Happy 4th Anniversary Youth Mass! I hope you have many, many more anniversaries to come.
Happy birthday Vivian Chen! May all your dreams come true and congratulations on turning 20!
Happy Mid-Autumn Moon Festival! If you didn’t get to see it, the full moon this weekend was absolutely stunning. If you missed it, you will still be able to catch it as it wanes this week…
This last weekend was all about celebration. And it’s not a celebration until there’s cake! Or cakes, rather. Rosemary from YouthMass asked me to bake a cake for their 4th anniversary, and of course I consented. I have a legitimate reason to be in the kitchen instead of reading about my acetabulum and latissimus dorsi AND there are willing guinea pigs. What a deal right? And I’ve told you about my heaven-sent blessing, The Cake Bible right? With the help of God, I was able to put together a fabulous cake for Youth Mass. I was extremely pleased with my first attempts at cake decorating and assembling, though I know where my hands were less than deft. My greatest gratitude goes to SmittenKitchen for the amazing cake recipe posted – it was an absolutely delicious base, stand alone or with frosting. I kept eating the scraps – moist, not too dense, beautiful mocha flavor, rich and decadent without being cloying. I paired the Chocolate Mocha Cake base with Rose Beranbaum’s Neoclassic Buttercream, which I will rechristen Burnt Caramel Buttercream Frosting, for the depth of dark, subtle flavor in the frosting. Again, not too sweet, not overwhelming, absolutely perfect.
Stage One: The Essentials, Substitutions, Shortcuts, Strategies.
“It’s a piece of cake.” I begin to question the validity of that idiom, because cake making is NOT “a piece of cake.” Fortunately, there are lots of tools out there to help cake-novices like myself, with PARCHMENT and BAKER’S JOY tied in first place. Without them, you will fight a losing battle with the cake as it clings to the bottom and crumbles and breaks as you valiantly try to scrape it out. Also, Parchment also acts as like painter’s tape for your cake. As you frost and make a mess, a little parchment tucked under the edges of the cake will keep your platter pristine and beautiful. When you’re done frosting, gently pull them out, and you have a clean palette again.
I do as many substitutions and shortcuts as humanly possible – usually because I am too lazy to run out and buy another ingredient. It’s ludacris to run out to Safeway and stand in line for just a pint of buttermilk, for example. So make your own! Granted, it’s not nearly as rich and silky and delicious, but it works, and hopefully the other (chocolate/cocoa) flavors make up for it. I also like to use Salted Sweet Cream Butter in most of my doughs and batters, as the saltiness is more evenly distributed and the stronger contrast really gives the sweetness oomph. This, however, does NOT work for frostings as it is too strong, and your frosting becomes salty – not tasty.
Cake decorating is difficult and to make a masterpiece, it is painstakingly meticulous and tedious. You fuss with the tips and bags and deal with frosting consistency and cake crumb-iness. What an ordeal! To diffuse a bit of any potential frustration, I would suggest that you bake the cake on one day, FREEZE IT, and then decorate it on another day. Why? Well, it gives you some time to rest. More importantly, freezer time lets the cake toughen up a bit (does not affect texture or taste, I promise), and much more cooperative and easy to work with. I also feel like it helps decrease crumbs. But either way, FREEZE your cakes – it makes a world of difference. Just be sure to let it warm up to room temp before decorating. Before frosting and getting fancy with your flowers and leaves and vines, CRUMB COAT. This is vital. Or else you will get a splotchy not-so-attractive cake. Or you can be impatient like me, and just not add any other layers but the Crumb Coat and eat that. Oops. Yuuuum.
With the recipe, I made both a 2-layer sheet cake and a 2-layer round 9″ cake. Sheet cakes are huge, 9″ is easier to handle. How did I get the second layer on top? I have so much respect for cake decorators. I had NOO idea how to get a 12″x18″x1″ layer on top of another layer. Any one know??? I tried to move it, but the cake started to break on me! Uh-oh. So, I used a little ingenuity – I cheated. I cut the top layer into 4 pieces, then reassembled them on top of the lower level like a puzzle. I was praying that the frosting would cover everything. And for the most part, it did. But I cheated, any one have any hints/tips? Please share!
Crumb coating done.
Stage Two: Practice Makes Perfect &Execution.
When taking on an endeavor of this size (albeit it wasn’t that huge, but still), practice is key. SmittenKitchen (Kitchen Goddess, in my opinion) practiced her frostings and cake bases, and so did I. On the Friday morning before my Sunday night deadline, I hastily gathered my ingredients and prepared the cake batter. I made a 2-layer 9″ round cake first. It wasn’t until Saturday night, after I had been assured the base was delicious that I made my sheet cake layers. According to SK, the recipe makes one 8-inch square, three layer cake. I found that one recipe also works for a single half sheet (18x13x1) cake as well. Alternately, you can divide the batter between 2 9″ round pans to make a two-layer cake as well. As always, my notes are in [brackets].
3 cups cake flour [2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour + 3/4 cups cornstarch]
3 cups granulated sugar
1 1/2 cups unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch process)
3 teaspoons baking soda
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon salt
3 sticks (12 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature [Cubed; I used salted sweet cream and omitted the extra salt]
1 1/2 cups buttermilk [Substitute: 1 cup whole milk + 1 tbs. vinegar or lemon juice]
1 1/2 cups freshly brewed coffee, cooled to room temperature
Thoroughly combine your dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl (KitchenAid is my best friend). With your mixer on low, add the buttermilk. Scrape down the sides and bottom after the addition. Slowly add the butter, making sure each addition is thoroughly incorporated before adding the next. The mixture should be fairly moistened, turn up th e speed to medium and beat until fluffy in texture, about 3 minutes. Check for clumps of cocoa and flour at the bottom – continue to beat until smooth.
Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350*F. Line your pan with parchment (measure it out so it fits!) or waxed paper and spray generously with Baker’s Joy. Alternately, you can butter the parchment surface.
In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs and coffee and slowly add to the batter in 3-4 additions, scraping down the sides after each addition. DO NOT over mix, as it will toughen your final cake texture. Pour the batter into the center of your cake pan and bake.
Depending on the size of your pan, the cake will take anywhere from 27-45 minutes. A one inch sheet pan took about 30 minutes, but a thicker cake will take longer. I suggest ‘toothpick-testing’ the cake every 5 minutes after the 25-27 minute mark. You know the cake is done with the toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove the pan from the oven and allow to cool completely before further handling.
Stage Three: Frosting.
You have a beautiful cake base. Now you need frosting. As this was my first sheet cake, I started with the basics – your typical, average Joe buttercream frosting. But wait – it wasn’t average, not by far. It was incredible, and sooo simple! I had to double this recipe to make enough for both layers of my sheet cake. The corn syrup lends this buttercream a darker, richer taste, that is only enhanced by the complimentary vanilla. Because we brown/caramelize the sugar, I thought it was more appropriate to rename this a Burnt Caramel Buttercream Frosting, because that is where most of the flavor comes from – delicious and super easy. This frosting goes well on chocolate or vanilla cake.
Burnt Caramel Buttercream Frosting
source: The Cake Bible
6 large egg yolks
3/4 cups sugar
1/2 liquid cup corn syrup
2 cups unsalted butter, softened
*2-4 tbs vanilla extract [not in original recipe]
In a bowl, beat egg yolks until light in color. Meanwhile, combine the sugar and syrup in a saucepan and heat until the sugar is completely dissolved. Heat until syrup comes to a rolling boil, then remove from heat and transfer to another container to stop cooking. DO NOT LET COOL. Immediately, beat the syrup into the egg yolks in a steady stream, but do it quickly so the syrup does not cool and harden on you. Continue to beat until completely cool. Then, gradually add in the butter. The product should be a creamy, smooth buttercream. Refrigerate before using, but bring to room temperature before spreading.
Stage Four: Decorating.
After removing the first cake layer from the fridge and letting it warm up a bit, CRUMB COAT! Do not work that lower level to perfection yet. Once you get the second layer and crumb coat that, THEN you can add heaps of frosting on top and spread it to hide all the ‘mistakes.’ I used the frosting to glue my puzzle-like cake together, as well as make it seem more even because I was too lazy to level my cake. I also rounded the corners of my sheet cake with frosting.
How to frost a cake? Heap a generous mound of frosting in the center, and with an offset spatula or flat edge, spread with even hand. If you have a rotating cake stand, you can keep your spatula stationary while turning the stand to get a nice even layer. Repeat as needed.
Now you have a beautifully frosted cake, but it’s soo plain! I came into this knowing nothing about decorating, and now that I’ve completed the cake, I still don’t know very much. The 9″-round version of this cake got a face lift. Literally. I made funky/whimsical peaks by swirling the back of a spoon into the frosting and gently lifting the spoon away from the cake to form spikes. I did this for the sides and top, and the results weren’t too shabby. Alternatively, you can just swirl your frosting to cover the sides and top by pushing your spoon in circular swirls all along the cake. Simple as that.
I used Cognac-Chocolate Ganache for the numbering. Ganache is smooth and soo shiny, a stark contrast to the otherwise white cake. I used ordinary Nestle Semi-sweet chocolate morsels (totally the ‘wrong’ kind), but if you have more expensive tastes, then why not a Scharffen Berger or Valrhona bar? If you don’t have gourmet chocolate lying around, a splash (or several) of Cognac makes a world of difference. Hennessy made the ganache sweeter, and the fragrance was divine! If you find that the ganache is too thin to pipe, add more chocolate! If it is too thick to pipe, you can dilute it with a bit more cream. This is easily adjusted to suit your needs. The FOURS were piped using parchment cones of varying sizes.
The other lettering used the same buttercream recipe as above. To color the buttercream, I simply added red food coloring to a small amount of frosting and mixed well. To achieve the lighter brown color you see piped on the edges, I mixed a little of the ganache to the frosting and piped it using a star-tip.
Cognac Chocolate Ganache
source: The Cake Bible
9 oz. bittersweet chocolate [I used 8 oz. semi-sweet]
1 liquid cup heavy cream
*2 tbs. Cognac [optional, but who can resist Hennessy?]
If using bar chocolate, break it into smaller pieces and throw in food processor until finely pulsed. Remove chocolate to a large bowl. In a small saucepan, bring the ream to a boil and pour 3/4 of it over the chocolate. Cover for 5 minutes and let the chocolate melt. Stir until smooth, but do not create air bubbles. Stir in Cognac, and allow to cool until tepid. Adjust consistency as needed by adding more melted chocolate or warm heavy cream.
Stage Five: And on the seventh day… rest.
A cake is a huge task. It is tiring and frustrating and really tries one’s patience — but it sooo worthwhile. The finished product (despite the bits of frosting you are all-too-self-conscious-and-aware about) is original, unique, and crafted with your time, care, devotion. And that, alone, means the world. Despite the chaos and stream-of-conscious style here, I hope you found this entry more informative than not, and perhaps it will encourage you to try your own hand at cake making. If you find that it is too daunting, leave me a line, and we’ll do it together! After this experience, I am armed with a small Wilton collection of piping bags and tips, as well as a little know-how, and I would love to help. OR if you have an event in which you’d like a cake, contact me and we’ll arrange something. I’m not anywhere near the best, and I can’t promise a good-looking cake, but I can promise a delicious one, made with love and tended with care. So, until soon cake-eaters and cake-makers!