Umm, this post should have gone up yesterday…or several days ago perhaps, or maybe even last year, but as it goes, I am appalled, but never surprised, at the singular focus and dedication with which I can attack the most asinine and irrelevant goals at the expense of all things productive and useful. I won’t even tell you what I have spent the last couple of days doing, I want you to think well of me.
So without further ado, I give you this post.
What a long strange year it’s been. Last year at this time I was recovering from the execution of my largest kitchen project ever. Bigger than the prep for the Christmas parties for 50 (with food for 100) I have every year, bigger than the plated engagement lunch I did for 25 in my college apartment. Big. And of the utmost importance. And it was a success. And as I was basking in the glow of my new found skill, I started brainstorming the beginnings of this little spot. And since I am spending this week in the sweltering heat brainstorming flavor combinations for a cake tasting I am doing next week for a wedding in October, I thought I would look back at the experience.
It all started with this:
my first attempt.
It doesn’t look like much, but it was just the beginning. My cousin and his gorgeous fiance were planning their wedding.
It was going to be pretty big and I was appalled at the thought of paying more than $5 a slice for a wedding cake, which is the minimum as far as I can tell. I figured I liked to cook, and Deb from Smitten Kitchen had made a wedding cake and went through all the steps, and really, how hard could it be (she said as the “just wait and see how this plays out” music of doom played in the background) so I said I would like to make their wedding cake. For 200. As one does.
So anyway, the bride and groom were receptive to this idea, and a project was born. We decided on square, and fondant icing, and I did some research about size requirements and the fun began.
First I had to practice fondant. I wanted to make it, because traditionally fondant doesn’t taste very good, and I hoped if I made it, it would remove some of that chemical flavor. I found a recipe in Rose Levy Beranbaum’s The Cake Bible. I figured with a title like that, it was a trustworthy source, no?
Fondant is lots of sugar and some binders to hold it together.
a lot of sugar, a little bit of everything else (including, liquid sugar, actually)
You have to mix it with a greased wooden spoon until it starts to come together and then you knead knead knead….
until it gets really smooth like a polished rock.
It is lots of fun to play with, but it can be temperamental. If you roll it too thin it can tear. If the frosting underneath is too thick, it will look lumpy. It shows any imperfection in color, including a tiny little piece of lint. However, I have discovered, that the less I stress about it, and the larger quantities I make, the nicer it comes out.
The next skill to work on was baking large cakes in my regular-sized, pain-in-the-a oven. Like 16″ square large. The pan just barely fit, but it was a success.
Until it wasn’t…
Got a little cocky...
The baking went fine, it was the removal from the pan that caused problems. Luckily, this was just a tester for the work crowd. They loved this time in my life. The trick to baking a cake this size (or, really, any size) is to make sure the edges don’t set up before the middle does. Baking evenly means that the edges won’t be dry and overcooked, and also means the cake will rise evenly and stay flat, rather than rising higher in the middle as cakes are wont to do. This is achieved with cake strips, or something, I actually don’t know what their real name is, but they are fabric strips that you soak in water and pin around the outside of the cake pan so the edges don’t get too hot, too quickly. Worked like a charm. Keeping the oven temp low and extending the cooking time helps too.
Next up? The stacking. Though I didn’t really practice this very well, since I didn’t even use the dowels and stuff that you need to make sure the cake doesn’t collapse on itself, but I did get in some more fondant practice, and buttercream dot practice, and the bride got to practice cutting the cake, so it was totally worth it.
getting better, but not great.
And then, apparently, I decided I was an expert, and no more practice was required, because the next step was the real deal. I spent the weekend before the wedding baking the cakes. They were going to spend several days in my freezer, both for preservation purposes, and to aid in transport. One thing I will never figure out is how all the bakers on those wedding cake shows lift their cake layers and throw them around without the layers crumbling immediately. I definitely have to be more careful, and by careful I mean I only touch them once they are frozen.
Prep, assembly line style.
This was a three-tier cake, and each tier had three layers. The bottom layer was chocolate with chocolate buttercream filling, the top two were vanilla cake (the best recipe I’ve ever had, actually) with lemon curd and blueberry filling. It was a lot of cake. And a lot of ingredients.
The frozen layers drove on down to my parents’ casa for assembly. There I filled, layered and coated the tiers with buttercream.
At this point I was feeling goooood. No breakdowns, no excessive stress, no real hitches in the plan. There was, however, a lot of Toots & the Maytals on repeat. It was fantastic. And then apparently I stopped taking pictures, because I don’t have another one until the cake was on display at the wedding. But in between, each tier got covered with white fondant and stuck with dowels. I covered them with plastic wrap and drove them down (actually, my parents drove them down. I followed behind them and tried not to have a panic attack that they weren’t under my control. Sharing the car with siblings and cousins helped take my mind off it. Here’s the proof…
calm, cool, collected, unshowered...)
Then the morning of the wedding, I went to the bride’s house, where the wedding was taking place, with a massive hangover, and tried to tame my DTs (from one of the better rehearsal dinners I have ever been to) long enough to stack and decorate a wedding cake for 200. And my doubts set in. I couldn’t believe they had agreed to let me do this. The entire time I decorated the cake I was convinced I was going to ruin the wedding. But you know what? I will admit that I was in love with this cake when I finished it. I was prouder of myself when the bride and her mom saw this for the first time than I have been at any other point in my life, ever. Maybe you are not supposed to ever admit that you are proud of yourself, but damn it, I was. I had made the bride happy, which is all that mattered. And I had a new skill. Bonus!
And then I left. I couldn’t watch it being transported out to the wedding tent, I was too nervous. But it made it, and word has it, it was delicious. I didn’t have any appetite for it at that point. But I felt good about it.
The cutting (find the nervous baker for bonus points!)
So that, my friends, is the sordid tale of the cake. And as part of the Bread & Ginger wedding cake package, I just made this little guy, a first anniversary cake. Because cake frozen for a year is just gross.
One year later.
Happy Anniversary S & J. Thanks for making a really crazy decision and letting me do this for you!!
Recipes another day, I promise. I’m tired.