Thursday, August 03, 2006

Celebration Cakes

Today I did not make a cake. This is unusual anyway, but particularly strange because it is B's birthday. My pans are still in their cupboard, my icing nozzles stashed in the basement. Why this non-occurrence of cake? Because today the August sun, that sexy beast, is in full gold-chained swagger. The temperature is "96 degrees feels like 105 degrees" and as our friend Sharon maintains, if it feels like 105 degrees, it is. So we have sealed ourselves up in the room with the good air conditioner and plenty of iced tea - and my little Leo goes cakeless. At least our iced tea is freshly brewed from green elderflower loose leaf tea, and we are sipping it from B's birthday present: hand-blown Swedish tumblers that look like they have been extracted from a prehistoric glacier.

I know better - also a rare state of being - than to attempt high-summer cake-construction, due to a recent catastrophe. Our friend Imke had a Significant Birthday on June 8th and she had long been promised a birthday cake. Imke had reviewed several of my previous cakes and (lovingly) declared them to be far, far too high femme for her tastes. Her cake, she decreed, spinning off into parody of her German origins, was to be "Sqvare!" Her beloved, Heidi - a five-star dessert-maker - conspired with me to make her a sour-cream chocolate cake, sandwiched together with Italian buttercream laced with brandy, the entire affair coated in dark chocolate ganache. It turns out that Heidi and I in a kitchen together have entirely too much fun. Not having the right sized square tins, we proposed the genius solution of making the cake in round tins and "trimming" it. One on each side of the cake, we went at it with our knives, like topiarists on amphetamines. A bit here, a sliver there, some leveling . . . when we laid down our tools and stood back, we were surprised to see - well - not much cake. Tiny, square-ish, lopped and brown it sat in front of us. Slightly trembly, it seemed.

Undaunted, Heidi whipped up the Italian buttercream - spinning sugar syrup into the egg whites and adding butter until it became glossy and glamorous. We split and sandwiched the cake with it, and it started to look less like a surgically modified house pet and more like a liquorice allsort. We moved on to the ganache. Poured from a height, it slid over the cake-cube's uncertain shoulders, lending it a satiny sophistication we hadn't thought possible. But classiness is never a stable commodity . . . Just you wait, 'enry 'iggins, just you wait. . . .

You see, it was hot. It was June 8th and it was already hot. Heidi and I were faced with a dilemma - to refrigerate or not to refrigerate? Our question was a fair one: when it is hot and you have a melty cake, it would seem that you should pop it into the fridge. But when chocolate is involved, your hand is stayed: chocolate popped into a fridge "blooms," and not in the good way. Bloomed chocolate is dull and ashen. All that luverly glossiness would be lost. It was time to go to dinner, so we opted to leave the cake out and cross our fingers. When we returned, we would decorate it and have cake at home. The dinner - at a delightful neighbourhood bistro called Pif - was a joy. We toasted with champagne in honour of the particular Numeric Significance of the birthday, ate snails and dorade and foie gras and steak frites, and then there was some more champagne. And maybe a little wine too. We tumbled out of there and broke out sparklers to light our way home.

Replete with French food and plenty of champers, Heidi and I returned to the kitchen. We were both decked out in skirts and high heels and there was some teetering. Not just us, it turns out. In our absence, the little brown cake had been doing some sliding of its own. Its elegant chocolate cloak was now revealing just a hint of shoulder and that Italian hussy of a buttercream was slinking around corners too. I don't remember addressing this problem. I do remember Heidi and I, one of us with a fish slice, one with a spatula, sliding our implements under its bottom and raising the entire structure aloft, off its cooling rack and onto a presentation plate. The cake responded by stepping out of its outer garment altogether, retaining only a cap of ganache. Heidi and I got mean. We fish-sliced up the discarded ganache and started slapping it back on the sides of the cake. Heidi had brought a jar of dragees and we assured each other that these metallic marbles were just the ticket to disguise the damage. Sadly, on her way to administer this remedy, and in the very act of opening the dragees, Heidi tripped on her lovely shoe and fell forward half way across the kitchen. The dragees flew out in an impressive spray and landed all over the left side of the cake and the lava folds of its discarded ganache. Hilarity ensued. Eventually I drew out my icing bag, slid in the nozzle and filled it with icing. Imke was delivered a not-at-all sqvare pixilated cake that looked like it had suffered a stroke, but proudly announced HAPPY BIRTHDAY IMKE! in powder blue script. We still find the occasional dragee stuck between the floorboards, or in the sash window frame, winking up at us.

In some ways, I feel that Imke got what she called for. The cake that had precipitated her request for "sqvare!" - the hyper girly cake that Imke did not want - was not only frilly but almost disturbingly pristine. If Imke's cake was a colossal (but, I must say in Heidi's and my defense, aggressively delicious) failure, that other cake was probably the most immaculate gateau I have yet made.

It was an anniversary cake for friends celebrating 20 years of togetherness, and they had told us a tale of falling in love and buying pink heart-shaped balloons and wandering through a public park with them tied to their wrists. I decided to commemorate this act of adoration, and make them two pink hearts. I knew that the potential sickliness of this design -pinkness AND hearts - demanded some mitigation, and I thought that one way of doing this would be to link the hearts with a ribbon - à la the classic tattoo image. I went to Fante's, a huge and venerable kitchen store down the street in Philly's Italian Market, and bought two big heart shaped pans for not much money at all. I polled my friends about the cake flavour. They opted for poppy seed and rose, and I made them the white cake recipe from Rose Levy Beranbaum's monumental Cake Bible, with the addition of slate-grey poppy seeds and dusty crimson rose petals. I cut a curve out of one of the hearts so that it snuggled up to the other, pampered them with the Italian buttercream and started swathing them in fondant icing that I'd massaged into being two different shades of pink and rolled out with a rolling pin as if it were pastry. It was clear that, tattoo design notwithstanding, I was headed fast down the petunia path of dalliance with high frouf, and was moving beyond mere "femme" to the giddy heights of full-blown, over the top foppery. By the time I found myself moulding roses out of scraps of fondant, ripping the edges of the petals for the lacy look, I knew there was no hope. Besotted with my own creation, I spent the day circling it, primping like a flushed chamber-maid.

I was not entirely new to this business of decorating cakes. When I was growing up, my mother took herself to an evening class to learn cake decoration and promptly became a professional. She made wedding cakes and christening cakes; formal, exquisite, royal-iced counter-signatures to the social ritual. At an early age I quietly decided that her cakes were far more beautiful than the marriages could ever be. None of her fussy brides or sullen grooms ever seemed worthy to me. The cakes took months and months to make. Because decoration with royal icing takes so long, they had to be fruitcakes. Fruitcake is horrifying, I know, to the American palate, but it is beloved in the land of my nativity and fruitcakes are preserved with so much alcohol and dried fruit that they last, drunken but stoic, forever.

Mother sealed the cakes with a layer of marzipan, then spent months covering them with layer upon layer of royal icing. Each thin coat had to be leveled off with a straight blade until there were no air bubbles and then left to dry for at least a day. Time got trapped between those friable layers. And it didn't stop with the wedding. The christening cakes were made from the small top tier of the wedding cakes. The bride saved that tiny tier, insulated by the marzipan and icing, until the baby was immanent and then returned it on swollen ankles to my mother. Mother would chisel off the disturbing dental crowns of now-stained confectionary and re-ice the diminutive form, making it sparkle again with sugar deposit and topping it with hand-made sugar cradles that actually rocked. I was her helper in all this, her little Igor. She set up a drop-leaved table in the middle of the narrow kitchen, and I inched around it, couriering wax paper sheets of brittle latticework from counter to table, building roses petal by petal, or hollowing out iced bells, so that mother could pipe clappers inside them, finished with a dab of gold paint. Together we journeyed to ancient, lace-curtained shops wedged into otherwise residential areas. They were lined with peg-board and seemed strangely empty, but the ladies who ran them produced felt pens with edible ink and buckets of powdered egg white and nozzles that piped leaves.

When family birthdays came around, we let loose a little. No royal icing for those, but instead buttercream. The Australian-style fondant icing hadn't quite caught on in England yet. Now it is ubiquitous, and I once spent an amazed hour on the internet discovering that in England you can get anything made in sponge cake and draped in fondant, and I do mean anything. I have noted before the fondness of the Great British Public for naturism, and it turns out that when it comes to naturism, you can have your cake and eat it too. Our family celebrations were mostly spent clothed (the photograph of us in matching Stuart tartan Christmas outfits is happily not digitized), but a representational cake was considered de rigeur at any celebration. We made fairy castles with upturned ice-cream cones for turrets, and football fields covered in green desiccated coconut and clocks with chocolate buttons and iced white numbers (a fundamentally pedagogical design made for the youngest birthdayers). The cricket bat and ball was a screaming success with my brother, so the next year mother made him a rugby ball, complete with seams and lacing. Led downstairs to it on the birthday morn, he made appropriate sounds, but by the end of the day he had to confess that he had no idea what the vaguely oval brown lump was meant to represent. Another time we made him a magnificent elephant, staying up into the wee hours to finish it. We perfected the trunk and carved white chocolate tusks, then we dropped the entire animal on the floor.

I have carried the cake sculpture - rather than the royal icing - set of skills through my various stages of life. I made a Mini Cooper for friends in college, a three dimensional mouse for a lovely child named Irené� and - perhaps my favourite - a sea-monkey for a graduate school room-mate. There is little call these days for elaborate royal-iced celebration cakes like my mother used to make: people want sponge cakes and easy-off icing. It may well return, in slightly different form, as many fashions do, and maybe our rituals will have changed by then too.


(Bundt if casual, but perfectly serviceable in other forms)

NOTE: Since "Anonymous" from the blissfully cooler north has requested it, I humbly submit the recipe for the Chocolate Sour Cream Cake. This recipe became a favourite when B's college roommate Holly commissioned me to make her wedding cake last summer. Her requirement was that it be the richest chocolate cake possible. Because it had to be transported to Massachusetts, navigate the demands of a very rural ceremony, and look presentable, she knew it couldn't be a flourless chocolate recipe, but she wanted a cake that came as close as possible. I started experimenting, making chocolate cakes, packing up big slices in Tupperware containers, and sticking them in two-day mail to Holly and her partner Debby. They taste tested many cakes and finally this recipe, adapted from one published in Cook's Illustrated, did the trick. I have made it many times since. It IS the chocolatiest ever, although it is best and moistest of all when it is cooked as a bundt cake. If you cook it as a bundt, try serving it (unfrosted) with whipped cream and raspberries. The wedding cake had to be big - a vast concoction 4 times the size of the original recipe (I had to do some very clever maths - you can't just multiply the recipe by four, because the larger the pan size, the less percentage of raising agent is required. Baking powder weakens the structure of the cake and had I just quadrupled everything, the large surface area would be under-supported. If anyone wants I am happy to send on the proportions for the giant version). What follows is the recipe for the regular (but generous) sized cake, with the buttercream and ganache recipes attached too for anyone who wants to go fancy with this and is not fazed by my tale. Remember, you put the buttercream between the cake layers (you can slice your original two in half to make four skinny layers), like sandwich filling, and pour the ganache over top of the whole concoction. Don't frost the top or sides of the cake with buttercream!


2 1/4 oz natural cocoa (not Dutch processed)
6 oz bittersweet chocolate, chopped VERY fine - or grated - don't cut corners here
1 tsp instant espresso powder
3/4 cup boiling water
1 cup sour cream, room temp
8 3/4 oz (1 3/4 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
12 tablespoons (6 oz) unsalted butter, room temp
14 oz (2 cups) packed light brown sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
5 large eggs, room temp
confectioners sugar for dusting

1. Line your pan. Melt some butter (not the amounts in your recipe -- extra). Stir it together with some cocoa (again, extra) until a paste forms. Using a pastry brush coat interior of standard 12-cup Bundt pan. Alternatively, use a cake release spray such as Baker's Joy. Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 350F.
2. Now you're working with recipe amounts. Combine cocoa, chocolate and espresso powder in medium heatproof bowl. Pour boiling water over and whisk vigorously until smooth. Cool to room temp, then whisk in sour cream. Whisk flour, salt and baking soda in a second bowl to combine.
3. In mixer fitted with flat beater, beat butter, sugar and vanilla on medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Reduce speed to medium and add eggs one at a time, mixing about 30 seconds after each addition and scraping down bowl with rubber spatula after first 2 additions. Reduce to medium-low speed (batter may appear separated); add about one third of the flour mixture and half of chocolate/sour cream mixture and mix until just incorporated, about 20 seconds. Scrape bowl and repeat using half of remaining flour and all of remaining chocolate mixture. Add remaining flour mixture and beat until just incorporated, about 10 seconds. Scrape bowl and mix on medium-low until batter is thoroughly combined, about 30 seconds. Pour batter into prepared Bundt pan, being careful not to pour batter on sides of pan. Bake until wooden skewer inserted into middle comes out with few crumbs attached, 45 to 50 minutes. Cool in pan 10 minutes, then invert cake onto parchment-lined wire rack, cool to room temp, about 3 hours. Dust with confectioner's sugar.


Makes 4 1/2 cups

250g/ 8.75oz/ 1 1/4 cups sugar
5 large egg whites
Pinch of cream of tartar
1 pound unsalted butter, chilled
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Brandy to taste

1. In a small saucepan over medium heat, bring sugar and 2/3 cup water to a boil. Continue boiling until syrup reaches 238F on a candy thermometer (soft-ball stage).
2. Meanwhile, place egg whites in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, and beat on low speed until foamy. Add cream of tartar, and beat on medium-high speed until stiff but not dry; do not overbeat.
3. With mixer running, add syrup to whites in a stream, beating on high speed until no longer steaming, about 3 minutes. Add butter bit by bit, beating until spreadable, 3 to 5 minutes; beat in vanilla and brandy. If icing curdles, keep beating until smooth.


Makes 2 full cups - enough to glaze a 9" cake

9oz/255g bittersweet chocolate
8oz/232g/1 cup heavy/double cream
1 tblsp Cognac

1. Process chocolate in food processor until very fine. Put it in a small heavy saucepan.
2. Heat cream to boiling point and pour 3/4 of it over the chocolate. Cover for 5 minutes to allow it to melt. Gently stir together trying not to create air bubbles. Pass through fine strainer and add Cognac. Cool till just tepid.
3. Check consistency: when tepid, the glaze should mound a bit before disappearing. If it is too thick, or seems curdled, add more of the warm cream little by little. If too thin, add some melted chocolate. When right, use at once or store and reheat.
4. Pour over cooled cake allowing excess to flow down the sides. If you want a double coat, refrigerate the cake after the first later, for about 20 mins or until firm. Apply a second coat -- but don't refrigerate after second coat or you'll lose that glossiness.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

What, no recipe this week? Despite the fact that it was made in June, I would love to have the recipe for the resolutely 'sqvare' sour cream chocolate cake with it's brandified buttercream and chocolate ganache. Since I live in Northern England I may even be able to construct it without too much melting

8:52 am  
Blogger Queencarlotta said...

These two sentences:

"Why this non-occurrence of cake? Because today the August sun, that sexy beast, is in full gold-chained swagger."

may win the award for Best Description of Heatwave 2006.

9:35 am  
Blogger Urban Forager said...

I am, as ever, awestruck, by both the comestibles and the prose (and I second Queen Carlotta's comment). When I saw the photo of the cake and read the first sentence, I thought you must have bought one, since the decoration of the one pictured is obviously of professional quality -- the ragged edges of the petals are especially breathtaking.

I have been toying with the idea of representational foods lately, and you have inspired me. And, of course, intimidated me! I'll steer clear of the ultra-femme cake: clearly, that's your lay.

3:29 pm  
Blogger angel said...

Such lovely prose and other treats! Am find myself looking forward to reading whatever is new on your blog and in your kitchen... Thank you!

10:05 am  
Blogger "B"'s Mom said...

Well, one part of that adventure got left out, funny-face! Remember the romping up and down the rows in an Amherst garden, picking Johnny-Jump-Ups to go around the cake? Apparently they jumped up and disappeared altogether. Good thing, too, since the roses are unbelievably beautiful, and the poor little jump-ups must have been rather jumped out by the time they got to the wedding.

You are awesome. The book is awesome. Write on!

9:05 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

wow, what a treat. Just hopped over here from a link posted on Atrios' site. Good stuff.

10:10 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I will never forget the arrival of the double heart cake, born on a sheet of glass by the lovely Kate and Bethany. Ever so tasty. This is from Laura, can't work out my password.

3:03 pm  
Blogger Deanna Kreisel said...

How beautiful! I just found this cause B and I have been discussing fondant on Facebook, and she sent me here. I'm so glad I know about your blog now!

11:10 am  
Blogger Jones Morris Top 10 said...

This blog is so nice to me. I will keep on coming here again and again. Visit my link as well.. cupcakes montgomery al

1:07 pm  

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