My Growing Cake Problem
I have a confession. Hidden beneath all my tales about growing up in a family kitchen and a few short stints spent in a professional baking environment – I have an irrational fear of stacked cakes. I’m fairly confident of my abilities in other areas of baking and even when it comes to something I have never attempted I typically possess an “I’ll figure it out” mindset. I’ve baked plenty of cakes over the years but never in my life dared to stack one cake on top of another. So I busied myself with pies, tarts, ice cream, puff pastry, truffles and ignored my growing cake problem.
The sole experience I have with baking a stacked cake had little to do with structural integrity, flavor or appearance. In high school an equally self-effacing and good natured friend and I got in the habit of intentionally tumbling down the stairs of the school cafeteria to the amusement of scores of lunching students. We reveled in the mixture of laughter, embarrassment and shock that the antic elicited. After many falls, the need for props arose to continue the shock factor – naturally. We careened with stacks of textbooks, flung lunch trays, sent a bowl of spaghetti into the rafters and for the grand pre-graduation finale – a dive, face first, into 5 tiers of neon-colored cake. My mother was very proud.
For over 10 years I admired the numerous and flawless wedding and celebration cakes that came out of my mother-in-law’s kitchen – including the gorgeous miniature fruit adorned rendition for Zach and I’s wedding day. And while I love the idea of tiered cake baking and decorating, secretly I felt that the people who do this for a living must be a touch insane. The pressure! The potential catastrophe of collapse, crack or topple! Footage from those final tragic moments on Food Network cake challenge shows ran on a constant loop in my head. Exhausted bakers crafting a perfect work of art only to watch it crash to the floor en route to the table and the studio audience gasps in mock horror.
That was before this weekend. Before my dear, sweet neighbor emailed me with her idea to throw a surprise party for her boyfriend and how she loved my blog and could I possibly, maybe, make a cake? I knew there would be more people at the party than a one-tiered cake would allow but yet, I said yes. Why? Maybe I was flattered to discover that, “Holy shit, someone actually reads my blog?!” Or perhaps I just knew it was time to suck it up, face my fear and get on with caking.
And you know what folks? It wasn’t that bad – in fact, I think I did a pretty smashing job and even had fun! Granted, my attempt was on a much easier and smaller scale than a professional multi-tiered cake but everything came together and tasted great. Much to my surprise and Zach’s relief, I didn’t even need the 30 minutes of “meltdown recovery time” that I built into my schedule for the anticipated buttercream flinging and angry crying.
So, I’d like to thank my wonderful neighbor Emily for pushing me to venture outside my comfort zone and deal with the elephant in my kitchen. This weekend served as a reminder that there is little to be learned from playing it safe and much to be gained in testing your own limits. Plus, if all else fails, I can always submit the hilarious photos and play-by-play recap here.
Also, many thanks to Deb over at Smitten Kitchen for not only 2 of the 3 fabulous recipes I used but this unbelievably helpful, yet succinct, 10 commandments of layer cake baking and construction. For the top tier I made carrot cake as that is the birthday boy’s favorite and for the larger layer a delicious Vanilla Buttermilk cake recipe from Deb. I also used her recipe for Swiss Buttercream and loved it. The icing held up beautifully and was very easy to make. In regards to that Penn State Nittany Lion – my neighbors are both alum and huge fans so it seemed like the perfect cake adornment. I crafted the logo out of rolled fondant and used a printout as a guide and crafting razor for precision. This technique can be used to replicate just about any image easily.
Carrot Layer Cake
Adapted from a recipe by Martha Stewart
Makes 2, 6-inch two-layer cakes
Unsalted butter, for pans
3 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for pans
1 cup (3 ounces) pecan halves
1 pound large carrots, peeled
3 large eggs, room temperature
1/3 cup nonfat buttermilk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups vegetable oil
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Heat oven to 375 degrees. Butter four 6-by-2-inch round cake pans. Line the bottom of each pan with a round of parchment or waxed paper and butter the paper. Set pans aside. Spread pecans in a single layer on an ungreased baking pan, and toast in the oven until lightly golden, about 7 minutes. Remove pan from oven, and let stand until completely cool. Reduce temperature to 300 degrees.
Using the smallest holes (less than 1/4 inch in diameter) of a box grater or the grating tool on your food processor, grate carrots, yielding 2 1/2 cups. Place carrots, eggs, buttermilk, vanilla, sugar and vegetable oil in a large bowl; whisk until well combined.
In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon. Using a rubber spatula, fold the flour mixture into the carrot mixture until combined. Fold in the toasted pecans.
Divide batter between the four cake pans, and bake until a cake tester inserted into the middles comes out clean, about 40 minutes. Remove pans from oven, and transfer to a wire rack to cool, 15 minutes. Turn cakes out onto rack; let stand until completely cool. Using a serrated knife, trim tops of the cakes so surfaces are level.
Vanilla Buttermilk Cake
Adapted from recipe posted on Smitten Kitchen
Makes enough for one, three-layer 9-inch cake
3 3/4 cups cake flour
2 1/2 cups sugar
1 tablespoon plus 2 3/4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 sticks (10 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/4 cups plus 1/3 cup buttermilk
5 whole eggs
2 egg yolks
2 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 325°F. Butter three 9-inch round cake pans. Line the bottom of each pan with a round of parchment or waxed paper and butter the paper.
Combine the cake flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt in a large mixer bowl. With the mixer on low speed, blend for 30 seconds. Add the butter and 1 1/4 cup of the buttermilk. Mix on low speed briefly to blend; then raise the speed to medium and beat until light and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes.
In a smaller bowl, whisk together the whole eggs, egg yolks, vanilla, and the remaining 1/3 cup buttermilk until well blended. Pour the egg mixture (in thirds) into the cake batter, folding it in completely after each addition. There will be 9 cups of batter; our 3 cups batter into each pan.
Bake for 25-28 minutes, or until a cake tester or wooden toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove from the oven and let cakes cool 15 minutes in their pans.
Turn the layers out onto wire racks by placing a rack on top of a pan, inverting it, and lifting off the pan. Peel off the paper liners and let cool completely.
Adapted from recipe posted on Smitten Kitchen
Makes enough for 1, 9-inch layer cake*
1 cup sugar
4 large egg whites
26 tablespoons butter, softened (3 sticks plus 2 tablespoons)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Whisk egg whites and sugar together in a big bowl over a pot of simmering water. Whisk occasionally until you can’t feel the sugar granules when you rub the mixture between your fingers.
Transfer mixture into the mixer and whip until it turns white and about doubles in size. Add the vanilla and then add the butter a stick at a time and whip on medium-high speed until the mixture comes together. As Deb notes on her blog, don’t freak out when it doesn’t come together immediately, it takes time.
*Note: For the cake pictured (two-layer 6 inch stacked on a three-layer 9 inch) I doubled this buttercream recipe and had plenty for filling, icing and decorating.