Friday, June 1, 2012

The Wedding Cake

When my dear friend Teresa told me she was engaged, my first question was "Am I invited?" But a few months later when she called and said "I have a question for you..." I knew right away she was going to ask me to make her cake. I was thrilled and honored. I had wanted to offer, but I was worried that whatever I would make would just be a disappointment compared to the art and design that would come from a professional bakery. So the fact that she asked me to participate in such a special way in her special event was truly a privilege.

It was also terrifying. Teresa told me the wedding would be at a private home overlooking the Pacific Ocean on the beautiful Monterey Penninsula in northern California. As soon as I bought our airfare, I started worrying about how I was going to get a wedding cake to California!

A few years ago, I did make a wedding cake in a vacation condo for another friend's wedding. It was quite a feat of planning and execution, using a tiny condo kitchen and burning through a hand-mixer.  I measured all my dry ingredients and home, and carried them in plastic containers. I also carried my baking pans and decorating supplies. But while I took my job very seriously and made the cake as beautiful as I could, it was still just a standard 9-inch layer cake (the bride was serving other desserts, and just wanted a cake for cutting and photos.)

Teresa's wedding would be entirely different. While still "small" on the overall scale of weddings, I knew this project would be my biggest ever. Cake for 40 people - by my calculations (which ended up being completely overblown) - would still mean three layers: 10", 8", and 6". [I wasn't planning that they would want to follow tradition by saving the top layer for their 1-year anniversary, since that would somehow necessitate getting the cake from the wedding in California back to our homes in Seattle, but because I overestimated the amount of cake needed, there was plenty for both eating and saving.] 

After consuming the large bottom layer, this was as far through the middle
layer as we needed to cut... the top layer was completely untouched.

I looked at a lot of different cake charts to determine how much cake I would need, and it is universally accepted that slices of wedding cake are smaller than typical cake slices due to the fact that "they are generally proceeding a large meal." My thought is that they are usually small because they don't taste very good so no one wants to eat more than a ceremonial bite, and since my cakes taste delicious, I better be prepared with more. In any case, I could not find consistent serving counts for various sized layers, so I diagrammed a cutting chart of my own and determined I could get 21 2x2"sqaures from a 10" round, 12 from an 8" round, and 10 wedges from a 6" round which would be 43 pieces total, and some people might not want any.

The slices were far from 2" squares, but still amply satisfying. Will had two pieces.

The next considerations were flavors. Of course this decision would be made by the couple, but I wanted to propose some clever options for them. They met through mutual friends at a beer festival, so I really wanted to incorporate beer into the cakes somehow. While I'm not a huge fan of chocolate cakes for weddings, I have made an awesome chocolate-stout cake in the past that I knew would be perfect for dense, moist slices that were firm but tender. Searching back through my files, I realized I had two recipes for the same name cake; one used cocoa powder and one used melted chocolate. I made a batch of each for our cake-tasting session, and the couple liked both and couldn't decide between them, so we decided to do a layer of each! For the cake topper, we went with a honey ale spice cake which was a good foil off the groom's standard favorite of carrot cake.

I love this photo! Thanks Summer!
I was closing in on the planning stages by determining the all important sizes and flavors. I was confident that the recipes we'd chosen would hold up well in taste, because they are sturdy and bold flavored and the beer in the batter keeps them moist and fresh much longer than other varieties. The scariest thing about a wedding cake is decorating it. And the biggest factor in getting good decorations is having good frosting. And the hardest thing about making a frosting that is easy to work with and holds decorations well is making it taste delicious. Enter White Chocolate Cream Cheese Frosting. This is hands down the best tasting, most attractive, easiest to work with, delightful to decorate with frosting you will ever use and an absolute requirement for wedding cake. I made a quadruple batch, packed it in the biggest rubbermaid containers I could find, put it in the freezer two weeks in advance, and then loaded it into my checked suitcase early on the morning of our flight. By the late afternoon when I was ready to use it to frost the layers, it was almost perfectly defrosted (I dipped the bottom of the containers into hot water to loosen and stirred a few times and it became the exact right consistency.)

Don't forget, if you try this yourself, you can't take the frosting in your carry-on because it is considered a "liquid or gel" and will not pass security!!

Now, the big question was whether I could make the cakes in my home kitchen, or whether I would need to bake them on-site. The bridal party was renting a gorgeous vacation home with a full kitchen, so I would have cooking facilities. But I already had my plane tickets for the day before the wedding, so there really wasn't enough time to get the cakes made, cooled, and frosted after we arrived. Not to mention that I would have to bring my own bulky baking pans, since 10" and 6" rounds are non-standard sizes.  With this decision made, it was clear I would need to make the cakes in advance and freeze them. While embarrassing for me, this is pretty standard practice in many professional bakeries, and when properly handled, a frozen cake is undetectable from a fresh one.

I made each layer the weekend before, and wrapped carefully and thoroughly airtightly in plastic, then sandwiched with cardboard rounds before wrapping again tightly in foil. This way the cakes were protected from air and from crush damage. When it came time to travel, I wrapped the foil layers in plastic bags, then gentle secured in bubblewrap inside a hard-sided "rollaboard" suitcase that I carried on. They too, loaded in the suitcase from the freezer the morning of our flight, were perfectly defrosted by the time I arrived at the kitchen later that afternoon.

The two chocolate stout cake recipes, even made with the same chocolate stout brew, were vastly different in taste and appearance. The darkest one, which was more potent and rich, was made with cocoa powder and sour cream and the bride and groom slightly preferred this variety but thought it might be too strong for some. (Note, by strong it is not heavily 'beer flavored' it's just very rich and dark.) My slight preference was for the lighter version, made with melted chocolate bars and brewed coffee. I found it a little less dense and more chocolatey. To further accentuate the differences between the cake recipes, since they were published with essentially the same name by Bon Appetit, I selected complementary fillings of whipped dark ganache for the base, and mocha buttercream for the middle.

The base round, 10", made with cocoa powder and sour cream.

The center round, 8", made with chocolate bars and coffee.

The base layer recipe was baked in two 10" pans. As I commented the first time I made this cake, one recipe says it makes three 8" rounds, but I found it made four, so a single batch was just the right amount for two 10" rounds. For both cakes I used the Chocolate Stout from Trader Joe's. I purchased a more expensive chocolate stout in case we didn't like the taste of the Trader Joe's one, but we thought it drank just fine. Be sure to try your beers (and wines!) before you bake with them - if you don't like the taste of them plain, you won't like the taste of them in your baked goods either. Filled with Whipped Ganache.
Whipped Ganache Filling
1 cup heavy cream
4 ounces 60% dark chocolate
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
Finally chop chocolate. Heat cream to boiling than pour over chocolate and stir until melted. Refrigerate about two hours. Add vanilla then beat until light. Do not overbeat, or it can become grainy.
I baked the middle layer recipe in two 8" pans. Do not fill above 2/3 full. I used one 3.5-ounce bar of Theo 60% chocolate (instead of 3 ounces of unsweetened.) Filled with mocha buttercream.
Mocha Buttercream
4 egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
1/3 cup corn syrup
1 1/3 cup softened unsalted butter
3 ounces 60% chocolate (I use Theo), cooled
1 tablespoon instant espresso powder dissolved in 1/2 teaspoon hot water
Beat yolks until light in color. Combine sugar and corn syrup over heat until dissolved and boiling. Transfer immediately to a glass measure to stop the cooking. Beat the syrup into the yolks in a steady stream, without allowin ghte syrup to fall on the beaters (or it will spin onto the sides of the bowl instead of incorporating into the eggs.) Beat in the butter one tablespoon at a time until smooth. Beat in the melted and cooled chocolate, and coffee.
This was a half recipe, and I only needed about half of this amount to fill the 8" cake.
For the top layer honey spice ale cake, I used a recipe originally published in Booze Cakes. It was hard to find a honey brew, so don't get your heart set on this until you know that your beer of choice is available. Big Sky Brewing Company out of Montana makes a seasonal honey ale starting April 1, but due to our Washington State distributor, it wasn't available until mid-May! I got a 6-pack just in time for the wedding, which was lucky because my back-up plan was a $13 bottle of Belgian beer brewed with honey. The Big Sky was just right, but check your local market and time of year before committing to it. I filled this layer with a multi-adjusted custard-cream filling sweetened with honey and reduced honey ale. It took me a lot of messing around and washing of dishes to land on a consistency that would hold-up unfrigerated for a day, so I don't really have a recipe I can recreate here. Basically, I reduced 6 ounces of the beer to a couple of teaspoons and dissolved in a couple tablespoons of honey, then used that to sweeten whipped heavy cream.
The base layer with it's "crumb coat".
All the layers were frosted with White Chocolate Cream Cheese Buttercream from The Cake Bible. I used four times the recipe below, which gave me MUCH more than I needed, but I wasn't taking any chances... if anything went wrong in transport, I was going to need a lot of frosting to cover my mistakes, and I didn't want to get caught short and need to make another batch on the fly. It does get expensive with all the cream cheese and white chocolate, but it freezes really well, and can be softened and chilled multiple times without loosing it's consistency. Before piping, I softened it by warming the container in warm water and stirring until smooth, then chilled in the fridge until it was set. Once it was set, even as it came to room temperature again, it didn't slacken or lose it's form. You definitely want to eat it at room temperature though, or it will be too buttery.

As it's a dark cake, it needs a "crumb coat" - a thin coat of frosting that locks all the crumbs in so they don't get picked up when you frost and ruin a nice smooth look Use softened frosting to make a very thin coating, and don't worry what it looks like or how much cake shows through. Chill it until set, and when you go to frost a second time, the frosting will cover all the dark spots evenly and you won't have any trouble getting a perfectly even finish.
White Chocolate Cream Cheese Buttercream
9 ounces white chocolate (any kind you like the taste of - I prefer Lindt; Ghiradelli and Guittard are also good)
12 ounces softened cream cheese (while I really don't understand why, I've read multiple times that Philadelphia brand is really the only one that will incorporate best in frostings and cheese cakes)
6 ounces softened butter
1 1/2 tablespoons freshly squeeze lemon juice
Melt the chocolate and allow to cool. Beat cream cheese until smooth and creamy. Beat in cooled chocolate, then butter and lemon juice until desired consistency.
Base layer after second coat of frosting - see how smooth a finish
you can get with this icing and when it goes on top of a crumb coat?
Teresa and I both looked at a lot of photos of wedding cakes. Me to get ideas for what I could reasonably execute, and her to determine what she likes. I sent her some photos of what I thought would work, and she shared her preferences for designs that aren't too fussy and rely most heavily on fresh flowers for decorations. She didn't really have a color scheme for the wedding in general, though if anything it was tending toward green to pick up nature themes. The matron of honor wore green, and the bride had a green satin sash on her dress. The groom has an affinity for fiddleheads, and their representation in Maori culture of "new beginnings." They incorporated a fiddlehead into the design of their invitation, their wedding bands, and used fresh fiddleheads in their bouquet, boutonniere, and centerpieces.  For these reasons, I took some of the pressure off my pastry-bag piping skills and went with a simple fiddlehead around the base.

Fiddlehead fern design on base cake.

I loved using Wilton's "crystal clear pillar set" - I purchased 4 of the 7" pillars, plus an 8" base and 6" base. They are very easy to use, because they simply press through the base layer, then the plate locks right on to the top of the pillars. It is very secure and simple to disassemble, and it doesn't look cheap (although it was virtually invisible behind all the flowers!) I used the pillars for the 8" layer and stuffed fresh calla lilies, sweet peas, and peonies between. The middle layer was wrapped in a green sash to tie in with the bride and break up the visual of all the frosting.

For the top layer, I'd purchased pearlized white 1" gumballs at the cake store, which gave just enough lift for a few extra flowers without turning the entire construction into a towering monstrosity.


1 comment:

  1. Allie - this is SO amazing. The cakes sound absolutely divine, and I so want to try to make a couple of them. Not sure I have the discipline and skillz necessary, though. Kudos, lady!