I was dining with a good friend the other night and she asked what I was working on for this blog. I hemmed and hawed. Fact is, I haven’t been cooking much at home lately between complete Olympic immersion and a heavy workload. When you work in restaurants, the last thing you want to do is come home and cook some more. I’ve also been rather disappointed in my recent projects. They’re just not turning out like I want and need more work. And I’m not sure when I’m going to have a chance to do that so my material has been a bit lacking these last few weeks.
We continued talking about all the projects I’m working on, cakes I’ve done, events I’ve worked and general funny things that happen in life. I showed her a picture of a wedding cake I made recently for a friend that turned out beautifully. She looked at me and laughed. She said “there’s your next post right there. Share some of the cool things you’ve been working on.” To which I replied “why would anyone care? I haven’t transcribed the recipes?” She looked back at the photo and said something along the lines of “I doubt many of your readers are going to attempt that but they’ll appreciate the process.” So here it goes.
I have a dear friend in the Air Force who was deployed last year to Afghanistan. (I sent many treats.) Leave it to her to go halfway around the world to a war zone and come home with a fiance. An Irish one at that. Crazy, huh? Well, this lovely couple was married last month and as my wedding gift, I offered to make the cake. I have a thing about wedding cakes. Why are so many of them so lousy? Dry, overly sweet, uninspired. Frankly, it really pisses me off. I just don’t get it. Lazy, lazy, lazy. A wedding cake should be fantastic! It’s really not that hard.
For a while, I made a lot of wedding cakes and then I realized I didn’t care for the stress. Brides (and their mothers) can be, how shall we say, difficult. Not all but enough that I decided I didn’t want to continue in that line of work. Now I make cakes only for special friends. Not as profitable certainly but they are much more appreciated. Plus I have more leeway to do interesting things. As I tell them … hey, this is what I do. Let me give this to you. I make some really fantastic cake, if I do say so myself.
So my pal sent me some photos of cakes pulled from various magazines. She wanted chocolate cake so I emailed some flavor combinations I thought would be interesting. With just a few quick emails we landed on a decision. 4 tiers total with 2 tiers a chocolate/hazelnut combination and the other 2 tiers a chocolate/salted caramel combination. Easy. We were off and running. As for a visual, she wanted CHOCOLATE with emerald green incorporated somehow. Not being particularly good at sugar flowers (this is an art at which I am not very skilled), we settled on chocolate fondant with chocolate piping details and brown/green ribbon trim. I would figure out a way to make it pretty and elegant and she let me. Having this freedom to make decisions on the fly is crucial.
I spread the work out over a few days and made several batches of dark moist devil’s food cake, ganache filling (both plain and hazelnut), swiss buttercream (both hazelnut and burnt caramel), simple syrups (vanilla and burnt caramel), royal icing and a delicious salted caramel for one of the fillings. Holy moley was that good. For an entire day (perhaps two) I sustained myself on cake scraps, buttercream bits and “accidental” swipes of caramel. This resulted in an intense sugar buzz that lasted for hours (days?)
I built, filled and iced the cakes, chilled them until firm and covered each tier neatly with a dark chocolate fondant that tasted like Tootsie rolls. Then came the royal icing squiggly details, the ribbon trim and very careful placement as I put one tier on top of the other supported with fat bubble tea straws and secured with royal icing. I let the whole thing chill for a few hours, carefully packed it up then drove ever so gingerly to the reception site. What I forgot was how horrendous Chicago streets are in the winter – pothole nightmares. When I arrived at the hotel, carefully put the box on the display table and ever so gently opened the top, I peeked inside and was dumbstruck. The top-tier was missing. As in not on top of the cake. I was staring at the supports of the tier below. What the hell? Where did it go?
That’s when I nervously peered at the backside of the box. There, wedged between the other tiers and the side of the box, was my little top-tier. Oh sweet jesus. I took a deep breath, swallowed the rising bile and snatched the damn thing right out of the box thinking that if I did it fast enough everything would be alright. A quick look revealed that except for some squashed detail work and a loose ribbon, it was fine. Then I looked at the backside of the cake. There it was. A big dent in the fondant, about the size of my index finger, revealing beige buttercream beneath. Oh crap. I started to hyperventitlate and look for somewhere to sit with my head between my knees. Did I mention that this line of work can be stressful?
In all my years of doing specialty cakes, I’ve never had a problem. Not once. Yet I always bring a crapload of tools, extra icing and things to repair any problems. I’ve never needed it and almost didn’t bring it this time. At the last moment, I threw together a bag. Thank god. As I sat there cursing – loudly – the hotel servers literally talked me off the ledge. An extremely nice boy took one look at the cake and said “Oh that’s not bad at all. Easily fixable. You have extra icing right? Here, we’ll just angle the table a little, push it back and dim the lights. No one will be the wiser.” And he was right. They have seen everything and in the grand scheme of things, this was just a few minor bumps and scrapes. So I squared my shoulders and became the professional that I am. I filled in the beige crack with some brown royal icing, redid the smooshed detail work, put the topper on. Made sure the gouge was in the back, pushed and angled the table just so, took a deep breath and walked away. In all, it took 15 minutes and no one even noticed. Then I had three stiff drinks in a row.
During the wedding, people I didn’t even know kept coming up and complimenting the cake. I’m not sure how they all knew that I was the baker but somehow they all did. The best part was how happy my friends were. And that’s what was really important, dent be damned.
Then a few weeks later I did a very special birthday cake for another dear friend. Knowing she had invited the entire face of the earth and that they would all show up because she is so wonderful, I made one big cake. A massive cake. Two 10″ three-layer cakes stacked on top of each other. It was a beast. Because the chocolate/salted caramel combination was so flippin’ delicious, I made it again for this cake. This is why I love my friends. All I have to say is “chocolate or vanilla” and they let me take it from there. Rather than fondant on this one, I covered the sides in cake crumbs I made from the cake trimmings that I dried in the oven and ground in the food processor (whiz kid that I am) and it turned out fantastic – elegant yet fun. With big tall sparkly candles, it was the perfect addition to a special party for a very special person.
STRESS BAKING THERAPY FACTOR: 8 BAZILLION POINTS. Let’s face it – there is nothing more stressful than making someone’s wedding cake. The expectations and the pressure are enormous. But the pleasure of giving someone you love something so personal, so from your heart definitely outweighs all that. It’s “bake and release” on a whole different level and I can’t emphasize enough how great it makes me feel. A Crate & Barrel gift card or a delicious wedding cake? Which would you rather give and/or receive? No contest.