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How 3 of New York's Top Pastry Chefs Helped Me Make a Wedding Cake: Part Four
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 Four of how it all happened... click here for parts One, Two and Three.
Extremely jetlagged and coming off the high of having traveled to Punta Mita, Mexico for their Gourmet and Golf Challenge, I've got supplies scattered all over my bedroom in New York, prepping for the making of the final cake on St. Croix. Here's my master list:
- 2 commercial half sheet pans
- Standing mixer with bowl and whisk attachment
- Parchment paper
- 1 large spatula
- 1 small spatula
- Glue gun with glue sticks
- Serrated knives (large and small)
- Digital scale
- Oven thermometer
- Laser thermometer (for easily testing sugar for frosting)
- Metal dry measuring cup
- Glass liquid measuring cup
- 1 tablespoon, 1 teaspoon
- Pastry bags with various tips
- Large pastry spatula
- Small offset spatula
- Boards (4)
- Cardboard stencils (3)
- Foam ring
- Dowels (10)
- Baking powder
- Large balloon whisk
- Tiny whisk
On the island I'll get:
- 7 pounds of unsalted butter
- 4 pounds of white sugar
- 5 dozen eggs, hopefully organic
- 5 pounds of white flour
- Cooking spray, for the parchment-lined sheets
- Clear vanilla extract if possible (a friend noted the outer buttercream could use some vanilla, but I want to make sure it's as white as possible. The inside will have real vanilla)
- Plastic wrap (my bag was getting heavy).
I'm in a cab at 4 a.m. and make it through security with just an extra check on the stand mixer that has the TSA clerk quipping, "I've seen weirder, trust me." All else is packed in my checked in luggage which, thank heavens, is not overweight. (Inspired by this experience I wrote a piece on how chefs travel with all this stuff.) 12 hours later, after a quick layover during which I lug the mixer around the airport in Puerto Rico, I'm rolling both suitcases on the island of St. Croix, the sun a blessing and the warm Caribbean wind making anything seem possible.
After a few days solo of rest and exploration (and a little work at the St. Croix Food and Wine Experience) I'm with another childhood friend, Maggie, checking into Cottages by the Sea in Frederiksted. The room is tiny and there's no counter, stove or oven. I take peeks into the cottages of other wedding guests and decide that technically, between all the ovens, I'll be able to do this on the premises. Delaying the inevitable run to buy suitable butter and eggs, I dive into the ocean and start floating as Maggie is pulled aside by one of the owners. She joins me with the most blessed news I've heard in a long time; someone cancelled their reservation and we're getting an upgrade.
Our new room is much larger and has a full-sized refrigerator, a small oven, a stovetop, a long counter, full cooking equipment (including measuring cups and bowls and whisks and stuff...but whatever) and even a kitchen table large enough for me to work. I almost cry in relief. Later I almost cry again when I find local organic eggs and Plugra butter—obnoxiously two dollars less a pound than what I pay in New York.
My oven isn't quite big enough to evenly bake the half sheet pans of cake, so I prep them in my room and then carry them upstairs to Rose—the bride—and her larger cottage. This is the easiest part, and it only takes longer than it had at home because I'm shuttling between cottages; mix in mine, run the sheet to bake in Rose's, clean my place while it bakes for ten minutes, turn the pan, prep ingredients for sheet two, bring it to her mom's to cool, and repeat the entire process, flipping out sheets of cake on whatever surfaces I can find until they cool.
During the second cake I crack five of ten eggs before cracking in a really bad egg, and have to toss the lot. This happens again before I think to crack them individually in a glass, which turns out to be a safe rule for everyone over the weekend; I average two bad eggs out of every dozen.
I trim out one round for each tier from each sheet, and start passing out bowls of cake scraps to happy wedding revelers, who drink rum and lay out in the sun and jump into the ocean. Each sheet gets better and better as I adapt methods ever so slightly (a touch more baking powder, mixing longer than I would normally, and a minute longer in the oven make a huge difference). All the cake scraps are eaten before I've even started assembling.
This, still, is my greatest challenge; I very, very carefully even out the layers, making sure the final tiers will be the same height. I stack the dry cakes and trim around them so they're perfectly straight. I make frosting fresh as I go, deciding on Thiago's amount of egg whites (to help fortify the structures in the hot weather) but keeping Stephen's lesser amount of sugar. I'd polled Rose and her almost-husband Rex (who hates the word fiancé) and decided to keep the frosting minimal per their preferences. By the end of the day I have the top two tiers ready with their base frosting, as clean and even as I can possibly get them, and make Maggie a tiny cake with round scraps and leftover frosting, to which she exclaims later, "This cake is really, obnoxiously good. What the fuck did you do to this cake?!"
The day of the wedding, I've got our room air-conditioned to near-Arctic temperatures so that I can frost in peace. The largest tier feels almost easy after the two test cakes and the top tiers; I frost it fully and then the top two to a smooth shine.
I gear up for the scariest part—assembling the lot—with some Twitter love from the chefs: Ron, "You can do it! Keep us posted!" Stephen, "Looking good #champ!" and Thiago, "You got this!!" I melt the crap outta some glue and set it on the already-prepared foam base. I've pre-punched the top tiers with tiny holes, and gently prod the dowels into their place. Maggie helps me eyeball levels and make sure the cakes are perfectly centered, and I only stop when she says I'm obsessing. I've done a pretty awesome job on the technical making of the frosting, if I do say so myself, and so it stays nice and smooth. I decide against doing any scalloping or patterning of it (Rose had asked for "simple and elegant", so phew!), just doing one little piped line to hide the topmost board. We take out some shelves in the fridge and the entire cake just fits inside.
The florist shows and I start working flowers into the ball of fondant for the top and then, when the cake is chilled a bit more, around the base. There's not quite as many as I need, and Rose's mom saves me by clipping some from her sister's garden. I glue two tiny T-Rex's on the base—a surprise from Rose to Rex—and we have a cake! Some of the extremely helpful and understanding housekeeping ladies prep a rolling cart for me and, together, we manage to get it next door to the venue and safely in their fridge.
A few hours later, after a double rainbow makes its presence over the wedding party and the sun sets on the horizon for the new Mr. and Mrs., the cake gets taken out and set on top of a beautiful table. The restaurant's chef ribs me condescendingly, noting his experience with "professional chefs" when I'd triple-checked how it was going to be taken apart and sliced, and telling me I shouldn't have put buttercream on an island cake; what he might have suggested other than fondant I'd still like to know, and as the bride was "vehemently opposed to fondant," she trumped all anyway! But I can't completely fault his arrogance; he knew this was my first wedding cake, but how was he to know that I had three of New York's finest at my back?
And when Rose and Rex cut into the cake I'd made, I didn't care anyway. I was so full of love in that moment, and so grateful to be able to give a gift even the slightest bit as beautiful as my friend. I somewhat understood what Ron had told me in our interview a while ago, when I asked him if he gets the same satisfaction from making wedding cakes as he did as professional dancer: "Every cake is like an opening night. I'll never get the exact same rush as performing, but I definitely get the same satisfaction. I get to interact with the celebrants, the people that do the flowers, the tablecloths, the chef's menu; so many people are involved in those events, so it feels like a company. Everyone makes it together."
As a former actor-turned-writer, I get this.
The 50 people at the celebration had seen me in sweatpants and apron, darting from suite to suite with sheets of cake, taking a sweaty break to jump into the Caribbean and then stealing away to whip and layer and frost. They'd let me use their hotel rooms, checked in on me to make sure I was having fun despite being inside, and were generously awash with praise of how good the cake tasted and looked. I felt so lucky to get to be a part of such a celebration.
But they truly should have been thanking chefs Ron Ben-Israel, Stephen Collucci, and Thiago Silva, for their years of experience somehow taught me enough to take just a few test runs of fluffy buttercream, sturdy white cake, and an abundance of fresh flowers and make them into a wedding cake ever so slightly worthy of my first friend.