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 Three of how it all happened. Click here for Parts One, Two, and Four. .
The week following my jaunt to the cake supply store with Thiago Silva (EMM Group's pastry chef at Catch, The General, and La Cenita), I've got an extra table set in my tiny New York kitchen on a warm, humid March afternoon. It's sticky, but I figure that's all the better to practice possible island conditions.
The vanilla cake recipe from Stephen Collucci (Tom Colicchio's pastry chef at Colicchio & Sons) is simple enough; butter, a moderate to light amount of sugar, a hefty amount of whole eggs, a healthy amount of vanilla, and a bit of flour whisked with baking powder and salt. They're easy ingredients to get on an island, but I'll bring vanilla from New York and a new container of baking powder just to ensure they're both really fresh and delicious.
I decide to try making everything with a hand mixer, as I'm assured that the house I'll be baking in has one, and "they tested it to make sure it still works." I'm not completely confident about that, since hand mixers are highly variable little instruments; my own, seldom-used one goes on the list.
Rather quickly, I realize how exhausting mixing the cakes will be by hand—each batch of batter takes half a pound of butter and 10 whole eggs, whisked together and streamed in one third at a time, then creamed in full. A poor habit of my past was corrected when I'd read several trusted sources that most people don't cream their butter, sugar, and eggs together nearly long enough; creaming is supposed to dissolve sugar into eggs and butter, help the fat of the butter come together with the water in the egg whites, and add air/volume to the batter, which will lead to a stronger cake structure.
Creaming 10 eggs into the batter successively takes a lot of arm work. I do it, but it takes a while, and I can't multitask in any way while each batch happens. At the end I have six cakes baked into Thiago's loaner pans. They're springy and fragrant, but I'm exhausted (I pointed out in part one of this that I'm not a chef, right?).
I try both Thiago and Stephan's buttercream recipes and run into the same arm-exhausting problem; with Thiago's Swiss method, sugar, eggs and vanilla are slowly warmed over a double boiler until the sugar has melted and the eggs are slightly warm. They're then whipped to hard peaks, and many sticks of cubed butter are added one piece at a time. The slightly warmed eggs help the butter to incorporate. Nearing the end, the buttercream looks curdled and broken, but it ends up coming together beautifully.
Stephen's Italian meringue buttercream uses the same amount of butter but half the amount of sugar and egg whites. It's made by cooking the sugar with a tiny bit of water until it hits the softball stage (240°F), then streaming the sugar into egg whites that have been whipped to soft peaks. That mix then gets whipped to stiff peaks, and the butter is added one piece at a time, breaking until it comes together, with a touch of vanilla added to taste.
They both come out wonderfully. Stephen's is a touch lighter and Thiago's a touch sturdier. But having to pour hot sugar into beaten egg whites being whipped with a hand mixer is messy and, again, the idea of doing three or so batches by hand doesn't sound fun. I stick the two frostings in the fridge for a day to test how they come to temperature and rewhip.
Sunday I've got the lot assembled; boards, dowels sharpened to peaks, Oasis and Styrofoam fitted into a circle, cardboard trimmed to use as stencils for the slightly smaller cake rounds, and some pretty purple and green flowers I got from Fresh Direct.
And thus begins one of the crankiest experiments of my little baking life.
First off, my trimming of the cakes is atrocious. The long serrated cake knife I bought might as well be a butter knife because I practically have to hack to get it through. My layers are horrifically uneven, both on their own in regards to being flat on top and in their lack of consistent height amongst the layers. One is so poorly sliced I can almost see through it when I hold it up to the light. I'm already sweaty and frustrated.
Though it's been sitting out long enough, the frosting I made the day before hasn't quite come to room temperature. I decide to try and whip it to submission anyway. I take Thiago's first, which I admit to having taken swipes of during its day of rest in the fridge because it's just that delicious. The damn thing won't come together again after breaking, and it looks like an oily, eggy mess. I'm too afraid of over-mixing it, so when I get it to a point that it's workable I use it for the inner layers of the smallest cake. Yes, Thiago had told me to start bottom up, but as he'd also pointed out that the smallest layer would most likely be the hardest, I face it first. Somehow I get it somewhat even. Somewhat.
I pipe the frosting up the sides as Thiago suggested, then around the top, using a large icing spatula to smoothly take off excess. It leaves a clean and smooth "crumb base" that will get chilled in the fridge before I make it the base for the presentation layer.
I do the same with the middle tier using the entire batch of Stephen's frosting; it came together better than Thiago's, but that's because I was more patient with it. This tier looks... fine. Not great, but I'm already learning. I run to the bodega for more butter and eggs to quickly whip up a fresh batch of Stephen's frosting.
In a moment of brilliance I decide to just double the batch while I make it, and use my standing mixer instead of doing it by hand because my flabby arms are exhausted. I'm a time-saving genius, methinks, until I realize in no way will it come together since the bowl is just too small for that many egg whites to be whipped to hard peaks with boiling sugar! Argh! I scoop half out, white smears flying their way out of the mixer and onto everything nearby, and start adding the butter. It comes together beautifully, as does the second half of the batch. I carry it over to the other counter and accidentally drop the whisk attachment, my dog bounding excitedly over for the spoils until my cranky, whiney, way-too-loud "SHIT!" sends her scampering to my room.
This is not as easy as the boys said it would be.
The bottom tier is the most atrocious—out of the two 10" cakes, I get three pathetic layers. I somehow manage to frost them into submission, then I pull the other two cakes out of the fridge and put on the final layers of frosting. They look relatively presentable. Now, to assemble...
I forgot to borrow a glue gun. The weight of the cakes seems strong enough to work for now, and I circle the glue gun three times on my master list. I place the largest cake tier on the foam base, gently centering the middle tier on it. I measure four wooden dowels, trim them to match the height of the first two cakes, and then start tapping them in with the heavy, short hammer Thiago loaned me.
Tap, tap, tap... nothing.
Tap, tap, tap... nothing.
I tweet Thiago, "The damned dowels won't go through!!"
His, "Ha!" reply is cute but doesn't help.
Maybe they're not sharp enough? All I know is that they won't budge. I give up, resolved that I'll need to make a second test cake anyway the following weekend and will make this structuring thing a priority.
When the three cakes are assembled together, it doesn't look stunning by any means but it doesn't look bad. I can't quite get the frosting as smooth as I want it and, after hearing enough grunts and whines from her perch in the living room, my roommate suggests texturing the frosting a bit; "It's a beach wedding, right? Make it look like sand." I promise her an entire cake for her support.
I scallop the surfaces and then, wearily, pipe a thin line around each base. At this point I recognize I'm doing it lazily and vow my final product will be better. The flowers I'd ordered have weak stems and don't want to puncture the oasis. Screw it; what goes in goes in and the others sit lazily wherever they choose. Later, friends come over for mimosas and wedding cake, and they tell me I'm being too hard on myself—it already looks beautiful and, with a touch more practice, I'll have it looking the way I want. And, more importantly, they love the taste. Love.
I take some cake to neighbors and, a few days later, to my family out of town. My mom texts that she loved the slices I dropped off with her. My dad's girlfriend leaves a note about how delicious it is, then takes a chunk to an office meeting, and it comes home with additional praise. If anything, the cake will taste really good. I breathe a sigh of thanks to the gentlemen, buy another $70 worth of butter and eggs (did I mention there's a pound of butter in each batch of frosting?), and vow to try again the following weekend.
The next weekend, I change up a few things:
- I bake in sheets instead of pans, which helps the whole 'even layer' thing. I ran back to the cake supply store and bought rings in the appropriate sizes, only to get home and realize I needn't have bothered—I can use the cardboard stencils I made the week before. With this method I neatly cut out circles of cake in appropriate sizes, and only have to trim the tops a touch to make them even. Phew.
- I go with Stephen's buttercream method since I can multitask by letting the sugar come up to temperature on the stove rather than constantly whisking it with eggs.
- I try wrapping the frosted cakes and chilling them overnight as that might save time the day of the wedding and keep them more moist. It works well. So now I know I can get the bulk of the work done in one day on the island and save final frosting and construction for the day of.
- I use a stand mixer for the whole process, and it's infinitely easier, so I shoot out some emails to see if I can find one to borrow while I'm down there. I already know mine fits into my carry-on suitcase—I dated a guy once for whom I rolled it from Washington Heights to the East Village so I could make doughnuts for a party—but as of this moment I may be flying to St. Croix via a work trip in Mexico, and the idea of lugging it to the other side of the continent and back sounds painful.
- At the urging of my roommate, I almost double the amount of frosting on the cake; it makes the final presentation a little less dramatic, and several second-round testers think it a bit much, so I decide to ask Rose's preference for the final version. I also debate trying Thiago's frosting proportions with an Italian method because one taster says the buttercream was really buttery and I think the greater amount of eggs might help.
- A sweet friend who'd been to the testing the week before had taken home some dowels and sharpened them more dramatically for me, and before frosting I tapped tiny holes in the boards with them, figuring I can wiggle my way through the cakes when they're frosted. This makes the process much easier, and I'm able to structure the cake soundly!
- I forego decorating with flowers. I now realize that's probably going to be the easiest part. The whole process takes less time and causes less angst, so I'm thankful I did a second run.
I keep the "you got this" energy from my chef friends in my mind as I make lists and wrap my head around doing it again:
By the time my travel plans are finalized (only two weeks before the wedding), I don't have a standing mixer secured on the island. (Why did I wait so last minute to just make a call!!!???) So my trusty old Kitchenaid goes into the carry on, along with sheet pans, measuring cups, and the like. I'm now coming back from Mexico with 24 hours before leaving for St. Croix, so at least I won't have to bring it all across and back with me, and I can take a day to repack and drown my nerves in whiskey.
I've got this. I think. Stay tuned for Part Four, when it all comes together with roaring success... I hope.