. Add the whole egg and continue to mix until completely incorporated. Scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl again and add the vanilla, fresh ginger and orange zest.
Slowly add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients in the mixer. Mix until just combined. Then, turn the dough out onto a sheet of plastic wrap and press into a disk. Cover completely in the plastic wrap and chill for 20 minutes.
Draw an ax (to the best of your ability) that's about 12 inches in length on a piece of parchment. Cut out the ax template from the parchment and set aside.
Roll the dough out about 1/4 inch thick between 2 pieces of lightly floured parchment paper. Place the rolled out dough onto parchment on a cookie sheet in the freezer for 15 minutes.
Place the ax template drawn-side up on the dough and use a sharp paring knife to carefully cut out an ax from the dough. Repeat a second time to make 2 axes (it's good to have an extra, in case the first breaks). Cut the remaining dough with cookie cutters. Place the axes and cookies onto parchment-lined cookie sheets. You can gather scraps together and reroll the dough 1 additional time. Brush the ax-head portions of the axes with the egg white and sprinkle with granulated sugar. Bake for 10 to 15 minutes or until just beginning to brown around the edges. Allow the cookies to cool completely.