Wednesday, September 12, 2012
Now, before any of you get too excited looking at the title of this post, let me stress that I'm no cake decorating professional. But seeing that I've promised not too long ago to come up with some tips for those of you at home who may be as enthusiastic as I am when it comes to making an entrance, here goes what I hope would be of a little assistance in your creative adventures.
What I'd like to achieve here is to provide you the foundation of building tall, majestic cakes fit for any celebration while minimizing risks of them being lopsided, sloppy, topple over (no kidding, this happened to me) or threatening to drive you mad. To construct a cake you can spread your artistic wings over, much similar to baking the cake itself, techniques are crucial.
Hence I will not focus (much) on which piping tip to use or how to make your rose petals more frilly. Those will be the least of your concerns and really, the last 5 minutes of your 4-hour workload. (I know, the real 'fun' doesn't last as long but then you'll spend the next few hours admiring your masterpiece - at least, that's what I do.)
1. In Great Shape - Flat Cake Layers
Most cakes are suitable to be layered - from sturdy butter to cloudy chiffon cakes - some easier than others. No matter which cake you choose, bake it well and even. Geometrically sound layers will allow you to stack them high, without adding unnecessary amount of frosting in between. Keeping them in good shape also opens up more options to what you wish to slap within the layers - jam, compote, curd, whipped caramel cream - because buttercream is not the end of it. That said, you don't want to put so much love into the cakes only to shave off inches off them because they domed or cracked just a tad too much. Drier cakes have the tendency to dome more, ditto with layers baked in smaller diameter pans. I use bake even strips like these when baking any layers rising more than 1 inch. If you don't already own these and is due for a show-stopping cake tomorrow, bake at a lower temperature for longer - this will do the trick as well. Another plus point of using these strips is the sides of the cake remains moist, with a crust almost similar to the bottom, which is almost always protected by baking paper. Some readers have asked if it's better to bake individual layers or bake a tall cake then slice it. I'd say the former, to reduce doming and risk of a dry outcome. The only drawback would be the need to own more than one cake pan of the same size.
Pictured above is this pandan cake, which I modified from Magnolia Bakery's infamous vanilla cupcake. This one is moist and tender out of the oven due to the extra fat in coconut milk and liquid from the pandan paste, so the layers hardly domed. Since I didn't need to level off the top, you may ask how then, did I taste test the cake? (I always taste test, even if it's for my own consumption. This cake though, was for a client.) Scrape off the bits from your pans or crumbs falling off while removing the cake - a little, is really enough for the baker (unfortunately). To level my cakes, I use a long, serrated bread knife. I find it effective enough without the need of adding yet another space hoarder in the form of a cake leveller (which I know a lot of people swear by, so go with what you're comfortable with). If your layers are soft and crumbly, chill the cake for about 30 minutes before slicing. Gently saw off the offending dome just below the line where it forms around the cake, rotating as you go. When all your layers are identical in shape, it won't take much work to make a cake like this.
2. Rock Solid Foundation - Hello Freezer!
Since my first ever layer cake attempt, I've never once written a recipe for you in which I failed to express my undying affection for the freezer. It has little to do with the Singaporean weather (though as you may already know, I'd love to stick my head into it every now and then) but more with what happens to each cake layer as they freeze. No, they won't change in texture and flavor. No, they won't require thawing before icing. What they will do is turn into these steady blocks of bricks you can muck around with on your decorating station without fear. As you place your second layer of cake on top of the first frosted layer, if it's slightly out of alignment, you can easily push it around to adjust. Try doing that with a room temperature cake, but don't say I didn't warn you.
Triple wrap your cakes with cling film and stack them neatly. You can even forget about them for up to 3 days. 30 minutes to an hour of freezing will do wonders. Just ensure the layers are laid on a flat surface with nothing touching against them. The layers will gradually thaw as you ice your cake. Cool cakes will also crumb less while coating and at the same time keep frosting held in place.
3. Tools of the Trade - Be Well Equipped
Now we've come to the bit most people are afraid of - building the tower. To do this without pain, you'll need a few tools. As most cakes you bake will be round, a cake decorating turntable will be of great service. Or, if you're like me, a Lazy Susan from IKEA, for less than half the cost. Heavy-based and steady turntables may be an expensive investment you'd want to wait out, unless you plan to bake a lot of big cakes. The Lazy Susan is steady and heavy enough, its low profile also provides no room for any falling off accidents. Please, please save yourselves from potential heartaches and refrain from buying any of those plastic ones which weigh less than your finished cake. You will also need at least one spatula. If you insist of having only one, I'd suggest the offset - I find this works better when smoothing off the top of a cake. Otherwise, keeping an extra flat one would come in handy when you start playing with multiple frostings or very tall cakes.
Some cake decorators prefer to smooth sides of cakes using the pastry/dough cutter. This is an optional tool I rarely use for cakes but have one anyway for making bread and pastry dough. As for cake boards, they are only required if you wish to move your cake around after decorating - in the case of LIG, from the cake stand for a photo shoot into a box for delivery. If the cake is not going anywhere and your fridge has enough room to house the cake on the serving platter/stand of your choice, ice it directly on the presentation platform. Place four to five strips of baking paper around the perimeter of the cake board/stand/platter to keep everything clean after the messy bits are over.
4. Cement Dressing - The Crucial Crumb Coat
If there is one mantra you want to remember out if this TLDR post, repeat this after me: always, always, crumb coat. As long as you're building a house without exposed bricks, the crumb coat to a cake is what the first layer of cement is to a wall. The crumb coat is named such because it seals off the cake with a thin, imperfect layer of frosting. It prevents loose crumbs of cake from screwing up your frosting and gives the assembled cake its initial shape. If the frosting is lighter than the cake layers, the crumb coat plays an extra role of masking the cake before final, pristine layer of frosting is applied. A cake set with crumb coat makes the next step of frosting or decorating easier, providing a surface for smooth application and right temperature for setting.
Pastry chef Stella Parks of my favorite Bravetart did this superb video of levelling and crumb coating a carrot cake. From there, notice how the turntable play its role - very much like how pot sculptors use them. Also note Stella's detailed techniques covering the amount of frosting to use to the movement of your spatula. If you don't have a turntable, there's no need to fret. You can still make the cake of your dreams, only it will take more time. See here, how Emma Gardner of Poires au Chocolat covered her cake with chocolate ganache, straight on a plate on the bench.
A note on frostings - not all frostings are easy to work with. To combat the hot and humid climate here, I've not attempted to use normal buttercream - basic of whipped butter and icing sugar. Swiss meringue buttercream, relying on the structure of aerated egg whites, works best and keeps its shape well at room temperature. Chocolate ganache and fudge are also easy to frost, as long as they are at the right temperature and texture. Other than these, I've also worked with cream cheese, mascarpone, sour cream and 7-minute frosting.
5. Art Deco - Piping, Swirls and Frills
Finally, you sigh. The fun bit, you say. Yes, this is also the easiest bit. With the right tools and ingredients, decorating is not difficult. In fact it's very much up to you. This is where you express yourself, on a cake. I prefer minimalistic approaches, with some class (hopefully). For piped decoration, I prefer these disposable piping bags. Snip, fill, pipe, dump - the last thing I need after a few hours of stressing over a cake is to clean a greasy piping bag, what with 1000 other soiled dishes and utensils waiting in the sink. As for piping nozzles, they are relatively cheap, so I'd say go crazy and experiment. I started with a basic set of round, star and closed star nozzles, and then experimented with different sizes. Ultra small ones are to pipe words and things like this, while really huge ones can be used to pipe cookie dough and frost cupcakes. For the roses on this cake, I used this tip.
How do I learn my piping techniques? Watch those videos. There are plenty out there - this one is for the rose cake. Then practice, practice, practice. If you mess up, no need to worry. Just scrape the buttercream off. Sometimes even I forget that. Just remember not to overfill your piping bag and twist it shut neatly before piping. Under the heat of the Equator, my hands are normally warm enough to melt down frostings towards the end bits of the piping bag. I would refill the bag and discard the compromised portion before piping the next round.
Aside from piping, sometimes alternative options are simple yet beautiful. Other than the obvious, sugary sparkles, consider things like cocoa nibs, chocolate sprinkles, roasted and crushed nuts of your choice, desiccated coconut - these add textures and flavor as well. Fresh berries provide natural pops of color, with minimal effort. Got a chocolate covered cake? Sprinkle over some salt flakes and you're all set.
I'm also a firm believer in taking things slow and steady. When faced with the task of a frosted layer cake, I almost always divide the job over two days, sometimes longer. That way, I don't need to spend the whole day in the kitchen and I, along with my cake layers, have enough time to chill. Cake layers can be baked up to 3 days in advance. Fillings like jam, coulis or curd can be made days before, covered well and chilled. Buttercream can be frozen or chilled, brought to room temperature and whipped to fluffiness before using. Ganache and other frostings are best made fresh, though I have successfully used leftover frozen chocolate fudge frosting on these cupcakes. If you are preparing your piece of grandeur for an important occasion, it's best to prepare and frost the day before. This way, in case anything goes pear-shaped with the frosting, you'll have enough time to get more ingredients and scheme a backup plan. I am, of course, telling you this from experience.
So there you have it, my amateur guide to decorating cakes at home. Hopefully you're still awake. For more details, feel free to leave a question or an email, otherwise we'd be here all day. Meanwhile, have fun with your cakes!
Pandan Gula Melaka Layer Cake and Decorating Tips
Cake and frosting recipe almost similar to this.
Yield: One 8-inch 3-layer cake
Note: Main changes to the recipe - I doubled the amount of pandan leaves and used only the settled sediment/paste in the cake batter (no ombre this time). I also used up all of the gula Melaka reduction in one recipe of the buttercream. It's important to note that if you want to frost this cake with all those piped roses, you need double the amount of Swiss meringue buttercream (using 10 egg whites).
For the extract:
- 30-35 pieces mature pandan leaves, washed and snipped into 1-inch pieces
- 1/2 cup water
For the cake:
- 1 1/2 cups cake flour
- 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 cup/2 sticks/227 grams unsalted butter, softened
- 2 cups granulated/castor sugar
- 4 large eggs, at room temperature
- 1 cup thick coconut milk
For the frosting:
- 100 grams gula Melaka, crushed
- 1/4 cup water
- 300 grams unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 5 large egg whites
- 220 grams granulated sugar
- 2 tablespoons pure vanilla extract
- pinch of salt
Prepare the pandan extract: With a mortar and pestle or a blender, mash the leaves finely along with the water into a paste. Use as little water as possible. Press through a fine sieve or squeeze through cheesecloth to extract the green juice only. You should obtain at least 100 ml liquid. If you have the time, let it sit for a few hours, or overnight in the fridge. The green extract will settle at the bottom and you can remove the excess water before using.
Bake the cake layers: Preheat oven to 350°F. Line and grease cake tins, set aside. In a small bowl, combine the flours, baking powder and salt, set aside. In a large bowl, on the medium speed of an electric mixer, cream the butter until smooth. Add the sugar gradually and beat until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add in the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.
Pour settled pandan extract into the coconut milk, mix well. Add the dry ingredients in three parts, alternating with the coconut milk mixture. With each addition, beat until the ingredients are incorporated, taking care not to overbeat.
Using a rubber spatula, scrape down the batter in the mixing bowl to make sure all the ingredients are well blended. Divide batter into cake pans evenly. Bake each layer for about 20-25 minutes or until a cake tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Cool the cakes completely on a wire rack before icing. You can, at this point, cling wrap and chill/freeze the cake layers for later use.
Make the frosting: In a heavy-based saucepan over medium low heat, melt the gula Melaka with the water. Stir till all the sugar has melted, then let it reduce slightly, about 3-4 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool completely to room temperature. The caramel will thicken more as it cools. If it becomes too thick, thin out with a little bit of water before using.
Combine the egg whites, sugar and salt in a heatproof bowl over a pan of simmering water. Whisk frequently, keeping it over the heat, until the mixture reaches about 160°F/70°C and the sugar has dissolved (rub some between your fingers - if it feels grainy, it hasn't dissolved).
Transfer the mixture to a mixer with a whisk attached and beat on medium-high for 8 minutes, until stiff peaks have formed and the mixture has cooled to room temperature. Turn down the speed to medium and start adding small chunks of butter, checking that it has incorporated before adding more. Keep beating until it comes together, this will take about 5 minutes. Add in the vanilla. With the mixer running, slowly drizzle in the gula Melaka caramel, beating until well combined.
Assemble the cake: Secure the bottom cake layer onto the cake board with some frosting. Layer on frosting and add on the cake layers accordingly. Coat the entire cake with a thin crumb coat, then chill the cake for 15-20 minutes. Decorate as desired with piped roses - see video link in post above.
Do ahead: The pandan extract can be prepared beforehand and chilled until required. Cake layers can be made up to 3 days before, frozen within 3 layers of cling wrap. Swiss meringue buttercream can be made ahead and refrigerated till needed. Bring to room temperature and whip to a smooth consistency before frosting. The buttercream requires no refrigeration for up to 5 days. It will keep in the refrigerator for 3 weeks and in the freezer for at least 3 months.
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