Monday, May 15, 2006

Cake Baking Tips

Someone sent me a nice e-mail asking for some tips to cake baking, construction, and decorating. I started to reply, but thought that it might make a good post for the blog. I've really been having fun with cake. It started a few months before my sister's wedding. I was asked if I wanted to do the wedding cake. Sure! Little did I know how much work a silly wedding cake would be. I now know that wedding cakes themselves are worth the hefty price tags associated with them. So for the person "T" who is considering an upcoming cake experience, I offer my meager knowledge of cakes.

Lets start with the basics. First of all, if you are planning a cake for an event, you must use a scratch cake. Sorry for fans of cake mix cakes, but it just doesn't work. In particular, cake mix cakes don't work for layering any further than a couple of 9-inch layers. The cakes mixes are too moist, and they have so much air, that layers compress each other, and you end up with squished cake- and it also starts falling apart when you cut into them. It's a fact. I've attempted my fair share of cake mix cake construction- and I daresay my Dad even has the photos to prove the demise of the stacked cake mix cake. So start with that. Start with a good scratch cake. And to find that perfect scratch cake- you must be willing to test cakes. I highly recommend reputable sources for the perfect cake layers- find a cookbook on baking and you will do fine. Joy of Cooking works well, and I've had a lot of success lately with Martha Stewart cake recipes. If someone needs recommendations- please let me know, but mostly have fun trying new cakes.

On to fillings. There are commercial fillings you can purchase, and they do work very well. Bakery supply stores frequently have long tubes of prepared fillings. Some of them are very good- some not so good. Ones I highly recommend are raspberry, strawberry, lemon, and chocolate bavarian cream. Ones I don't recommend are blueberry, vanilla bavarian cream, and apple. But you can also make your own fillings. Unless you are serving the cake immediately, I don't recommend fresh fruit at all. Even overnight in the fridge, fresh fruit between layers of cake turns mushy and kinda gross. If you are going to use a fruit filling, and you want to make it yourself, turn to a curd recipe. There are plenty of curds out there- lemon, lime, berry, pineapple, etc. Homemade does taste the best and most real- and it holds up very well to a few days in the fridge. You can also fill a cake with a whipped cream filling. The thing I warn about with a whipped cream (or even whipped topping) is that it won't last very long either. If you want a creamy layer, look for a mousse recipe. Different chocolates work here, as do fruity mousses- raspberry, lemon, orange, etc.

And for frostings- a simple buttercream works best. I have recently discovered a meringue buttercream. That uses a base of egg whites and sugar, cooked gently to kill bacteria, and then whipped to stiff peaks with butter. Oh does that spread nicely on a cake. Very nicely, actually. And it pipes out of a piping bag like you wouldn't believe. Buttercreams also hold up a little better to temperature. On a warm summer day I would choose a buttercream over a whipped cream frosting, simply because the whipped cream frosting will melt very quickly. Of course, on those scorching summer days, they will both get melty pretty quickly. For a chocolate fudgy cake, you can't go wrong with a ganache topping for a cake. And we all know what ganache is...

So on to construction. My favorite new tip is for filling a cake. I admit to having problems in the past with my filling oozing out from between the layers. How to prevent this? Super easy, I'm embarassed I didn't think of it. Pipe a layer of your buttercream icing around the perimeter of your layer. Then fill that in with your filling. The buttercream will hold the filling in for you. You can successfully stack about 4 layers of cake without support, but then you need some hardware any further than that. Wedding cakes are an example of that. Any higher than two tiers, your wedding cake had better have some sturdy dowels holding up the layers, or you will have a serious pile of mush. This is where I highly recommend a cake decorating book for instruction. Wilton publishes several, and you can get a simple wedding cake book for just a few dollars at a supply store. In there you will find detailed instruction for inserting the dowels properly.

And for frosting cakes, you really just need to practice. Purchase a real piping bag and an assortment of tips. And the best advice here is practice practice practice. After a while you will start to get the hang of different patterns and designs, and it doesn't take as long as you think to catch on. If you want to color your icing for decoration, I highly recommend paste food colorings- such as Wilton brand. They are of a very good quality and are easy to work with. One warning though. They dry much darker than they start out as. Imaging my horror when I spent about 8 hours carefully frosting and decorating a gorgeous straw-colored wedding cake and then waking up the next morning to find a goldenrod colored cake. And nothing I can do fix that the day of the wedding. (Thankfully the cake tasted fabulous anyway.) So just remember that. You want to tint your icing a pale shade of what you want your final color to be- and do test runs of the icing to make sure you get the color you want.

I used to pick on people like Martha Stewart for their use of "the crumb coat". A thin layer of frosting deisgned to hold the crumbs of the cake in place. Not anymore. I love the crumb coat. It does exactly what it's supposed to. It holds the cake in, and gives you a super smooth surface for smoothing onb the frosting- do invest in a good offset spatula, it makes a world of difference for frostings, and also- a turntable is indispensable- especially as you get into the more advanced piping and decorations.

So overall, my best advice to future cake bakers and decorators is to practice as much as possible. Practice every step from the baking of the cake to the final presentation. It will make a huge difference for you, and the more you do it, the easier it becomes. Cake supply stores are a wealth of knowledge and information- and don't be afraid to ask for help. That's what they are there for.

So what's next for me in the world of cakes? I have a few more cake flavors I want to add to my repertoir. Right now I have a very good chocolate, white, yellow, lemon, poppy seed, and coconut. Next I think I want to experiment with some more exotic flavors like pistachio, mocha, and raspberry. I don't have another special event cake lined up other than my sister's Bridal Shower cake. But we'll see. You never can tell when an occasion calls for cake.

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