It’s been a few days since I’ve written anything, but I’m still on track to finish twenty blog posts by the 15th. The last couple of days have been a little crazy for me- I’ve been shopping and cooking and going to Nantucket and baking a birthday cake.
Today I want to revisit a subject that I blogged about at the beginning of the month: cake! I’ve had the chance to bake three cakes while I’ve been here, and I want to talk about them and about the things I learned while baking them.
First, my good friend Liam was turning 18, so I wanted to bake him a birthday cake. He requested a carrot cake, and in addition to carrots I included pecans, raisins and coconut. I baked two layers in a 9” x 13” pan that I greased with butter.
When I’ve decided that I want to dive into a new subject, my first attempt is usually with little instruction. (In this case, for example, I had read a lot about making buttercream, but basically nothing about what to do with it once it was made.) I’m confident like that, and it usually turns out about how you would think. This time was no exception.
The baking part went off without a hitch, but as soon as I tried to get the layers out of their pans I ran into trouble. I cut around the edges with a knife. I thumped on the bottom of the pan. I tried loosening the cake with a spatula. Finally, it came out…leaving large chunks of cake in the bottom of the pan. I didn’t take photos, but trust me when I say that it wasn’t pretty.
I squished the bottom layer back together as well as I could, and then it was time for me to get the top layer on top. I tried to lift it- alone and then with help- and it was obvious that it was going to break into pieces if I continued. I finally ended up cutting it in half, transferring half at a time with two spatulas and the assistance of the trusty Chase Hamrick, and then icing it back together.
Then I started icing the cake. There were crumbs everywhere, and for lack of a better instrument I was icing with the back of a serrated knife. The icing ended up lumpy, with crumbs and broken cake showing through.
Next I started to decorate the thing. I had purchased some icing dye, knowing that food coloring would make the icing too runny, but the colors I bought ended up looking like a grandmother’s cardigan. Despite my best efforts, the icing was too runny and the designs I was piping on were falling a little bit. I ran out of white icing and time, so I ended up spackling some yellow icing on the sides of the cake. I remembered how to drape icing from when I used to do henna designs, so the writing part turned out okay.
Overall, it looked pretty terrible, but it tasted really good. I’ve included a picture below.
Lessons from Liam’s cake:
1. An icing spatula is essential.
2. You can’t just butter a pan- you need to flour it, too.
3. The sugar in raisins makes for a really sticky cake.
4. You shouldn’t use a pan with sloped sides.
5. Your icing needs to be really thick so it doesn’t slump.
After making this cake, I found this video about cake decorating. I ended up watching all of Sandy Shepard’s videos, and I learned a couple of cool tricks, especially how to do an initial coat of icing called a “crumb coat” so that your final layer doesn’t pick up any crumbs, and how to use wax paper to smooth your final layer of icing once it dries to the touch.
After this I made some delicious banana cupcakes with Nutella frosting that I was really pleased with. The nutella frosting was pretty incredible. Here’s the recipe.
Next we were having an election themed dinner, and I wanted to make an election cake. I elected to make a yellow cake with red and blue marbling inside and buttercream frosting on the outside. I had purchased a springform pan and an icing spatula, and the cake layers popped out with no problem. Hooray! They weren’t totally flat, and I used up a lot of frosting covering the gaps in between the layers. I iced it with a crumb coat, which worked perfectly. I couldn’t quite get the second coat of icing to lie flat and even and thick the way that I wanted, but I think that’s something that just comes with practice. Also a cake wheel, to rotate while you’re icing. (Luckily I already have one of those at home that I use for pottery.)
Next, I began to decorate the cake. Unfortunately, the food processor had shorted out while I was creaming the butter and sugar, and the icing ended up having small chunks of butter in it that stuck in the frosting tip and kept it from working properly. A student asked me to write “Freedom” on it, mostly as a joke, so I did. I finished it with a row of uneven stars. The colors, rather than coming out red and blue, were kind of purple and pink. And the cake was terrible: dense, dry, and flavorless. Here’s a picture:
1. Don’t necessarily trust the first recipe you find on the internet.
2. Test your icing colors before you use them
3. Thoroughly mix your icing before putting it in the piping bag (I was at the mercy of the food processor in this case, but it’s still a good lesson.)
4. Level your cake before assembling it
After I made this cake I started watching Ace of Cakes on the Food Network, and I got a library card and checked out some cake and dessert books from the library. It’s nice that cake decorating is so in vogue right now, because there are lots of books and videos and TV shows on the subject. Bet I couldn’t say the same if I was interested in fixing carburetors. One of the books is really dated and so the designs are funny, and the book about chocolate cakes is amazing. It makes me realize how many different products you can make by manipulating a small set of ingredients in different ways.
A few days ago, we had another birthday: Lee was turning 17. I asked him what kind of cake he wanted, and he told me that he liked carrot cake as well. I used the same recipe as before, eliminating the raisins. I mixed the batter and filled two springform pans of different sizes. When they were done baking I removed them easily from the greased and floured pans and cut off the rounded tops to level them.
The following day I assembled the layers, applied a crumb coat, and mixed the icing. I bought two new icing colors: blue and green. I mixed them with icing in various concentrations and ratios to get several different colors in the same color family. I tried applying a top coat of icing, and again it didn’t look quite right. I tried smoothing it out a little with some wax paper, and it looked okay, but I still have a long way to go.
Finally, I started decorating. I had bought a leaf tip, so I piped some flowers onto the top of the cake in addition to a long draped ribbon. I applied several borders in different colors and styles and I tried to tie the colors together. It ended up looking very feminine, but I didn’t think Lee would mind- at one point in this trip he had gone to get a manicure with some other students, so I was sure that he was comfortable in his masculinity.
The icing was a little thin (I had tried to make it fluffy by adding a little bit of whipped cream, but it hadn’t worked) and some of the decorations had mistakes, but mostly I was pleased with this cake. And it tasted completely delicious. Here’s the recipe, and here’s a photo of the cake:
Lessons learned from this cake:
1. A turning wheel is very important for decorating.
2. It’s hard to make good icing without a good mixer (I mixed most of this icing by hand, and it just wasn’t fluffy.)
3. It looks good when you take bright icing colors and mix them together.
4. Tiers are VERY DIFFICULT to ice properly.
Next I’m planning on making some gourmet chocolate cakes with simpler, more classic decorating that would be appropriate for the holidays rather than a birthday or big event. I’ve been reading up about making ganache and mousse, and I’m excited to try it. I’m also planning on buying a used mixer and learning to make fondant.
Next up: post number 20! What will it be about? No really, I’m asking you- I’m completely out of ideas.