Cake decorating is a pain in the neck unless your name is Cake Boss or you’re an artist. The most illustrious cake designers seem to have a fine arts background or, in the Boss' case, are born to the trade. And let me just make note that although Cake Boss cakes are spectacular, I consider his use of Rice Krispies treats to be cheating. Meanwhile, I am the least artistic person I know.
I’ve already confessed to my lame attempts at pottery but I’ve never told the story of the time in high school when Annie, my very talented friend, took on the task of teaching art classes to four children and asked me to assist in the childcare department while she dealt with the paint. The hook was that two of the kids belonged to Carly Simon and the art lesson was in her apartment. I had been singing along to Carly since I bought Hotcakes with money I got on my ninth birthday and I was thrilled. So, we went to her incredible apartment on Central Park West and she answered the door, all 5’10” of her in a purple, drop-waist, Norma Kamali, flouncy, sweatshirt dress, the grooviest thing to wear in 1982. After greeting us warmly, she waved over a man in the next room, "This is my friend John. Travolta." Can you imagine? You’re 16, in your idol’s apartment and Mr. Cleft Chin and Still in Shape smiles and shakes your hand and says, “Hi girls, nice to meet you both.” After some small talk about co-ed vs. single-sex education (not sure how that happened) her son and daughter returned from wherever they were with their cousins and all four kids gathered round the kitchen table while Carly and John went out. The question that kept running through my mind was "are my cuffed, olive green leather boots cool enough to be in the presence of two superstars?" They weren’t. But the point is, while they were gone Annie supervised the kids, and me, in some serious watercolor work. A few hours later, Carly returned to review the creativity that had happened in her absence and, while flipping through all the masterpieces, she stopped at my watercolor and said to her EIGHT year old daughter, “Nice job.” So that gives you a sense of my skill level. And I haven't improved much since.
Recently, when tackling the requested floral portion of Niece One’s birthday cake, I decided it would be safer to go with pre-made fondant and cookie cutters. It’s also kind of cheating but easier than trying to deal with a pastry bag filled with buttercream and swirling it around hoping something like a flower flows from it. I planned everything perfectly. Monday: a trip to Michael’s (always a treat) for the fondant/cutter supplies. Friday: a session making the cake and the requested pink buttercream. Saturday: assembling the cake and Sunday: delivery to the party. Piece of cake!
While the cake itself was fine the problems started with the frosting. After adding a few tiny dabs of pink gel food coloring I couldn’t understand why the buttercream still looked so pale. So I added some more, then just a little more and it seemed to be a pretty pastel shade. That was until I put the bowl back onto the mixer for some extra fluffiness and KABOOM, the beaters hit on the ball of food coloring that must have sunk to the bottom of the bowl and the frosting turned into a shocking pink that was simply sickening. Think Pepto-Bismol meets Barbie's Dream House. My stomach began to churn. "Okay, maybe it will lighten up once it’s actually on the cake," I thought hopefully, and frosted the cake. "Okay, maybe it’s a little better? In the right light?" So I kept on going. Rolling and cutting was easy and the paleness of the pink fondant seemed to relieve the brightness of the frosting just a tad so I used a little extra buttercream to polka-dot the butterflies and then ruined everything even more when I gussied up the tulips. It looked awful. And I had to make a 7pm movie and the party was the next day. Well, I could stay up late and start again? I called my sister who, because she’s a good sister, was reassuring and warned the birthday girl that her cake might be a little brighter than she’d requested. Niece One seemed fine about it but still, I couldn’t stop thinking about the tulips. And the color.
I’ve never been as anxious over any of the desserts I’ve made for people paying me a pretty penny as I was over Niece One’s cake. And I’m still not sure why. Of course I love her and I hate the idea of not coming through on a promise. Maybe I was burdening her with my own birthday issues, assuming she was primed for disappointment too? The echo of her frequent praise, “You’re the BEST baker!” reverberated in my head and just made me feel worse as I replaced the tulips with daisies first thing Sunday morning and wrote her birthday message on top of the cake with pink decorator gel, hoping to turn ugly into pretty. Still hideous. It was with a heavy heart that I opened the cake box on my sister’s kitchen counter and displayed my creation to the family. “Um, I think you missed something,” my sister the academic pointed out. In my nervousness about the cake's appearance, I lost the ability to spell, and made a glaring typo. “HAPPY BIRHDAY” screamed from the top of the electric pink cake, only to be matched by the hysterical laughter of Niece One. “Happy Birhday! Happy Birhday!” she squealed and soon became completely distracted by her arriving guests. What a relief. Except not really. I still felt awful but an hour later she inhaled her slice and, with a mouth full said, “Yum!” Next year, she’s getting no flowers. I haven’t got time for the pain.
Pretty (?) in Pink Birthday Cake
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From Food and Wine, June 2007
3 cups sifted all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1 tablespoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup whole milk, at room temperature
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
2 cups granulated sugar
4 large eggs, at room temperature
Directions-Cake (click here if you want to see photos from prior blog post)
Preheat the oven to 350°. Butter two 9-by-2-inch round cake pans and line with parchment paper; butter and dust with flour.
In a bowl, mix the 3 cups of flour, baking powder and salt. In a cup, mix the milk with the vanilla. Set aside.
In a standing mixer fitted with the paddle, beat the butter at medium speed until light and creamy. Add the sugar and beat until fluffy, 4 minutes.
Beat in the eggs, one at a time, scraping down the bowl. Beat in the dry ingredients in 3 batches, alternating with the milk mixture and scraping down the bowl.
Scrape the batter into the pans. Bake in the lower third of the oven for about 35 minutes, until springy.
Let cool for 15 minutes, then run a knife around the edges and invert onto a rack. Peel off the paper, turn the cakes upright and cool completely.
Swiss Meringue Buttercream
Adapted from Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook, Martha Stewart 2005
4 large egg whites (or 1/2 cup if, like me, your freezer is full of egg whites from when recipes call for just yolks)
1 1/4 cups sugar
3 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into tablespoons
1 Tablespoon vanilla extract
Directions-Buttercream click here for photos from prior blog post (ignore jam)
Combine sugar and egg whites in the heatproof bowl from your electric mixer and place on top of a pan of simmering water (you are creating a double boiler).
Whisk sugar and egg whites constantly until sugar is completely dissolved and mixture is warm to touch, @ 160 degrees on candy thermometer.
Remove bowl from pan, place in mixer and using whisk attachment beat on high speed until whites hold still peaks.
Continue beating until mixture is fluffy and cooled, @ 6 minutes.
Stop mixer, remove whisk attachment and change to paddle attachment.
With mixer on medium-low speed add softened butter a Tablespoon at a time, beating well after each addition.
(If after you've added all the butter the buttercream looks curdled or separated do not worry. Beat on high and it will come together.)
When mixture looks fluffy, and makes a thwapping sound as it is being beaten, you can stop.
Add the vanilla and beat to incorporate. If desired, tint buttercream with food coloring to your liking. (Be stingy--you don't want to end up in electric Barbie pink-land.)
Yield: 4 cups frosting, enough to frost 24 cupcakes or 8"-9" two layer cake.
Place several pieces of wax paper strips in sunburst pattern on serving platter or frosting turn-table
Place one cake layer on top of wax paper stripsPlace one cup of frosting on top of cake layer and spread with a spatula (offset is best). Place second cake layer on top of first layer and frost top and sides with remaining frosting.
Sprinkle work surface and plastic rolling pin with powdered sugar.
Place fondant on work surface and roll out to desired thickness (1/8" is good)
Using cutters of your choice, cut fondant and lift cutouts with a small offset spatula or, if you are very careful, your fingers.
Place cut-outs wherever you like on the cake and press gently to adhere. If you like, decorate shapes with extra buttercream using a pastry bag and a small tip.
Carefully remove wax paper strips and serve. Feel free to chill for a bit but cake is best served at room temperature.
Yield: one 9 inch layer cake (16 slices)