I did have the perfect opportunity this very weekend in my offer to make a baby shower cake for a friend. I had already determined I wanted to make a cake with champagne. What better way to celebrate the joy of a new baby than to pop open a bottle of bubbly, and what more responsible way for a pregnant mama to enjoy said effervesance than to bake away the alcohol. I hadn't yet crafted a visual for this cake though, so after I formulated my plan, I realized my design could easily incorporate two different kinds of cake. What to do for cake #2? The standby favorite go-to white cake!
|The parents decided not to find out the baby's gender, so the design|
for this cake incorporated a pink and blue question mark.
The champagne cake is really something quite remarkable. I have made one before, but the recipe I used this time was far superior. Simply replace the soda called for in the recipe with a sparkling wine of your preference (I used Ste. Michelle blanc de blanc). Be sure to taste the batter before you bake it, in case it needs extra sugar. Eliminating the soda removes significant sweetness, and I was prepared to add up to one additional cup of sugar to the batter, but in this case it didn't need it, so the only substitution I made was with the liquid. The result is startling when you first bite in if you are not expecting it. But if you know in advance that the cake is made with wine, you will instantly appreciate the sophisticated flavor. It is moist and slightly spongey, though without being at all eggy as some sponge layers are. At the same time, the texture is very firm which makes it nice for cutting into shapes and sculptures, as well as for frosting, and simply for slicing beautiful, even pieces. But my favorite part of this cake is the yeasty aroma and slight aftertaste, like eating a delicious piece of freshly baked bread. What makes this cake so special for me is that it brings together elements that I don't generally envision together, in a way that makes them seem all the more unique and well-matched. Plus, I just love champagne and it is a great gesture of joyful celebration.
I wanted to fill it with vanilla custard on this occasion, but I had some snafoos with that recipe and ended up with a lightly sweetened whipped cream filling. I think the cake would be terrific with traditional champagne pairings like strawberries and oranges such as a strawberry mousse filling or a "mimosa" with orange curd and orange glaze.
This cake was very time-consuming to decorate due to the basketweave of the frosting (this is actually a delightfully clever and simple technique, but it does take some patience and some solid wrist control.) But the structural engineering couldn't have been simpler: bake in standard 9-inch pans and cut away one quarter. Cupcakes and mini-cupcakes comprised the tires and the question mark. This is what inspired this subject of this post... good cake (or, in this case, dry, powdery, tasteless cake).
As I said above, my intention with this blog is to document my own experiences and offer something of value to other bakers and eaters. I don't want to criticize, but in this case, sharing my disappointment with a recipe is an important part of establishing what criteria for later positive reviews and recommendations. That said, I couldn't be more unhappy with the "go-to white cake" lauded by 17andbaking.com. Even my husband when I silently offered him a taste - whose default answers are "it tastes delicious, you look great, you can decide" - took one bite of this cupcake and paused to think about how he is supposed to react. As he smacked his lips apart in paste-y disgust, I answered for him, "it's terrible!"
Now, in all fairness, the cake has a firm texture that helps it hold up well to cutting, layering, and frosting. The lack of taste also warrants it an easy accomplice to all sorts of frosting and filling combinations. Given this, it's especially important to determine why you think a cake is good; if you want something that is easy to mix, bake, and work with, this is a winner. But if it's not going to taste good on it's own, why would you want to drown it in disguising toppings? Frostings and fillings should enhance a cake, not rescue it from inedibility.
The Cake Bible addresses this topic very plainly, stating that while cakes can be works of art in their own right, ultimately they are created to be enjoyed orally, so if they don't taste good, in the end it doesn't really matter how pretty they are. I believed after reading those passages that The Cake Bible would have all my answers to ideal cake recipes. As it turns out (more about that in other posts), only some of the recipes are really to my liking, and many have let me down. But knowing what you want out of the cake in advance will get you all the closer to finding just the right one.
Update 3 days later:
I am too frugal to throw away the leftover white cake cupcakes, but I was too embarrassed to share them at work, so I've just been eating off them a bit each day. I've been surprised at how they are not nearly as "flavorless" as I found them on the first day. A day and two days later, the cake is sweeter and more lemony so I am wrong to call it tasteless. I stand by my assessment of the texture being powdery; it still has a stick-in-the-throat pastiness. Nevertheless, I may give this recipe a second try using all-purpose flour; I've found over many experiments in the past that I find the fine grain of cake flour to result in a cake that is too dense and it's possible that is a factor here. Stay tuned.