Thursday, August 18, 2011

THE Cake

This is It. The Big One. The Project I've been gearing up for all summer.

July 27th, I was scheduled to make a cake for my dad's best friend's birthday. I decided a couple weeks in advance to combine two concepts I'd seen on Sweetapolita- the ruffle cake, and the neapolitan cake. To do this, I had to: 1) Master Swiss Meringue Buttercream, 2) Learn how to make those ruffles, and 3) Practice ahead of time.

I learned a LOT of lessons in this process, which we will get to eventually :)

First up, I tried making the cupcake version of this cake, so I could get comfortable with the cake recipe, and, most importantly, get some practice in at making swiss meringue buttercream (SMBC). I had made it once before, but this cake was really important, and I wanted to make sure I did it right. For an excellent tutorial on how to make SMBC, you can visit two of my favorite sites: Sweetapolita or Whisk Kid.

I'm not even going to go into full details about making these cupcakes. It was nothing short of a disaster. Seriously, I don't remember the last time I failed so horribly. The SMBC turned out great, but when I tried to add the strawberry puree to make the strawberry SMBC, it turned into a horrible, icky, gooey, curdle-y mess. I'm not entirely sure what went wrong, but immediately after I went out and bought some Strawberry Essence. Fortunately for me, there's a gourmet food supply shop in Old Town Alexandria, La Cuisine. The Strawberry Essence was pretty pricey, at $12 for 2 oz, but it was worth every penny.

Lesson #1: Buying the better, more expensive ingredient is almost always the best move for a serious baker. 

Another thing that went wrong was the cupcakes were too short- I think if I make these again, I'll make fewer cupcakes so they can be taller. Eventually, I just took the strawberry disaster and filled the chocolate cupcakes with it (it still tasted good even though it looked dreadful), and I piped the SMBC on top.

Now, on to the main event!
I used the following recipes & techniques & ideas for this creation.

Southern Devil's Food Cake
Courtesy of Sweetapolita
Yield: One 3-layer 8" round cake
Unsalted butter- 3/4 c, softened
Dark brown sugar- 2 c
Vanilla extract- 2 tsp
Eggs- 3, large, at room temperature
Flour- 1 3/4 c
Unsweetened Dutch-processed cocoa powder- 3/4 c
Baking soda- 1 1/4 tsp
Baking powder- 1 tsp
Kosher salt- 1 tsp
Buttermilk- 1 1/2 c, at room temp
Mayonnaise- 1/4 c

1. In a stand mixer, beat the butter, brown sugar, and vanilla on medium-high (6) speed until it is slightly increased in volume and lighter in color, about 3-5 minutes.
2. Lower the speed to a medium speed (4), and add the eggs one at a time.
3. In a separate bowl, sift the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, and baking powder. After sifting, add salt. Alternate dry ingredients and buttermilk into creamed mixture. Mix until just incorporated (do not overbeat).
4. Fold mayonnaise into batter, and whisk until just blended.
5. Prepare the cake pans, either with butter & flour or with Baker's Joy (a spray that combines both).
6. Bake for 30 minutes at 350 degrees F. (Rotate pans after 20 minutes)

It's time for another lesson! Here's what happened..
When I was done preparing the batter, I decided to use only 2 of the cake pans, and to save the extra batter- I had just purchased two mini (4") cake pans, and I wanted to try making mini cakes, so my family and I could enjoy them; they also served as the guinea pigs for my ruffling practice. My plan was to slice the 2 big cake layers in half, so I would have a four layer cake. This had worked with the recipe I used for my mom's birthday cake, so I figured this wouldn't be a problem!


When I tried to slice the layers in half... disaster struck. I don't know if there's anything worse for a baker than to have completed a cake only to have it BREAK IN HALF after baking. That's right. The layers broke in half. Some of it crumbled. Sheer horror.
Two lessons learned:

Lesson #2: DO NOT slice layers in half unless the recipe EXPLICITLY tells you it's okay. You know what they say about assumptions....

Lesson #3: Never panic! There is almost always a way to correct a mistake. 

Somehow I managed to keep a level head, and it all turned out okay in the end. How? Frosting.

Let me explain...

Frosting, especially SMBC, works perfectly as a glue to hold a bunch of crumbly pieces and layers cut in half together.
Which leads me to....

Swiss Meringue Buttercream
Courtesy of Sweetapolita
Yield: 15 cups of SMBC
A note about this recipe:
This recipe makes A LOT of SMBC. It was more than enough to frost and decorate the entire 4-layer cake, as well as the two baby cakes. Rosie, of Sweetapolita, has another version of SMBC that only makes 5 cups, and it would be just as easy to adjust the ingredients to make 10 cups.

Lesson #4: It's always better to make too much frosting. You never want to have a shortage.

Egg whites- 16 large (450g, or 2 cups) ~ It's fine to use egg whites in a carton for this
Sugar- 4 c
Unsalted butter- 5 c (10 sticks), softened but cool, cut into cubes
Vanilla extract- 2 tbsp
Salt- 1/4 tsp

For strawberry SMBC:
Strawberry essence- to taste
Pink food gel (I used AmeriColor Soft Pink)

1. Wipe down ALL of your tools (mixing bowl, whisk attachment, small bowl, and whisk) with a paper towel and lemon juice to remove any possible trace of grease.
2. In the mixing bowl, add egg whites and sugar. Place bowl over a simmering (not boiling) pot of water, and whisk constantly but gently, until temperature reaches 140 degrees F, or, if you don't have a candy thermometer, until the sugar is completely dissolved and the egg whites are hot (feel a drop in between your fingers to make sure no sugar granules remain).
3. Take off the stove, and put bowl back in electric mixer. Using the whisk attachment, whip the mixture until it is thick, glossy, and a neutral temperature (feel the outside of the bowl to test it).
4. Switch to the paddle attachment, and, while mixing on low speed continuously, add butter one cube at a time until incorporated, and mix until it has a silky smooth texture (if it curdles, don't panic! keep beating and it will get smooth).
5. Add vanilla and salt, and mix well.

At this point, I separated the SMBC- one half I kept vanilla, and the other I put in a separate bowl.
In one bowl, add the strawberry essence, one 1/4 tsp at a time, tasting it after each addition. I think I ended up with 1 1/2 tsp, but I can't be sure. Just make sure you don't overdo it! Add a couple drops of pink food gel, so you get a nice pink color.

Assembly & Decoration of the Cake
For a tutorial on the ruffling technique, check out this video.

I decided to use the strawberry SMBC as the filling, and the vanilla SMBC as the frosting. It looked gorgeous :)

I feel like I missed a couple things, so I'll be sure to add more soon :) Here is what the inside looked like!

Even with the crumbling and splitting and chaos, it still looked okay once I put it all together. 
Not the best looking inside of a cake, but this leads me to my fifth and final lesson...

Lesson #5: Practice makes perfect.

Don't freak out if the first SMBC you make turns out to be a mess, or if your cake crumbles. 
This is baking. It's supposed to be fun! 


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