Slowly, I twirled the cake on it’s turntable so I could inspect my work.
I thought to myself if this cake were to be enclosed in a time capsule and uncovered many years from now, it would still be identifiable. And without almost a single word.
The discoverers would see the candles and know it’s a birthday. The number and the name would tell them it was Olivia’s 9th.
They’d see cookies with white puffy pillows and a corner of the patterned covering downturned, which would tell them it’s some kind of bed.
They’d soon realize that ice cream sundaes were a part of the celebration.
And with all the sleeping bags punctuated by tiny little teddy bears, they’d soon realize that the little outfits were pajamas.
Then, they’d know, without so much as a whisper from me, that today was Olivia’s 9th birthday, and that she had a slumber party.
I snapped out of my little daydream, because it then struck me that it would, in fact, be terrible if this cake with all its cookies went into a time capsule.
Because then Olivia and her friends wouldn’t get to deconstruct and devour the cute chocolate cake layered with milk chocolate ganache. And they’d never realize the joy I took in making it and the many hundreds of other birthday cakes I’ve made over the years.
Happy 9th Birthday, Olivia.
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You’re familiar with the halo effect, right? The theory that (and I’m paraphrasing) if something is packaged beautifully, its contents will be looked upon more favorably. A term paper, for instance, neatly assembled in a beautiful folder with fancy writing, might be thought to be better than the paper that’s been written in crayon and stuffed into a back pocket before being turned in. Or, that a present wrapped within an inch of its life in gorgeous paper and tied up with an abundance of silk ribbon will contain a similarly spectacular gift, rather than a gift given in a wrinkled brown grocery bag.
This theory can be applied to cake, in my opinion.
Picture if you will, a very special celebration cake, tiers stacked expertly, or carved into a sculpture that would wow Jeff Koons. The fondant or buttercream is as smooth as satin, the gumpaste decorations, the buttercream flowers, have been modeled to a level of perfection that even Kerry Vincent would die for.
Except for one thing.
This beauty is sitting on naked foil cake drum.
Why, oh, why would a cake decorator spend all that time sketching, baking carving, piping, schmearing only to cast a blind eye on how to display this masterpiece?
It’s like wearing a ripped hose with a cocktail dress (that’s IF one wore hose these days.). Scuffed shoes with a tuxedo. Grandma bloomers with a bias cut charmeuse dress (I’m not making this one up. I have seen a MAJOR TV star in the flesh flaunting this glamour don’t).
Cake people, if you do this, in my opinion, you’re devaluing your own work. The presentation is flawed. You want the cake to be a centerpiece that is oohed and aahed over, right? You want ‘the halo effect’!!!
Now, if you’re planning on using a cake pedestal like any one of these, in the words of the great Rosanne Roseannadanna, “never mind”.
If you are not using these and are using a gold or silver topped cake drum for your base, here’s a look at what I do to set up my cakes so they look like this:
I attach my ribbon around the circumference using Magna-Tac. It’s a wonderful adhesive that doesn’t seep through to leave wet dots on the ribbon.
After the ribbon has dried for at least an hour, I shpritz about 1/4 – 1/3 of a cup of royal icing with water so it’s pretty runny and pour it on top of the cake drum, evening it out with a offset spatula. I’m not worrying about spreading it all over the board, just the perimeter that will show. Working like greased lightning is key here; I don’t want the royal to begin to form a crust at all.
Now I heavily sprinkle AA Confectioner’s Sugar onto the wet royal while holding the board over a bowl. AA Confectioner’s Sugar is a very, very coarse sugar that I think is best used for decorating. Then I deftly (I use the term loosely) turn the board over and knock the excess off into the bowl, just so I can scoop it up and resprinkle it again.
This is far from a beauty shot, since I’m holding the camera AND trying to sprinkle the sugar at the same time.
But, you can see the bowl catching the sugar, which is being sprinkled from the container in the upper right corner of the photos.
Now, let the board set up over night and by the next day, you can start building your cake.
Oh, you don’t have to use the sugar, I just like how it looks. I like non-pareils, too. Piped royal decorations, like leaves or grass are also sweet. Use your imagination and explore other options.
If you cover your cakes with fondant, schmear a little piping gel on your board to act as glue, and cover the board with the fondant. Affix the ribbon after it’s dried.
When your cake is the center of the dessert table, believe me, no one will say “Now THAT’S a nice cakedrum!” But that cakeboard will enter their brains in the most subliminal of ways and those guests will think your cake is the most gorgeous creation ever, beg the hostess for your info so they can book you immediately for their next fete. And, you can raise your price now, too, since you’re so in demand.
And you know what that is? That’s the halo effect.
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Tell the truth. Don’t you sort of swoon when you lay your eyes o a beautifully frosted monument of cake? Whether it’s a cake that’s been smoothed out to planes of perfection or swirled in billowy clouds of buttercream decadence, the little devil in you is dying to sink a finger deep into the side of that cake to steal a taste of of heaven before the first slice has been cut. I know. I’ve been there more than once.
I treat my buttercreamed cakes as my blank ‘wall’ for the hand-decorated cookies that will adorn them. The sides are smooth and even, all the way up to the top, when the buttercream takes a sharp 90º turn and continues enclosing the whole package in sweet glory. Achieving such cake nirvana can be a bit intimidating and time-consuming, if you let the cake get the best of you. And, if you’re like me, and have numerous cakes that need to be dressed up all in one day, there’s no real time to spend slathering, smoothing and chilling, over and over again. I need to take control of the cake, do it once, and do it right.
I like to frost a cake that’s cold. Not frozen, but cold. It’s the first step I take in cake domination. A cold cake also ‘sheds’ crumbs less.
See how the cake doesn’t come to the edge of the cardboard? That’s where your buttercream’s going to be. See the green frosting ‘dam’ around the fluffy white filling? I always pipe on a dam, no matter what color, no matter what filling I use. The dam’s job is to prevent filling leakage from ruining the final coat. Eeewwww.
Put the second layer of cake on top. Adjust it. Move it, look at it. Make it even. Make sure it’s even.
Don’t underestimate the importance of a level, sturdy cake. More about that in a future post.
Time to crumbcoat the cake. Consider this the primer or the base coat of this project. A good crumbcoat sets the cake up for final coat perfection.
If you don’t have a cake turntable like I do, place your cake on top of an inverted pot to give it some height. It’s not as easy to turn, but it’s better than nothing. Plop a big blob of buttercream on top of your cake. I mean a BIG blob. Now, start spreading it out with your spatula. Spread it out til it’s beyond the edge of the cake.
Start working that excess buttercream around the sides of the cake, adding more when necessary. Don’t be afraid that you’re adding too much. You’ll be smoothing the extra off in no time.
Once the cake is completely slathered, start evening out the frosting. IF there are crumbs coming off the cake, make sure you scrap your spatula off in a separate bowl. Crumbs are not welcome in the finished product. Not one.
Now, what to do with that lip of frosting that’s been built up around the top edge: hold an offset spatula parallel to the top of the cake, slide the spatula across the top and shear off the excess. Repeat around the entire circumference of the cake.
Now, stand back and admire. Chill cake for about 20 minutes. Then it’s on to the final coat.
Start with another big plop of buttercream. Repeat and continue with same steps til the cake is fully covered in frosting.
Once you’ve slathered buttercream all over the cake, it’s time for my secret weapon.
The plastic bowl scraper. Holding the scraper parallel to the cake, with the edge of the cakeboard as my guide, I slowly begin revolving the turntable, removing the excess buttercream (an oxymoron in my book, but that’s another subject) while smoothing the side of the cake. Magic, isn’t it?
After one go around the cake, take a look. Take another swipe, if necessary, angling the scraper so that it removes less of the buttercream, and just smoothes out what’s there.
Shear off excess around the top again, making sure it’s even all the way around. Chill the cake.
WHAT?????? YOU NICKED THE SIDE OF THE CAKE??????????
There. Boo-boo all gone after a careful schmear with the offset.
Take a bow. You deserve it.
And, no fingers dipping in the frosting, okay?Read More »
I am an unabashed lover of buttercream. The kind of soft, billowy buttercream that melts in my mouth and doesn’t leave some weird film on my teeth. Because if there’s buttercream, that usually means cake, and in turn, that means that someone’s celebrating something! And, that is one of my definitions of happy. In fact, I have a client whose 5 year old daughter thinks EVERY celebratory meal should end in buttercream frosted cake. No wonder I adore that child.
That said (you knew this was coming), I’m not talking about confectioner sugar buttercream. I don’t care for the fact that it crusts over after it’s been exposed to air. Blechhhhhh. You can’t use that kind of frosting and achieve a silky, smooth finish that you see on my cakes. I’m talking about ‘the other’ kind of buttercream.
Now, not to get all Harold McGee or Shirley Corriher on you, but, this buttercream is an emulsion. You know, like when you properly mix oil and vinegar together so it doesn’t separate and is one lovely consistency. That’s an emulsion. Buttercream’s the same thing. Except you’re going to slowly incorporate the butter into a meringue in such a way that it’s all absorbed and beautiful, and not looking like a gloppy mess of scrambled eggs. Ready? Let’s go to work:
First of all, there are three basic ingredients in this type of buttercream, known as Swiss Meringue: pasteurized egg whites, sugar and butter:
Swiss Meringue Buttercream
1 cup egg whites (7-8 large fresh eggs or use pasteurized whites like these)
1 cup (7 oz/200gms) granulated sugar*
1 lb. (454 gms) room temperature unsalted butter, cut into aprox. 1 inch pieces
You can increase this anyway you’d like, as long as the ratio is the same. A 5 qt. stand mixer bowl can easily take on double these amounts.
1. Combine egg whites and sugar in stand mixer bowl and whisk gently, yet continuously over a pan of simmering water. If you walk away, the egg will cook and you don’t want solid bits of egg in buttercream. Keep mixing until mixture has reached 140º, is warm to the touch and all the sugar has dissolved.
2. Place the mixing bowl on the mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Start on a low speed building up to full power as the meringue thickens. It won’t take too long, so keep an eye on it.
3. Check the meringue when you see whisk ‘trails’ in the mixture. We’re looking for a medium stiff peak, like this:
4. Now, attach your flat paddle, turn the mixer to low, and begin adding the butter. Slowly. 1 -2 pieces at a time, adding more only after each piece has been incorporated.
5. Continue slowly adding the butter til it’s all incorporated. The meringue will deflate. That’s to be expected. Keep the mixer speed on low so as not to incorporate too much air. Air bubbles will just take longer to smooth out on your cake and look like potholes. Not pretty.
6. By the time you’ve completed adding the butter, the mixture should look like buttercream. If it looks like cottage cheese, it just means your butter was too cold. Turn the speed up a bit and you’ll be rid of the lumps.
7. By now, you should have a big bowl of fluffy, gorgeous buttercream that you’re dying to run your finger through. Add a TBsp or so of vanilla extract or almond extract and mix thoroughly. If you’re adding food color, do it one or two drops at a time til you’ve achieved the desired color.
Congratulate yourself. You’ve made REAL buttercream.
You can store buttercream in the ‘fridge in a covered container for a good week, or in the freezer for about three months. When you take it out to use it, just paddle it out til nice and smooth.
Now, go make a cake or cupcakes and celebrate!
*Note: You can up the amount of sugar to 9 ounces (roughly 1/4 c) for a stiffer meringue, which will result in a sturdier buttercream.Read More »
Getting those cookies on the cake, that is? How is it done?
Well, if you think that I just make the cookies and slap ‘em on any old way, you, my friends, are sadly mistaken. It is a delicate balancing act between sizing the cookies in relation to the size of the cake, and the number of cookies that fit around the circumference of the cake. Oooh….my brain hurts a bit right now seeing those concepts in print. Do I really do that? Yup, and if I can, you can, too. But, lucky you, I’ll save the math for another post. Let’s just concentrate on dressing up that naked cake.
Here’s what you’ll need:
- Buttercreamed cake
- Decorated cookies
- Small amount of leftover buttercream in the same color as the cake
- Offset spatula
- Little paintbrush
- Paper towel
- And, if you’re a first timer, watch the caffeine. Shaky hands are the devils’ workshop, or something like that.
So, here is the ‘blank canvas’, so to speak. It’s very important to have the cake well chilled, hence the ‘fridge photo. You want the buttercream to be very firm when applying the cookies so that it retains its smooth, even surface.
Now, as with any cake decorating, it helps to think of cake in quadrants: north, south, east and west. The first cookie I apply is on the top tier, defines . It’s the kingpin cookie, the big kahuna, the queen bee; the most important cookie as it defines the north center of the cake. It will determine the placement of all other cookies. Big job for a little cookie, eh?
Next up, bottom north center:
Now, spin the cake around so that the south side of the cake is facing you. Determine the center of the back top tier by eyeballing the placement of the ‘kingpin’ cookie. Affix top tier and bottom tier center cookies. North and South determined: check!
Still with me? There are a lot of cookies left to put on!
Okay, now I’m ready to begin fleshing out the repeat pattern I designed on the North side of the cookie (North is usually the side I try to ultimately present.). Once I see how that fits, I can determine the placement of the rest of the quadrants’ cookies. Make sense? Again, repeat the same pattern on the South(back) side of the cake.
Press the cookies firmly onto the cake…you don’t want to hear the dreaded “pop pop pop” of cookies auto-ejecting from their positions on the cake. Clients don’t like putting cookies back on the cake. And, if there are any unsightly blobs of buttercream squishing out from the cookie, now’s the time to clean them up gently with a paintbrush. Neatness definitely counts here!
And, while I’m on the subject of cookie adherence, here’s how it’s done:
With an offset spatula, carefully shmear (technical word) some of the softened buttercream onto the back of the cookie. Try to keep the buttercream away from the edges so as to reduce the amount of buttercream squish outs.
Next up, East & West. Attach the cookies, taking care that they’re evenly spaced from each other. Determine the center (I think you probably knew that, but I’d be remiss in my instructions if I didn’t mention it.).
Important note: If, at any time, the buttercream on the cake begins to soften too much, chill the cake for a few minutes. The cake will thank you.