Saturday, August 8, 2009

Cake Decorating Angst: Coming Clean . . .

I spent a hefty chunk of the first half of last week working on a couple of big cakes. They were commissioned by a very good friend of mine named Patti, who I've known since 3rd grade. I was happy to agree to make them, and flattered to be asked. The order was for two half-sheet layer-cakes for her mom's 80th birthday party. I could be wrong about this, but I'm pretty sure she told me they might need to serve up to 80 people. No problem, I figured. It's good practice to make cakes, or any baked goods for that matter, that you know from the get-go will be leaving your house and venturing out for a public showing. Kind of scary, but good practice nonetheless.

But, let's be honest. For a complete amateur like me, a large and even moderately decorated cake that's designed for public exposure presents a challenge from several perspectives. Big cakes involve planning, purchasing, scheduling, and executing, not to mention a healthy dose of fretting. I pondered whether or not to blog about these cakes. "What if they don't turn out looking nice enough? What if they look downright pathetically amateurish?" Those were my thoughts. Thus encumbered by that rather defeatist attitude, I took very few photos when I was working on them and I didn't document any of the glitches along the way.

In hindsight, a few days after the fact, I realized that was an extremely silly and childish posture to take. In fact, an inauthentic attitude. Afterall, I'm not masquerading as an expert baker or a bona fide pastry chef--though I aspire in my wildest dreams to become the latter someday--so, really, what's to fear? The only folks who read my blog are people who like to bake too and they all seem pretty darn supportive and understanding. Heck, I'm just another middle-aged American female who's crazy about baking and all it entails. Warts and all, I should just shut-up and blog about it, right? Right.

Okay. So here I go.

I made a white two-layer cake with a fluffy raspberry flavored buttercream frosting, and a dark chocolate two-layer cake with two kinds of chocolate buttercream. All (of course!) completely from scratch. A half-sheet is technically 11" by 15" inches, but in reality, frosted and on its board(s), then put in its box, a cake that size is considerably bigger than 11" by 15". And, filled and frosted, that's potentially a pretty heavy cake. You'd better lay in a liberal supply of butter, eggs, sugar, flour, and confectioner's sugar, if you're contemplating making two of these babies.

Now, the baking part itself for a big home-baked cake seems simple, on the surface, yes? Just select a highly reliable recipe, scale your recipe upward, and take into account your mixer's capacity. With a larger than normal cake, though, there are a number of additional factors to take into account in order to grease the wheels of the whole process and help evade potential catastrophe. You benefit by having a few pieces of special equipment on hand (pretty much all of which, luckily, I already had in my ever-growing arsenal).

It's a good idea to have items like large-size pans of better than average quality (the pans I used were the brand called Fat Daddio--made of anodized aluminum, they are exceptional); one or two heating cores to help with even heat distribution (a cone-shaped metal cup that gets filled halfway with batter and sits in the center of the batter-filled pan; after the cake is baked, the hole created by the core is then supposed to be perfectly "plugged" with the cake that baked within the core); cake-strips (metallic-looking thick cloth strips that you soak in water and then strap around the outside of your pans to help produce a smooth and even cake surface); large cooling racks; cardboard cake-boards of the right size (one or two exactly the size of the cake, and one or two a couple of inches larger than the cake); a large-sized cake leveler (I expect professional bakers wouldn't be caught dead bothering with this hack-saw-like tool, but I'm unashamed to admit that I think these are incredibly helpful at creating evenly sliced layers); offset spatulas of different lengths and sizes; pastry bags of various sizes; an assortment of metal decorating tips, along with a few plastic couplers to attach them to the pastry bags; a clean, new, bakery box that will accommodate the finished cake; decorative foil or some other type of covering, if you choose, for the larger cake board that will be visible, and so on and so forth. Just about the only thing I didn't end up using was a turntable, which seems to me kind of useless with a huge rectangular cake, though they are indispensable with round cakes. Not unlike the accoutrements of just about any beloved hobby, the tools required for cake baking and decorating--not to mention the tools simply desired--tend to accumulate steadily and benignly if not reined in, like a profusion of dust bunnies under the bed.

The worst problem I experienced with one of the cakes was completely my own fault. When I put the heating core into the pan with the white cake batter just before baking, I FORGOT TO FILL IT WITH BATTER!! This meant that when I checked on the cake about 20 minutes into baking, what I saw was a tall, metal, tipped-over cup right in the middle of the cake, like a skyscraper above the horizon that had been toppled by an earthquake. I was so horrified at that point that I almost burst into tears. It was late afternoon, I was getting tired, and I'd been baking and caking all day. What was I going to do? Should I leave the core in there and let the cake finish baking? Should I try to take it out and hope the cake magically repairs itself? With utter dismay, I weighed the options. I ended up leaving it in, but I immediately started making a tiny bit more batter in order to be able to patch the bizarre indentation that was left by the heating core. Everything worked out okay in the end, but boy did I feel like a cake-bakin' failure for the first few minutes after I opened that oven.

So, eventually the two cakes were cooled, and "torted" (split and filled), and ready to be decorated. Given the time constraints I imposed on myself for Patti's cakes, I thought it was too risky by far for me to suddenly try decorating techniques I wasn't too familiar with. I played it safe and just did some roses for the white cake. Eight roses, one for each decade of the birthday lady's life, and one little rose for good luck in her future years. I had no end of trouble, though, making buttercream roses that would hold up because of the hot humid weather, so in dismay I ended up resorting to making royal-icing roses. This was poor planning on my part. Royal icing gets firm, kind of like candy--you really can't cut through it with a knife. It was not my preferred option, but what's a girl to do? Aside from that, the only other trick I had up my sleeve was basic piping--oh, you know, shell borders, reverse shell borders, dots, writing, and so on--nothing you don't learn in a rudimentary cake decorating class. And I piped a few dark chocolate butterflies that turned out sort of okay; a couple of them were a last minute addition to the chocolate cake.

I'm glad I made those Size XL cakes, don't get me wrong. And, I already knew this, of course, but the point was driven home to me even more so as I worked on them: To produce cake decorating that's actually beautiful takes continual practice. It's a skill that doesn't lend itself well to sporadic bursts of activity followed by long stretches of no activity at all. The fact is, it had been months since I'd even made any frosting roses. I think cake decorating well is less akin to riding a bicycle than it is to playing a musical instrument. Anyone can get on a bike after a few years and still do it. Afterall, not much technique is required to use a bike. But if you pick up a violin after a few years of not playing . . . well, you'll probably remember where to place your fingers on the strings, but what comes out ain't gonna sound much like music (I know this first hand as well, and the violin in my bedroom closet can attest to it).

Anyway, readers, going forward I vow to try and be more willing to document both the bitter and the sweet when it comes to my less than stellar baking adventures. My next special-cake mandate comes to me from my husband. He's holding his annual poker tournament in September and wants something poker-themed for that event. We're still tossing around ideas. A couple of slightly overlapping playing cards? We'll see . . . that sounds doable . . . just as long as they're not face cards!

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