A bit of a boost from pastry chef Thiago Silva

[Photographs: Jacqueline Raposo]

Note from the author: A bakery on a tiny island closes, and all of a sudden I have six weeks to pick professional brains, do a test run or two, pack up my kitchen, fly to St. Croix, and make a 3-tiered wedding cake for my oldest girlfriend. Here's Part Two of how it all happened... click here for Parts One, Three, and Four.

With four weeks until the wedding, my baking checklist is huge:

  • Get cake recipes from chefs. Make recipes under different circumstances—by hand, with a hand mixer, and with a stand mixer.
  • Get buttercream recipe; try it a few times with both Swiss and Italian methods, work with it fresh as well as defrosted/cold from the fridge.
  • Choose battle plan for structure, get all boards and dowels and materials with Thiago.
  • Practice full cake, including making it a day ahead, refrigerating, and setting it up in as weird a circumstance as possible.
  • Get fresh flowers and practice decorating the finished cake.
  • Make a master list of what to pack.
  • Forget nothing.

Stephen Collucci (Tom Colicchio's pastry chef at Colicchio & Sons) and I have a phone date, and his advice is ample and timely. He agrees that 10", 7" and 5" tiers is a solid plan, and advises on no more than three layers of cake and two of frosting for each tier—the less height, the less chance they'll be uneven and hard to work with.

He's got two solid vanilla cake recipes, and when I tell him the baking circumstances (small oven, kitchen with no equipment), he promises to send me the easier one that, conveniently, he'll be making again within a few days. I often receive recipes from chefs, and it's funny how many aren't translated at all for the home cook (not that they should be). They're written with weights and in some sort of spreadsheet for portions. They often don't involve steps at all, since the method for making a cake is pretty standard across kitchens. Luckily I usually use a scale instead of measuring cups, and I'll have time to bug Stephen for clarifications if need be. And, come to think of it, all recipes he's sent me for professional or personal use have been pretty foolproof.

The first question I pose is: how exactly should I make the layers for the cakes? I've obviously used cake pans, but I've also baked cakes in sheets and used rings to cut out what I need.

My instinct is to use sheet pans. I love how they make the thickness of the cake layers uniform and, from a monetary perspective, this means I won't have to buy six bulky pans but rather three rings I can later use for various things. But Stephen brings up a good point: cutting out cakes makes for more crumbs on the edge. And if I bake each tier in two round pans, I'll get four layers, with an extra layer ready in case something goes wrong.

He agrees that, due to humid island weather, an Italian buttercream (with cooked sugar and stiffly beaten egg whites to fortify the butter) will be sturdier to work with than an American buttercream (which is basically just butter and powdered sugar). And he promises that it can be made, refrigerated, and brought up to room temperature again easily, with just a bit of beating to smooth out the texture as needed.

He also suggests using sturdy lollipop sticks instead of dowels when possible, in order to maximize how much cake can get cut into appealing slices versus slices with the gaping holes that large hollow rods make. A good thing to keep in mind when shopping with Thiago.

Pastry Chef Thiago Silva sketching out a wedding cake

A few days later, Thiago Silva (EMM Group's pastry chef at Catch, The General, and La Cenita) is sketching out the cake while we sip tea a block away from NY Cake, a supply store I frequent and where Thiago took some of his first pastry classes as a teen. Thiago makes incredible cakes; they're often massive size and structure and come with moving parts that explode confetti or lifelike miniatures of planes, trains, and automobiles.

A week before our meeting, Thiago said he was making a video of a cake he was putting together for me, but confesses he stopped because he knew it'd scare me shitless—the bottom layer was about 20" square, and he was sawing dowels and utilizing the muscle of several bodies to put it together. On Instagram it was beautiful; knowing the details of how it was put together made it menacing. I settle for a sketch that explains the measurements and support structure I'll need:

Pastry Chef Thiago Silva sketching out a wedding cake

Amidst more very elementary questions and requests for clarification on my part, Thiago helps me with a step-by-step plan of how I can work:

Pastry Plan of Attack

1) With no opinion either way as to baking in sheets or pans, he offers to loan me 10", 7" and 5" pans, as I'd most likely not need them after.

2) He advises to trim the cakes 1/2- to 3/4- of an inch smaller than the boards they'll be on. Why? Because, he explains, they'll gain size with a layer of buttercream surrounding them, and no one really wants to see a cake dangling precipitously over the edge. Also, by having the frosting come right to the edge, the board each is sitting on will be a leveler for the frosting spatula, making the top layer of buttercream as smooth as possible. To make the cake layers perfectly uniform, we pick out a thin cardboard round the size of each cake pan, which I'll trim by half an inch. The cakes will possibly shrink this much anyway when they cool, but I can use the rounds as templates to trim them if not. I'll then slice the cakes evenly in half, flattening the top as much as possible.

3) Rather than simply smearing on buttercream with a spatula, Thiago advises using a pastry bag and thinly piping frosting up the sides and around the top of each layer. This will minimize any of the crumbs from trimming the cakes—something which Stephen has already made me very wary of. So I'll start off with a thin dot of frosting on the boards to keep the cakes in place, add the bottom layer of cake, and then pipe a thin, even layer of frosting between the layers, spreading with a small offset spatula as I go to make sure they're even and stay flat. He promises this is something that can be rather easily eyeballed, but suggests bringing one of those levelers used for hanging pictures if desired, which goes on my list.

4) I'll then pipe a layer of frosting up the sides and on the top of the assembled tier, wiping it almost entirely off to create a base layer, cleaning off and smoothing it as much as possible. (He calls this the "dirty crumb layer" as it will catch any crumbs from the edge). It will then get refrigerated to stiffen the frosting a touch, which will help the final "presentation layer" sit smoothly and most attractively. I'll start with the largest tier, moving to the middle and then the top, so that when I'm done with the top the bottom will be sufficiently chilled for its final frosting layer. The "presentation layer" will be done in the same method, with the frosting piped up the sides and the top, then smoothed with a large frosting spatula, using the board it's sitting on to keep a clean and even edge.

5) We've figured out that the securest base will be a combination of Styrofoam and the green Oasis glued to a 14" board. I'll use an Exacto knife to cut out a 4" circle within the 7" circle of Oasis and I'll fill it with a circle of Styrofoam. This will give the bottom layer a strong base with a good 1 ½ inches of Oasis on each side for me to stick flowers into.

6) To put the cake together, I'll reinforce the base with a few hollow dowels. The 10" board with the largest cake tier will be hot-glued onto the foam when it's fully frosted. Then I'll sharpen some thin wooden towels to a point, measure the length of two cakes, and tap my way from one to the other, going through the cardboard base and making a sort of skeleton to hold it all together. Thiago thinks a few hollow dowels may fortify the bottom layer as well, with 4 or 5 going from the 7" through to the 10", and another 2 or 3 from the 5" to the 7".

I do better with visuals, so I ask him to make our little sketch extremely clear on this.

Structural plans for the soon-to-be wedding cake, with help from pastry chef Thiago Silva

I take the lot home and start putting together a master list of supplies. I also get recipes for the cake and frosting. My plan is to test run the cakes by making them on a Friday, letting them sit for a day, then decorating and assembling them on Sunday. I estimate I'll need to make the cake recipe at least twice and three batches of frosting. Stephen's sent me his Italian buttercream and Thiago his Swiss, and I'll try both.

Fingers crossed.

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