Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Cakes of Yore: Team Buttercream.

Alright, guys. Let's talk buttercream vs. fondant for a minute.

Fondant gets a lot of hate. To a degree, I completely understand this. The truth is that MOST fondant brands taste objectively terrible. Note I said most, and not all. I'm going to write an entry about this at some point. Today, though, it's all about the buttercream. Buttercream, folks, is awesome.

One of my pet peeves is the hearing someone insist you can't get a smooth base coat on a cake with buttercream. This is absolute nonsense. Sure, it requires a different skillset, but when applied properly buttercream can look as smooth as fondant and provide crisper corners.

This is actually the reason I prefer buttercream for topsy turvy cakes. I find the edges of a fondant covered topsy cake tend to be pulled down a bit during the fondant covering process, and the fact that the cake tapers inward at the bottom makes it a huge pain to prevent wrinkles and folds toward the bottom. Buttercream, however, provides an awesome, clean finish when applied properly. Take a look at these two cakes, both of which were iced in buttercream and have fondant only as accents:

Good luck ever getting your edges that sharp with fondant. (To be fair, I've seen it done. It just took a million years of fiddling.)

You can also get awesome rounded icing jobs done with buttercream. Now, a regular spatula will never ice a sphere or concave shape cleanly. In this situation the best thing you can do is use a flexible, food safe strip of laminated paper or plastic. It should be firm enough that you can easily hold it in position, but soft enough to bend however you need it. My favorite for this is a strip of acetate, or clear cake collar. 

Here are two examples of buttercream iced cakes with a curved shape:

The only parts of the latter cake that are fondant are the cut-out circles, the spout and the handle. Aside: that photo was clearly taken on a potato. Sorry, guys.

"But you can't do cool designs with just buttercream!" Phooey. Observe:

This cake was made to replicate an invitation. Quick moment of self defense: the whole "color leaking out from behind the lines, which are also overlapping" thing was how the invitation looked. The weird capitalization was also requested. Don't lay that trip on me, readers.

Anyway, it turned out to be a very cute cake without a scrap of fondant. Curly vines are adorable!

Sculpting with buttercream is also totally possible. Only the red circle and strip are fondant on this cake. The ghost is all buttercream.

Finally, there's nothing wrong with a simple, pretty buttercream cake! Truthfully, these are my favorites. I even chose a basic homestyle iced cake for my own wedding.

And this 60th anniversary cake was classic and elegant, with fondant being used only for the roses.

In conclusion, there's no reason you can't make an amazing cake without cracking out the fondant. In fact, I think being able to ice a clean buttercream cake is the first skill any new decorator should learn.

In that spirit, here are some tips:

1) Always crumb coat your cake, and then get that crumb coat VERY cold before you apply your final coat.
2) For the outer layer of buttercream, stir (don't whip!) the icing before you use it. It'll get all those big bubbles out and make your life much easier.
3) Does your American-style buttercream feel too thick and heavy, or is it drooping? You probably didn't whip it enough.
4) Use a tool that helps you find your 90° angle. This scraper is my personal favorite. Set it flush on the cake board as you ice to prevent uneven sides.
5) Invest in a good turntable. I have one of these. They last forever.
6) Put on more buttercream than you think you'll need. Taking the extra off is easy. Fishing crumbs out of what you've got is not.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Recent Projects: A Doctor Who cake.

When a customer gives me some creative freedom, part of me goes a little bonkers inside. When a customer gives me creative freedom on a nerdy cake pertaining to one of my interests, my insides pee themselves. This order was the peein' kind.

That sounded less gross before I typed it.

This week, I got to do my first ever Doctor Who cake! I thought of a lot of different designs, but when I was told the graduate's favorite New Who episode was Blink, I knew what had to be done. The Weeping Angels are so delightfully terrifying that I pretty much can't resist making them out of cake. To top it off, the customer picked my favorite flavor: passionfruit mango. The cake was packed with fresh mango chunks and a delicious passionfruit buttercream. There were, God bless us all, lots of scraps.

In addition to the Angels, I made a fez (turns out the Doctor's fez has no tassle and thusly looks like a tiny ottoman), some psychic paper, the sonic screwdriver and a bowtie. I even found a circular Gallifreyan writing program so I could write the graduate's name on the board the way the Doctor would have. Highly recommended, by the way. I'm tempted to put my name in Gallifreyan on everything I own.

The night before delivery, my husband approaching me with a disturbed look on his face. He stated that he hadn't noticed the fingers coming out of the painting until just that moment, despite seeing the painting laying out on the table to dry the day before. I can't tell you how pleased I was. In my hubris, I put on Blink as I finished details on the painting. I did not sleep well that night.

The technical stuff: The frame was a 10"x14" sheet cake held up on a wood and stryofoam structure I made to resemble an easel. The fez was a tapered 6" cake, and most of the details were fondant. The piping on the frame and board was done in royal icing, and the painting was made ahead of time and allowed to harden up some. The frame was airbrushed with Luster Dust in King's Gold (which I highly recommend! Holy moly, is that gold color ever pretty) and aged a bit with brown coloring. The whole shebang sat on a 15"x20" board, which is to say it just barely fits in a standard fridge. 

Just remember not to blink, everyone.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Cakes of Yore: Mousse Cakes, Mousse Cakes, Mousse Cakes!

I have a long, loving history with the mousse cake. It is my favorite dessert to make and consume, and as a result I keep coming back to it. Since mousse is essentially poetry in food form, I will recount my past with this delightful confection in haiku. Ahem.

Part One: Culinary School and Learning

Lemon Mousse Dome

Culinary school
I entered you and I learned
The ways of mousse cakes

Raspberry Mango Mousses

I had not learned how to fold
Egg whites in well. Oops.


I got pretty darn good, though
So thanks for that, man

S'mores Mousse, Cracker Ice Cream in a Sugar Bowl

Part Two: An Ode to Mousse Cakes

Oh, mousse cake, you cad
You come in so many forms
Like in a neat roll

Mango Passionfruit Roll

Or even in a
Big skinny chocolate cup
See, like this one here!

Espresso Mousse, Hazelnut Crunch, Chocolate Rum Sauce
I have wrapped you up
In ladyfinger blankets
topped in fruit. Cozy.

Fruit Mousse Charlotte

I've made you tear shaped
And piped lemons on your side
I am cool that way.

Lemon Raspberry Mousse

There is no limit
To your fancy fanciness.
Videogames. Bam.

Mango Passionfruit Mousse

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Recipe: Nuss-Sahne-Torte (German Nut and Whipped Cream Torte)

This is a German recipe, and one of my favorite cakes ever. The taste of this thing is so ridiculous that it makes most other cakes look like sad, flavorless lumps of coagulated flour. I didn't appreciate this cake at all as a kid, shunning it in favor of cakes packed with colorful fruits and chocolate. While I still appreciate a good colorful fruit filling in a cake, I've learned the error of my ways when it comes to this particular confection.

This recipe can be made with practically any nut. I used pecans because my husband's family gave us a massive bag of fresh ones, but the most authentic choice is hazelnut. I'd argue it's also the tastiest.

Nut and Whipped Cream Torte 


150g butter, softened
150g sugar
3 tbsp rum, or 1 tsp rum extract
4 egg whites
4 egg yolks
1 pinch salt
125g ground nuts
100g all-purpose flour
1 tbsp baking powder

125g finely chopped or ground nuts
950ml (1 quart) heavy cream
75g powdered sugar
4 teaspoons gelatin
1/4 cup cold water

1/2 cup simple syrup (1:1 ratio of sugar to water, heated and stirred until sugar dissolves)
2 tbsp rum

Whole or ground nuts*, chocolate**, or whatever else you'd like to use for garnish.


1. Preheat oven to 350°F and lightly grease a round 8" pan. Cream butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Gradually add egg yolks, then ground nuts, then rum.
2. Stir together the flour, salt and baking powder. Add to butter mixture and mix until just combined.
3. Whip egg whites to medium peaks. Gently fold egg whites into batter.
4. Bake cake for approximately 30 minutes, or until middle springs back when touched. Turn out onto wire rack and allow to cool slightly. Wrap in saran wrap while still warm. Once cooled completely, split cake into two layers and re-wrap if you aren't filling it immediately.
6. Bloom gelatine for five minutes in cold water. Whip quart of heavy cream to soft peak. Add in powdered sugar and whip to stiff peaks. Do not over-whip.
7. Gently heat gelatine until just dissolved, then quickly fold into whipped cream. Divide the whipped cream evenly into two bowls. Fold nuts into one half.
8. Mix rum with simple syrup. Place one cake layer on your cake board and gently brush top with syrup, taking care to add a bit more to the sides, which tend to get dry.
9. Load about 2/3 of the nut whipped cream onto the middle of the cake layer and spread it evenly. The layer should be about as thick as the cake layers themselves (which is to say, really thick). Use the rest of the hazelnut cream to coat the outside of the cake and lock in any crumbs.
10. Use remaining plain whipped cream to ice the cake and pipe adornments. I like grinding some more nuts and covering the sides in it, personally. You can never go wrong piping rosettes and topping them with nuts or chocolate!


*If they aren't roasted yet, roast all your nuts before use! If you're grinding your own, roast them before you grind. Pop them in the preheated oven for 5-10 minutes until they smell yummy and toasty. Let them cool and proceed with the recipe.
**If you don't have the time (or desire) to temper chocolate for garnish, melt your chocolate in the microwave and add in a tiny bit of canola oil (1 tsp per 1 cup chocolate chips is a good ratio). Mix it up and pipe your garnishes on some parchment. It'll be a tad softer than tempered chocolate, but it'll look even and hold up pretty well.

Yields: 1 8" round layered cake, serves 8-12 depending on how you slice it.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Recipe: Black Forest Mousse Cakes

Growing up in Germany gave me a very specific idea of what a Black Forest Cake should be. Especially in the US, most cakes that are passed off as Black Forest have only the most basic flavor profiles in common with the original. They are husks and abominations, and my righteous and burning rage flares inside me each time one crosses my sight.

I'm serious pretty serious about Black Forest Cake, is what I'm saying.

Sometime in the future I will share my family's recipe and give more thoughts on this. For now, let's just stick with this: it's fair assessment that most Germans don't see Black Forest Cake as something that really needs to be tampered with. It's a classic, well-balanced and delicious just as it is.

Why I decided to deconstruct this particular dessert, then, is kind of beyond me. I think I just wanted to see if I could capture the overall feel without making the interpretation literal... the lightness of the whipped cream, the subtle chocolate flavor of the sponge, and most of all the ability for the cherry to shine through as the star.

This experiment ended up being a success. It was well received by my relatives and it went right into my permanent recipe rotation. Is it classic Black Forest Cake? Absolutely not. Is it a pretty darned delicious homage? You betcha. 

The best part is that you don't need any special molds or equipment to make these little individual desserts. There's absolutely no reason to pay $10 a piece for individual dessert rings when you could use acetate or parchment and get an equally lovely result.

Black Forest Double Chocolate Mousse

Chocolate Joconde

6 room-temperature egg whites
1 ounce granulated sugar
8 ounces sliced blanched almonds, ground to powder in a food processor
8 ounces powdered sugar, sifted
6 large eggs
1.5 ounces all-purpose (AP) flour
1 oz cocoa powder
1 1/2 oz canola or vegetable oil

White Chocolate Mousse

1/2 cup whole milk
6 oz good quality white chocolate
1 teaspoon powdered gelatin
2 tablespoons water
1 1/4 cup heavy cream

Dark Chocolate Mousse
1 teaspoon powdered gelatin
2 tablespoons water
1/2 cup whole milk
6 oz good quality dark chocolate, finely chopped
1 1/4 cup heavy cream

Cherry Filling
4 cups canned pitted sour cherries, with juice
2 tbsp sugar
Corn starch slurry (begin with 1 tbsp cornstarch and 1 tbsp water)

Step 1: Make Joconde.

Preheat your oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Divide the batter into 3 10" springform pans or two shallow 9x13" pans, greased and floured. Beat the almonds, powdered sugar and eggs on medium until they’re light and increas in volume, about 3 minutes. Stir in the oil. Mix flour with cocoa powder and sift. Add the flour mixture to the egg mixture, stirring just until it disappears. Whip the egg whites to soft peaks, add the sugar, and continue to whip to stiff peaks. Gently fold the meringue into the almond mixture.

Divide the batter evenly between the pans, spreading it as evenly as possible. Bake for 8-15 minutes, or until the layers are lightly browned and the center springs back when touched. Let cool for about 5 minutes before flipping onto a saran wrap lined board. Place a layer of saran wrap on the top and carefully flip it over so the original bottom is on the bottom again. Let cool completely.

Step 2: Make cherry filling.

Pour cherries, juice and sugars into a saucepan. Heat on medium until boiling, stirring carefully but often. Slowly drizzle in cornstarch slurry until juice mixture is a slightly thinner than you want final sauce to be. DO NOT use all of the slurry if the viscosity seems right to you. Remove from heat. Using a slotted spoon, remove the whole cherries and separate them from the sauce.

Step 3: Prep molds.

Using a cookie cutter, cut 10 3" rounds from the joconde. Place 3 of the cherries and in the center of each round. 

Use parchment paper to make a ring mold: fold parchment paper to form long, 5" tall strips, and wrap them around the cut out cake round. Secure the outside with tape. (Note: An alternative is pre-making the parchment molds by wrapping them around a glass, provided you have a decent cutter to make the cake the appropriate size.)

Cut 10 more 1 1/2" or 2" rounds from the joconde. Set aside.

Step 4: Make dark chocolate mousse.

Sprinkle gelatin evenly over water and let sit 5 minutes or until bloomed. Heat the milk to a simmer in a small sauce pan. Pour hot milk over gelatine and stir until dissolved. Add finely chopped chocolate into hot milk mixture and let sit for 2 minutes. Whisk together until the chocolate is totally melted and the mixture is smooth. Once the mixture is no longer hot, whip the cream to medium peaks gently fold it in. Pipe the chocolate mousse evenly into the parchment molds, until cherries are covered.

Step 5: Place 1 1/2" joconde rounds on top of the chocolate mousse and press down a bit until the mousse rises around the sides. Place 3 more cherries on top of cake round.

Step 6: Make white chocolate mousse.
Sprinkle gelatin evenly over water and let sit 5 minutes or until bloomed. Heat the milk to a simmer in a small sauce pan. Pour hot milk over gelatine and stir until dissolved. Add finely chopped chocolate into hot milk mixture and let sit for 2 minutes. Whisk together until the chocolate is totally melted and the mixture is smooth. Once the mixture is no longer hot, whip the cream to medium peaks gently fold it in. Pipe the chocolate mousse evenly into the parchment molds and smooth tops carefully with a spoon. Place mousse cakes in freezer.

Step 7: About an hour before serving, remove the cakes from the freezer. Warm the cherry sauce until melted. Add a bit of hot water if it isn't fluid enough. Place 3 cherries at top center of mousse cakes and carefully spoon warm sauce on top. Let sit for 5 minutes so sauce can firm up again, and then carefully peel away papers. Serve with remaining cherries and sauce as garnish.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Recent Projects: A Sailor Moon rococo cake.

I made this cake for a friend's graduation. What better way to ring in a new chapter of life than with some nostalgia for chapters past?

Some technical details: The cake was chocolate with a whipped ganache buttercream filling. The bottom tier was an 8" hexagon, and the top a 6" round.

The cake was decorated entirely in a triple-sec spiked Italian Meringue buttercream, with a few small exceptions: The pink oval adornments, golden beads, heart compacts and topper were made of homemade pastillage. The piping was freehand, and the pastillage topper was cut using a stencil I made based on a photo I found online.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Recent projects: Raspberry Mousse Spheres.

Dinners with my mother are my #1 excuse to sink way too much time into dessert, which is both a good and terrible thing. The good: I get to make fancy dessert! The bad: she expects fancy dessert. I've boxed myself in by setting the standard too high, which makes things like Mother's day... tricky. How do I get fancier, short of sculpting a bust of my mother out of butter?

Since I've pretty much just been making cakes and entremets when she comes over, I decided the solution was a plated dessert. Because when things are small and individual they seem extra fancy.

My mom prefers classic flavors and LOVES dark chocolate. Raspberry + chocolate was the no brainer decision here, so it's the one I made.

I used balloons to make chocolate bowls, but then I also filled the raspberry mousse into a balloon in lieu of using a mold.

Pro tip: fill your balloons over a bowl. My first balloon exploded, covering my entire chest and stomach area in pink goop and wasting half of the mousse I made. I happened to be wearing my nicest blouse. In retrospect, this was probably a poor decision.

On the bright side, I got the perfect temper on my first try, despite not using a thermometer. That's practically magic! I'll call it a wash.

I also did an alternate presentation method, where I just poured the mousse into the chocolate bowls. We can lie and say it's because variety is the spice of life, but the truth is I was almost out of mousse and was scared to risk another balloon explosion. It allowed for more fresh berry garnish, at least. It also, you know, tasted the same. So, there's that.