And now we have another guest post - this time from my handsome husband and BLK supporter/dishwasher, Tom.
Let me start by acknowledging that I wholeheartedly embrace the BLK concept. Let me follow with the admission that – to me – a recipe could very well be filed under “Recommendation.” Do I sense foreshadowing?
After a delightful year of parenthood, Court and I went back
and forth on how exactly to prepare a cake for Jackson’s first birthday. We eventually
decided to focus on “theme/decoration.” The theme would be “dog,” one of
So… cake. A lot of recipe-based chemistry. How to incorporate my strengths: improv and adjusting on the fly. Oh, now would be the appropriate time to mention that my father and I were a force to be reckoned with in Cub Scout cake decorating events (dates and locations omitted for obvious reasons).
For convenience and timing, Court and I decided that we would have to go with boxed cake mix and canned icing [There was no way I was going to make six sheet cakes from scratch – Court]. So that was easy enough. Just purchase those items, follow directions, oven, cakes, decoration, SWISH! Right? I feel the need to let Court comment here. [Haaaaaa. Ha. – Court]
As the big day approached, I reluctantly started to listen to Court’s suggestions for a dry run on the baking and decorating. We also brought in a cake-decorating ringer: the Shanted Wonder, Turk. [Oh man, shants (one leg shorts, one leg pants) … may they rest in peace. – Turk] When it came time for the dry-run, I immediately recognized the gravity of the process and tasks ahead. I had free-handed a drawing and scheme (three 13x9 sheet cakes, cuts to be made, colors, layers, and details of icing), but then it was just… there. Time to improv? No. Way.
For your consideration, I am posing the following points to demonstrate the process and challenges as they arose. I hope that the questions we asked ourselves and answers we – er – fell backwards into will serve as tips for what one might encounter in amateur-artsy-cake-decorating:PREPARATION: Create a detailed drawing/scheme of shapes and colors. That’s pretty much it, but I would recommend making it to actual size (as opposed to scale). I used wax paper (for transparency – in case it would have been necessary to lay the drawing over the cakes) and ended up taping together two pieces with blue painter’s tape. It was very sophisticated.
· BAKING: Court made all three cakes on the same day, and the third cake was finished in very close proximity to the start of the dry run. (Read: The cake was still warm.) Would that be an issue? Oh, yeah. Warm cake made for very bad spreading and even worse stability. In fact, the third cake severely cracked and broke apart as we were removed it from the pan and attempted to place it. It was sad. The solution: freeze the cakes. To do so, wrap them in plastic wrap, then aluminum foil. Bonus: If you are freezing them, they can be prepared several days in advance under more leisurely conditions. Go figure …
This step is definitely simplified by freezing the cakes. Cutting the warm cake was a disaster; the
frozen cakes … better, but still a little unnerving – my experience was that
any “exposed” cake will crumble. As
such, cuts must be made quickly and deliberately with an above-average serrated
knife. I tried a professional
flat-edged carving knife and cake “sticking” and crumbling was still a
FROSTING: For no apparent reason, we threw the icing in the fridge. [Oops, my bad. I thought it would be easier for decorating if it was firmer. – Court] Guess what has to warm up to spread? Cold icing was an absolute deal-breaker. It hampered coverage and compounded cake crumbling.
This is is key because you will need a “crumb layer” before adding color and details. So – first and foremost – if you opt for canned frosting, don’t cool it unless opened. Also, be mindful that adding more and more food coloring could thin the consistency of the icing. Do not fear the drippy mixture of icing; it will harden (too easy, Court). Ultimately, it is better to achieve coverage and not necessarily worry about distribution or thickness – it just needs to bond with the crumbs, not completely bury them.
· FROSTING II: (*It was so difficult, it warrants a second section) Prepare yourself for the reality that the cut surfaces will collapse, crumble, and get messy (and not hold icing). The right tools make a difference. And have a back-up plan, such as pipetting along the perimeter. In fact, I found it easiest to use the pipettes [I think he means pastry bags and tips. – Court] as much as possible to apply the colored icing. It is likely that you will need to outline sections that will be a particular color. The trick is to not worry about having too much in the pipette – more is more in this case. And, like I said, I found it much easier to spread icing that had been pipetted onto the cake, as opposed to spreading it with a spatula. I could be crazy, but it just seemed easier. Nonetheless, be oh-so-gentle when spreading the icing. It’s like spray-paint. It covers what it hits. If there is coverage, move on. More importantly, don’t go over an already covered surface.
S SMOOTHING: Should we ice between the cakes – so that they stick together? More of a personal call; however, the icing between gaps in the cakes can act as an additional mechanism to smooth uneven surfaces. Keep in mind, that the use of the “crumb layer” will allow for at least two layers (crumb + color) of icing to hide any unsightly surfaces. Conversely, using the icing to smooth out uneven surfaces is cosmetic and not structural – it’s icing on icing – and could settle or dry in funky undulations. The upside is that it makes for thick pockets of icing. Careful, sugar junkies…
· DETAILING: Hey – which color should we mix and apply first? Based on the detailed drawing, identify what color/shape is the most important and apply all other colors/details first, leaving “negative space” for the essential color/shape, which will be applied last. We started with what would become the “Jackson” banner, then moved on to the “grass” and “sky” segments. “Clifford” was left for last, but we made outlines in each segment (yellow, green, and blue), then ran a bead of red along all of those edges so that “Clifford” red would be the most prominent and smooth over any gaps or bumps in the other colors. Oh, by the way, the same will have to be done for critical details (e.g., outlines, eyes, facial expressions). You have to think backwards and trust the design. It was also helpful to practice letters/text on wax paper.
· COLORING: Um – will we be able to make “Clifford red” with our store-bought gear? This was pretty straight-forward. Keep adding red. And then, keep adding. The gel-based colors seemed to be more concentrated (as evinced by my black-purple-stained fingers). And, just like paint, it dries darker than when applied.
· PRESENTATION: Oh, sh*t – remember that we will need to construct a flat surface to prepare, transport, and present the cake! This was where neither talent nor creativity was warranted. Cardboard box (broken down, but intact), mailing tape (we were out of duct tape), and aluminum foil. I should mention, three iced cakes were a little heavier than anticipated, but nothing to worry about – it was mainly a balancing issue.
· RANDOM: Allow loved ones to intervene along the way. It gets messy … and nerve-wracking. Green may spatter onto blue. And that is not the end of it. A gentle hand can, “Operation”-style, scrape the badness away. Also, remember that loved ones may despise the term “pipette.”
In hindsight, the solutions to most of our quandaries were pretty straight-forward. In reality, the most important ingredient is a friend who has all of these ideas/experience . . . and gear. This cake was a huge success, but Turk showed us how to do it – and “my” tips are, in large part, hers. Court and I couldn’t have done it without her. [Awww…I was really just moral support, but thanks! Also Court, I think after this we need to step up our vocab in future posts. – Turk]
Equally important, is to have a great idea and plan . . . and the wherewithal to know that said plan may have to be scrapped or modified. (Let’s all say it: the dry run saved the day.) [I told you so! Ahhh, it felt good to get that off my chest. – Court]
I happen to know for a fact that Jackson fully understands and appreciates the effort that went into the Clifford cake. Just kidding. But the ups and downs and journey and laughter were what made it. And, it was delicious!
In a word: pipette.