Icing A Cake In the Devil’s Kitchen

28 06 2008

As I promised, I am now pleased to present you with my tale of strawberry cake. If it was novel, it would probably be called “The Strawberry Cake Catastrophe.” This was quite possibly one of the most incredibly problematic endeavors to date, but true to fashion I managed to turn it around with maximum wreckage of my kitchen and only minor damages to my pride.

Innocence is deceiving

It started off innocently enough. Just a pint of unassuming organic strawberries. The kitchen window was open and I was [hopefully]annoying my downstairs neighbor with Amy Winehouse playing on my stereo. The cats were doing cat things and not investigating what was going on on the counter(for once), and the future was looking fresh and full of sweet possibility.

This is what I imagine heaven would be like.

At this point, the mess in my kitchen was minor. Just the things I was using were laying around and there were a few glops of batter and buttermilk on the counter but it wasn’t anything too overwhelming. Let me take a minute here though to tell you about those strawberries. If you are one of the unfortunate souls that has yet to try an organic summer strawberry I suggest you make it of the highest priority. They are only a dollar extra than generic strawberries and they don’t taste like red foam. If you want an approximation of their superiority, let me tell you that in all seriousness they almost brought me to tears they were so good, and I actually scavenged the cut tops for any edible portion I could find like some kind of shameless hobo in my own house. Remember when you were younger and everything tasted so… different? This is where your flavors have been all along and right under your frugal nose, instead of hidden behind a blanket of pesticides and genetic engineering. But enough about that; this post is about cake after all!

I need more than one 8\

With the berries safely folded into the cake batter, so began my two hours of relaxation whilst they baked away. Well, maybe more like one hour and forty-five minutes rather, since I only have one eight-inch springform and have to swap it out for new batter if I’m making a layer cake. It’s a minor inconvenience, but at least it’s one less dish. Yeah, well, this “minor inconvenience” was the beginning of a tumultuous roll downhill and a very long and agonizing climb back to the top. I have no pictures of the catastrophic part of this misadventure as I was far too busy scrambling about the kitchen trying to salvage the numerous things that went wrong. Frankly, the carnage is far too graphic and disturbing to subject human eyes to, but I will list the battles fought and casualties lost. Just humor me.

The Tragic Misjudgment of Angles-In which our brave General Cupcake blazed forth to conquer the enemy but was defeated by underestimating the power of the lowlands. Next time shall attack from higher ground and jerry-rig some form of cake stand rather than my inferior(and awkwardly low, actually) counter tops. Casualties: four unlevel cake layers and the General’s ego in matters of horizontal slicing.

The Jellyfrost Incident- In which the General, freshly wounded from battle but not discouraged, tackles the guerrillas from both Camp Strawberry Jam and Camp Strawberry Buttercream in a diplomatic attempt to unite the two. Unfortunately the ramifications of the Tragic Misjudgment of Angles were unaccounted for and after a long and arduous battle the General did succeed in uniting the two opposing camps in a fragile cease-fire. However there was still much propaganda to be distributed to assure the rebels that Angles had been rectified so our General marched on, weary from a battle barely won but optimistic nonetheless. Casualties: none.

The Buttercream War– The longest, hardest and most fatiguing of all was the Buttercream War. After what was a shaky accord at best with the two guerrilla camps trying to coexist on their ravaged homeland, a mission of complete unity and democracy was enthusiastically set in to motion. Perhaps it was General Cupcake’s zeal in attempting to all at once solve the perplexity of the tenuous relations of her enemies by binding them together and to also salvage some of her own pride that caused an all-out war in the land of Strawberrycakeistan. The lethal combination of weapons too strong for her control, battle fatigue and impatient fervor caused the General to agree to a full-on Buttercream Blitz. The weapon was too strong, foreign and applied with far too much pressure for the people of Strawberrycakeistan to understand that an all-out riot erupted, causing the entire top of the country to split in half. Frazzled and frightened, the General did the first thing she could think of and closed the borders of the entire country, sealing it shut with a metal wall until it resolved it’s own issues. Casualties: the entire kitchen cavalry, the Dishwater Ocean, and the General’s patience.

As you can all see, things are once again all well in the world of cake. For those of you with less vivid imaginations than myself, basically what happened was: I couldn’t cut the cake in half properly because I am too tall for my counters. This presented problems when the time came for gluing them together, and especially when it came to covering the cake. I actually had to clamp the springform ring around the whole thing, ICED, and shove it into the fridge for an hour-long time out to think about what it had done. I made a new batch of icing, because of some kind or serendipity I actually had over purchased and had enough for another batch, so I re-frosted the entire thing. With much more success as you can see. This, thankfully, concluded my troubles but has taught me that trying to frost a cake in 30 degree humidity, in an apartment still recovering from the effects of an oven being on for two hours, with unlevel cake layers, wins me the “You Sure Aren’t Some Kind Of Stephen Hawking” award. Best to be eaten with a slice of humble pie, I’m sure. Moving on…

So begins the decorative part of our program. Though my hand mixer was struggling in its old age to keep up with my demands(it’s probably older than I am, I learned how to bake cakes with that thing when I was seven!), it grumpily made one more batch of icing, royal icing to be exact. Much to my surprise, piping the cake in the Devil’s Kitchen wasn’t at all difficult. I assumed that the heat would have fought against my attempts to defy gravity and pipe on the vertical side of the cake, ending in far worse tragedy than I could ever imagine but it just wasn’t so, people. I drew up a template of the flourish that I wanted to cover with to serve as a visual aid and went to town. It turned out almost as well as I had hoped. I would have preferred the cake to have been higher to allow for a smaller line, but at that point we weren’t about to nitpick.

I was going to document my forays into gumpaste, but honestly, I do it often enough and could provide far better demonstrations with more ornate decorations at another time, so this is what you get for now. I did these the night before while watching old musicals and drinking the iced tea and it was great. Now, this is what i do before i shove them into a cake, and what i recommend that anyone else do as well. I arrange them in a way in which i would like to see them on a cake and take a picture of it. That way, you don’t lose your arrangement and can refer to the picture if you don’t remember where you wanted a particular piece to go. Call it organized, call it anal, call it what you want, but I’m going to call it a solid plan.

And that would be that! All that was left was to shove the stems into the cake and pipe the accents on to the strawberries and the topper…

Ready for it?

There you are, my friend Mel’s birthday cake. Calamities aside, it turned out alright if I may say so myself. Apparently my icing penmanship leaves something to be desired, but I can live with that today. I’ve emerged from this quite humbled actually. I love decorating cakes and rarely have disasters that I can’t recover from, but today I am thankful for my disasters. If everything went smoothly all the time, how would we ever learn? Because of these events, I’ve learned that not all cakes are best to be worked with completely fresh, jam and buttercream can indeed be coaxed into friendship if you’re persistent enough, and always keep your pointy cake toppers away from your cats lest you want them to gnaw off the fragile shards(which I now have to somehow repair). Recipe to follow.

Strawberry Cake

3 cups all purpose flour
1 tbsp baking powder
1 cup salted butter, room temperature
2 cups sugar
5 large eggs
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups buttermilk

1 pint strawberries, medium dice
2 tbsp flour

With an electric mixer or stand mixer, whip butter until light and fluffy at medium speed, about 5 minutes. Gradually add the sugar in about 6 additions, and then add each egg one at a time until incorporated.
Sift together flour and baking powder and alternate with with buttermilk and vanilla until blended.
Toss strawberries in 2 tbsp of flour and add to mixture. (The flour assures that the strawberries will adhere to the batter and will incorporate more easily.) Fold the strawberries into the batter.
Pour mixture into two 8″ cake pans and bake for 40-55 minutes at 350, or until a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean.
Cool cakes on a wire rack. I suggest wrapping them thrice in saran and freezing them for at least half a day to sturdy them up before finishing them. I will be doing this next time, as well as investing in a tall, tall cake stand.

Icing and filling

1/2 cup salted butter, softened
1/2 cup strawberry preserves(mash them through a sieve if you don’t want the seeds appearing in your icing)
4 cups confectioner’s sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract
Milk, for thinning, if needed

1/2 cup strawberry preserves

On medium speed, whip butter until fluffy. Whip in 1/2 cup strawberry preserves. Gradually add confectioner’s sugar until desired consistency is reached. Thin with milk if you find the icing too thick.

Cut each cake in half horizontally. Microwave 1/2 cup strawberry preserves until spreadable and with a pastry brush(or a spoon, I’m sure it will also work). Spread a thin amount of frosting on the bottom layer of the cake(and when I say thin, I MEAN IT. Unless you make twice the icing, in which case go nuts.) Brush some preserves on to the layer that will crown the bottom layer and place it on so that the side with the preserves is on the frosted layer. Do this with the other layers until you reach the top. Cover your cake with remaining frosting. Decorate as you wish, in a much cooler kitchen than mine, I hope.

For extra strawberry power, I would also suggest using another pint of strawberries, cutting them into slices, and putting them between the layers of cake. Strawberry kawaii!