As we settled into the den this past sweltering Friday night to have a cold cocktail and watch a movie, the phone rang. It was Julie, our downstairs neighbor.
“Hi Gail, I was wondering if I could ask you something?”
“Sure Julie, what is it?”
“Can you make a wedding cake for Sunday?”
Dumbfounded, I replied as I always do in situations like these. ”Are you crazy? I can’t possibly do that, Julie. I’m so sorry.”
Ignoring what I just sputtered, Julie went on trying to win me over.
“Let me just tell you about whose getting married”, she began. ”Two of my oldest, dearest friends who’ve been together for ages got their wedding lottery notice earlier today. The guys just got a slot in the Manhattan same sex marriage lottery for Sunday. I’ve been busy with them all day arranging their wedding…we have a friend who is a judge performing the ceremony, 20 family members and friends are coming in for the wedding and even though Aureole was already booked, they were nice enough to suggest Ai Fiori, who is happily taking care of the whole thing. All we need now is the wedding cake.”
Now, could anyone say no to this? I certainly couldn’t. Especially while listening to this shpiel while wiping the tears that were streaming down my cheeks. ”Okay, Julie, what do the guys want?”
“Well, they want a tradtional tiered cake with fondant and fresh flowers.”
[a moment of silence on my end] ”Oy. Julie, I don’t do fondant cakes. Or fresh flowers. Buttercream and cookies are what I do.”
We take a few minutes to simultaneously review the photos of my work on my website.
“Well, let me have Ken call you.”
I spoke with Ken about flavors and cookies and buttercream and heard the ‘ohmygod, I can’t believe I’m doing this’ in Ken’s voice. Planning a dinner party on the fly is one thing. But, a wedding? A wedding that’s part of a history-making day? No wonder Ken sounded like an automaton hopped up on Redbull.
I thought and I thought, I sketched, and I use that term loosely since I have the drawing skills of a 4 year old (picture big sheet of paper, drawing in one corner of the paper, rest of the page is blank. And that’s on a good day.). Finally, I had the idea in my head. I’d do the cookies and bake the cake on Saturday, make the buttercream and assemble the whole thing on Sunday. Pick up at 3:00 p.m., delivery by 4:00 p.m., ceremony begins at 5:00 p..m.
On this day, July 24, 2011, in all five boroughs of New York City 823 same sex couples will have been married by the time you read this. History will have been made as New York becomes the 6th state to change its laws to allow same sex marriage. We are all celebrating. We’re celebrating the first portion of the end of a social and legal injustice (the federal government will be obviously be the next hurdle). And, in a time when our state’s economy is pretty much in shambles, the money brought to the state in the tourism, hospitality and retail sectors will be very significant. Which, in and of itself could be the reason(s) other states might want to reconsider changing their laws.*
But, let’s get back to the mushy stuff….wedding talk.
As I measured and mixed, schmeared and smoothed, I thought all day about my own state of marriage. J and I have been together for 29 years. Waaaay back in the ’80′s, when we met and fell in love and decided to be together, a real marriage was not an option. ’Gay’ and ‘marriage’ were words that would never be written in the same sentence. But, that didn’t stop us, or other couples like us, from
needing wanting the ritual of a wedding. Reciting our vows in front of friends and J’s family (my parents refused to come; a decision they ultimately regretted) who loved us and wanted us to be happy. We wrote the vows, selected rings, got very dressed up, hired a caterer and had our ‘commitment ceremony’. That’s what pioneers like us had in 1982. A commitment ceremony.
For all intents and purposes, we’ve sailed through life as though we were happily, legally married. We built a home and a life together. Saved and invested money together, bought life insurance policies and had wills and medical powers of attorney drawn up. We behaved responsibly.
In 2008, when the New York State Assembly failed to pass the same-sex marriage amendment, we feared we might never see same-sex marriage in our state. On a particularly frigidly icy December day, we trained to Greenwich, CT (where same-sex marriage is legal) and applied for a marriage license. After waiting the requisite number of days, we trained back, once again, to Greenwich to get married.
No friends accompanied us; we told them not to bother. And, in sharp contrast to they way we entered our commitment ceremony 27 years earlier, we neither dressed up or wore makeup. The Justice of the Peace wanted to marry us in her own home, and again we said thanks, but don’t bother. We’d be fine with getting married in City Hall in a random room beneath the photo of the current head of The Department of Sanitation. It was just a formality. We got married years ago.
Wearing our warmest jackets, gloves, scarves and Uggs, we trudged into the courthouse, with a Starbucks coffee in one hand, and my Mitzi bag in the other (you didn’t think we’d leave her out, did you?). Pleasantries were exchanged with the loveliest J of P, and we were ready to begin.
We stood in front of a podium with the state seal of Connecticut painted on it. The Justice of the Peace began to read from her book.
And, I began to sob. No tears slowly welling up in my eyes, no single salt water trickle out of the side of my eye, but the kind of ugly sobbing that explodes from the bottom of your soul and makes your shoulders practically convulse. I thought I’d never get through the 3 minutes of ceremony to mumble the “I do’s”. But I did. And, in that moment when J and I faced each other and sort of heard something about being recognized as a married couple in the state of Connecticut, I fully comprehended the enormity and the importance of being equal. Married. Not a civil union, but really, honest and truly, married.
So, to Ken and Terry, and the other 822 couples who, hopefully cried a lot prettier than I did while they got married, I say “Congratulations!”
Now, who wants cake?
* Did you know that lesbian and gay couples earn roughly 45% more than their heterosexual counterparts?
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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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It’s been six years since I said “So long, Seventh Avenue.”. I really thought I had expunged the last remnants of my fashion career from my life. For instance, my work wardrobe, despite the season, now consists of elastic waist yoga pants and oversized T shirts. Everything’s the same, too, so I don’t have to stand in front of the mirror holding hangers of clothes in front of myself, wondering if this outfit or that matches my mood for the day. I just have to decide: ”clean or not clean”. The only time I thumb through “Vogue” Magazine is to get to a Jeffrey Steingarten piece. And, you can bet your bottom dollar, by the time I actually embrace a fashion trend said trend is officially on Rachael Zoe’s discard rack.
So, it was curious to me the other day when I began thinking about denim. It began with my jacket. Now that it’s getting warmer, I started rooting around in the closet looking for some lighter weight outerwear. There it was…my old friend the denim jacket. I’ve had this one for at least 10 years, if not longer. In my humble fashion estimation, it’s the perfect topper for everything from a pair of elastic waist yoga pants and sneaks, to the latest Armani wide-leg pants and Christian Louboutin gladiator sandals (not that I’m wearing the latest wide-leg pants & gladiator sandals).
As I gently touched the faded, broken- in sleeve, I smiled as I thought about all the ways denim is used today. From construction workers’ uniforms to toned-down black tie casual.
There’s a version of denim for everyone and every occasion.
It’s the same way with cake. Stay with me here. To me, it’s the confectionary equivalent of denim. For instance, gussie up a genoise in perfectly fondanted and stacked tiers. Then festoon it with delicate sugar flowers and that cake is ogled every bit as much at a wedding reception as a supermodel in Roberto Cavalli jeans is on the catwalk. The ‘Mom Jeans’ of my gateaux world? Marble poundcake. Then, there are…..cupcakes. Need I say more? You know those sexy little babies can be as naughty as a pair of Daisy Dukes.
But, here’s the rub. I like my cake the way I like my denim: without unnecessary additives. That’s why my cakes are always made from scratch. Always and only with fresh ingredients whose names I can pronounce. Xanthan gum, maltodextrin, sodium stearoyl lactylate? You can keep ‘em, Betty. And you, Duncan, I don’t want your partially hydrogenated soybean oil. The same way I don’t want 74-percent rayon/23-percent polyester/3-percent spandex turning my 100% cotton dungarees into, heaven forbid, jeggings.
I want cake flour, salt, sugar and baking powder. See?
And, I’m going plunk in some unsalted butter, see?
To this I will add, in 3 intervals, eggs, milk and vanilla. See?
Then, after it’s mixed not too much, not too shy, I’ll have this:
And, after I’ve baked it, I’ll have this cake. See that beautiful, soft crumb? The only other ingredient I added to this recipe was tender loving care.
Now that’s a cake that’s as classic as a pair of Levi 501′s.
Rose Levy Beranbaum’s All-Occasion Downy
Yellow Butter Cake
Adapted from The Cake Bible (1988)
6 large egg yolks
1 c. whole milk
2 ¼ tsps pure vanilla extract
3 c sifted cake flour
1 ½ c sugar
1 Tbsp + 1 tsp baking powder
¾ tsp salt
6 oz room temp unsalted butter
Preheat oven to 350º. Butter and flour two 9 inch cake pans.
In a medium bowl, combine eggs, ¼ c of the milk & the vanilla extract.
In electric mixer mixing bowl, combine all dry ingredients and
mix on low for 1 ½ minutes to combine AND sift. (this aerates and begins to develop the cake’s structure)
Add butter and remaining milk to dry mix. Pulse to lightly combine. Then mix on speed 2 for 2.30 minutes. Stop, scrape down bowl and add 1/3 egg/milk, vanilla mixture. Mix on speed 2 for 20 seconds. Scrape down bowl and repeat two more times w/ remaining egg mixture. (This strengthens the cake’s structure.)
Scrape batter into prepared pans and bake for 25-35 minutes til cake springs back to the touch or inserted tester comes out clean. Cool on rack for 10 minutes, then remove from pans and let cakes continue cooling on racks.Read More »