Baking - Desserts

Note to Self: Don’t Make Buttercream While Distracted.

It’s been a long time since I made a true buttercream with an egg base. They are so yummy I wanted to start getting back into it, so for Valentine’s day I decided to make a cake with an Italian Meringue Buttercream. The cake had been made the day before and was nicely cooled, just waiting for that creamy coating. I went over my recipe several times to refresh my memory and had all the ingredients and tools ready to go.

I had a couple issues that I should have thought about beforehand. One: I didn’t give myself a lot of time. I didn’t think it would take very long, so I waited until just before dinner to make it. And Two: My kids were awake, which usually means interruptions and distractions about every 30 seconds. Not so good for the focus I needed.

I got my egg whites beating, which was fine, they looked great, but it was cooking the sugar syrup that got me. I would hold the thermometer in the pan to track the temperature, get distracted and take it out for a few seconds, then go back and put it in again to re-check the temperature. After doing this a few too many times I realized that my syrup was at the hard ball stage instead of soft ball, which is about 20 degrees higher than it should be. Oops!

If I had left myself more time I would have made a new syrup, but because I assumed everything would go perfectly I didn’t have the time to spare and decided to pour it in and see what would happen. It ended up being quite curdled, nowhere near the smooth and creamy coating I had anticipated. The flavour was fine, but the appearance was not.

At least it was for my family, and thankfully they’re happy to eat almost anything I make no matter what it looks like. But next time I’ll plan ahead and work while the kids are asleep!


Cheese Cake, Pt. 3: Putting it all Together

Here we are, the tests have been done, the embellishments are planned, and now we have to get it all together for the main event. Timewise it would be nearly impossible to get all the cakes baked, assembled and decorated the day of the event, so it takes some planning to get it all ready in a logical order.

As I mentioned in last week’s post, I made the marzipan crackers about a week in advance, so they would have time to dry and harden. I made all the cakes in the week leading up to the wedding and froze them until the night before. I first made the blue cheese cake, which was a sour cream cake. I baked it in a 10-inch pan, then cut it into wedges. I sliced the wedges in two, so I could put a layer of buttercream in the middle. then put a thin coat of frosting over each wedge of cake to help keep in moisture. I wrapped each in wax paper, then in plastic wrap, and froze them in a plastic container. They were well protected!

The brie cake was also a sour cream cake, and also baked in the 10-inch pan. I actually made two of these, as I wanted to make sure there would be enough cake for all the guests, but only one was part of the display. I spread a layer of ermine frosting (which you may remember from this post from last year) in the middle of these cakes, and again spread a thin crumb coat over the cakes and wrapped them up well to freeze. The gouda cake was an olive oil cake, with orange zest flavouring. This was made in a 14-inch pan, and I had to make two of these to get it to the right height, then frosted the same as the others.

The day before the wedding all the cakes came out of the freezer and I spread each with another layer of frosting. This helped to smooth the surface of the cakes, which is important because otherwise every little bubble and bump would show through the marzipan. I also made all of the frosted grapes the night before, as I mentioned in last week’s post.

On the big day I was up at 6:00am to get started. We needed to leave around 10:00am to get to the venue on time to set up the cake, so I allotted an hour per cake, with an extra hour to get myself ready since we were also attending the wedding. I started from the bottom and rolled out the marzipan, which I had coloured the day before, for the gouda cake first. It was a good thing I had lots of counter space, because it needed to be rolled out quite large to fit over a 14-inch diameter by 4-inch high cake! It went pretty well, with not too much folding at the bottom, so it was relatively easy to trim and smooth. I then measured where the dowels would need to go to hold up the next layer, inserted them, and trimmed them to the right height.

The brie cake was also pretty straightforward. I rolled out the marzipan, which was still its natural colour, laid it on, trimmed, smoothed, and then rubbed icing sugar all over. The blue cheese wedges took a little more time. I had to roll out and trim a couple different pieces of marzipan to fit, the marbled piece for the flat sides, and plain for the rind. Once trimmed I rubbed icing sugar on the rind. The extra blue part of the cheese I would put on during assembly at the venue.

We got to the venue around 12:00 noon and I went right to work setting it all up. I transferred the gouda to the cutting board first, then carefully transferred the brie on top of that. Then I decorated the blue cheese wedge before setting it on top. I filled the mini wine glasses with the coloured piping gel, then used clear gel to secure them in place next to the blue cheese. Placing all the grapes was pretty time consuming since they had to be placed one by one. Once they were all in, I brushed off any excess icing sugar that dropped during assembly, and set out the crackers and cheese knife. Sounds easy, right? It took about two hours from when I got there to finish the final display.

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I was so grateful for the opportunity to make this cake. I learned a lot, and it has really inspired me to test out some new recipes, ideas and techniques, and I look forward to whatever the next challenge might be!

Baking - General, Decorating, Ingredient Insights

Should Buttercream be Copyrighted?

When I made some royal icing for the dominoes cookies last week I used the recipe from a pack of meringue powder. There are several icing recipes included, one of which really caught my attention: Snow-White Buttercream Icing. My first thought was, “That’s impossible, butter isn’t white, so why would buttercream icing be white?” When I read the ingredients it calls for 1 1/4 cups of shortening, and no butter at all. A very bland icing, you say? Well, not when you add the 1/2 teaspoon of butter flavour! As a baker who tries to use as many pure/natural ingredients as possible, I cringed, and thought there should be some kind of regulation. There was really nothing natural in the recipe; even the vanilla that’s called for is a clear vanilla extract, which is artificial. Pure vanilla should be a dark brown colour (but remember, not all dark vanillas are natural).

I learned a few years ago that authors of recipes do not have the same rights and privileges as other authors. The author of a textbook needs to be acknowledged appropriately if you use his/her work in an essay, and if that person and his/her work is not acknowledged it’s considered plagiarism. Not so for recipes. Maybe if you used a recipe from a published cookbook and put it into your own published cookbook; but if you’re preparing a recipe to eat, whether it be for yourself or for others, it is not required to acknowledge the author. This may be why so many families have secret recipes handed down generation to generation!

It's not snow-white, but at least it's tasty, naturally!
It’s not snow-white, but at least it’s tasty, naturally!

Back to the buttercream… Although I don’t think it’s practical, or really necessary, to actually copyright a recipe for buttercream, I do think that if a recipe title has the word ‘butter’ in it, it should call for butter as an actual ingredient. If you don’t care enough to put natural butter in your icing, why would you care if the word butter is in the title? You can just call it ‘Snow-White Icing’ and save yourself some syllables. Now, I am a bit biased, I haven’t actually tried using butter flavour, but I can’t imagine it’s better than the real thing. And even if the flavour is right, the mouth-feel of the shortening would be much less desirable than the real thing.

I realize there are people – especially a lot of brides – who, for decorative purposes, might want a ‘snow-white’ icing. If you are aware that the only way to get that is artificially, then that’s fine; it’s obviously not my preference, but if the presentation is more important than the taste, so be it. But I think it is unfair to mislead people into thinking they have an authentic buttercream on their pristine white cake when there’s actually no butter in it.

Perhaps I have become a baking snob, but when I make a cake (or anything, for that matter) for someone else, I do my best to make it with ingredients that I am comfortable eating myself. Sometimes that means sacrificing a pristine appearance, but when that cake is all cut up into pieces, no one is focused on the appearance anymore, they’re all focused on the taste. And I want them to taste something unforgettably rich and delicious, naturally!

Baking - Desserts, Decorating

Homemade Birthday Cake on the Road

While on vacation we celebrated our daughter’s second birthday. It gets a bit trickier to bake when travelling, because I don’t have access to all my recipes, equipment and on-hand decorating ingredients. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

We were staying with family, which means I had a kitchen to use (an important factor), so I looked up a simple cake recipe in one of their cookbooks, went to the store to get a couple ingredients, and set to work. I made a sour cream cake, using yogurt instead of sour cream because they already had it on hand. I couldn’t find their electric mixer, so did all the beating by hand with a whisk. The batter seemed quite thick, so I thought it would be a very dense cake, but it actually came out quite light, which made me happy. And I made a simple buttercream frosting, and tried to colour it with blueberry juice, but because I didn’t make much juice it wasn’t very noticeable. However, the taste of the buttercream was fine all on its own.

I didn’t want to go overboard with the design, seeing as I didn’t have a lot of tools or time. Our daughter loves animals, and particularly likes looking for fish in water. I baked the cake in a rectangle pan, and cut out the shape of a fish once it had cooled. Then it was just a matter of spreading on the frosting, and adding a few berries to finish the design.

As a baker, I don’t like having to buy something pre-made for someone who means so much. I was glad to be able to make a cake for her birthday. It may not have been elaborate, but it sure was delicious. Sometimes simple can be surprisingly sensational!

Baking - Desserts, Decorating, Recipe

Testing Buttercreams

I am making a cake for a co-worker’s wedding and he requested a family recipe for the icing. As with many family recipes, it is not one that is really written down. I was told it was made with equal parts milk, sugar and butter, with a drop of almond extract. Bring the milk and sugar to a boil, then as it cools whisk in the butter and extract. With no more direction than that I knew I would have to experiment a bit before I could make the icing for the actual cake.

Ermine frosting

I decided to seek help from my friend Yvonne over at Ms. Adventures in Baking to see if she had any insights about this mysterious recipe. She suggested it may be an Ermine frosting, which has the same proportion of ingredients but has a small amount of flour as a thickener. Basically you mix the flour and milk and heat them to thicken. Then you cream the butter and sugar, and as the thickened milk cools you gradually whisk it into the creamed butter and sugar. I was skepitcal that an icing with flour would be good, but it did indeed make a very creamy and delicious icing.

Fudge method frosting

Having made the Ermine frosting, I was still curious about the challenge of the original recipe. As I thought about it, the description sounded a lot like a fudge recipe. So I decided to try it out. I heated the milk and sugar to soft ball, about 235F, then let it cool to 110F and beat in the butter. It came out as a super creamy frosting, absolutely melt in your mouth.

In the interest of time and ease, I will probably make the Ermine recipe for this cake. But I am glad I didn’t give up on the challenge of the original recipe. It’s definitely one to keep in mind for other special desserts.