It's All About the FoodChristmas Baking with SusieJ

2011 Archives

As Shawn and Steve's wedding draws ever nearer (It's almost summer, and you know what comes after summer? Fall! And that means Halloween weddings!), it is time to try my hand at a fondant cake.

Well, actually, the plan was to take a class at Fantes, but, if you follow my tweets, you might remember that they started the class early, and they think they left a message on my phone, but I can't find it and learned of this only when I called a few days before the original start date to ask why I hadn't received an equipment list in the mail like I did for the last class. So, yeah, still pretty aggravated. And my knives are still dull, too.*

Panic ensued -- could I get into a class before the Fall? Is it possible to learn this stuff from books and the student guides you can buy on line? Thanks to the miracle of YouTube, you can learn how to smooth the damn stuff onto the cake -- something all the Wilton instructions gloss over.

This weekend saw the first fondant-covered cake from my kitchen. It was an acceptable first attempt. The fondant wrinkled terribly at the bottom, but was covered with a fondant haunted house, fondant gravestones, fondant grass, fondant ghosts, fondant stars, and a fondant moon. The covering was quick. The house and its landscaping took three hours. At the end, I jettisoned the planned black fondant roses in favor of cleaning the kitchen and taking out the recycling. And a gin and tonic.

The cake was also a test: Rose Levy Berenbaum's genoise moistened with almond syrup, then covered in vanilla mousseline buttercream**. Cake test successful, but the fondant ...

My six-year-old son loves eating fondant. He also loves to eat sugar from the canister, and says he's eaten an ant. The chocolate smells chocolatey. But in the end, the fondant was just chewy sugar. By the last piece of cake, I'd peeled all the fondant off and scraped the buttercream off it. I used Duff's purple (made by another well-known fondant manufacturer, although I've seen conflicting stories on whether it's Fondariffic or Satin Ice) for the deep color, Wilton white (left from the lightsaber experiment) and Wilton chocolate (to dye black). None was tasty.

On the other hand, fondant is so easy to work with, no wonder so many decorators and bakers love working with it. Because it has the consistency and forgiveness of playdough, it's much easier to get a good-looking result than with buttercream.

As long as you can ignore the taste.

* Fantes sharpens knives, and as I don't trust myself, I usually take a sackful of cutlery to the Italian Market once a year.

** RLB's mousseline buttercream from The Cake Bible is, even with the sugar syrup, and amazingly easy and fast buttercream. It's so very smooth, and so very rich. The lightness of the cake and the small amount of buttercream RLB recommends using kept it from being overwhelming.

Raytek MiniTemp infrared thermometer

I am death to most kitchen equipment, but especially thermometers. Standard alcohol thermometers get tossed into the dishwasher or stuck into far-too-hot oil, effectively "blowing out" the thermometer. The cheap instant-read worked well, until a splash of something caused the plastic dial cover to bubble. Cheap and expensive digital thermometers get left in a puddle of water with the drying dishes (short circuit) or get so gunked up with grease, the buttons stick. Nothing caught on fire, but the average lifespan of a thermometer in my kitchen is less than a year.

Rather than continuously buying and destroying thermometers, I committed to a life of old fashioned estimating of how hot the oil is (generally, too hot) or whether the eggs had hit the appropriate temp to make custard.

Then an Alton Brown episode came to mind, where he used a laser-guided, infrared thermometer to measure the temperature of frying oil.

A quick look at Amazon showed that non-contact thermometers, like every other measuring instrument on the planet, are more expensive (but not more accurate) when they are to be used in the kitchen rather than a laboratory. I disregarded the $100 models for cooks, but the Raytek MT4 Mini Temp Non-Contact Thermometer Gun with Laser Sighting was worth considering at only $45.

We've had a lot of fun with this! (It might help to have a childlike wonder at being able to measure the temperature of everything.) At first, I doubted it. Surely the oil in the cast-iron fry pan was not over 400 degrees, but when the doughnuts turned dark brown almost immediately, I was convinced (and added more cool oil to the pan). Since then, we've measured:

  • which of frozen doughnut doughs were defrosted and ready to fry
  • frying pan while heating and browning
  • back of the oven, to see if the thermostat was calibrated (yes)
  • back of the refrigerators, to see if they were too cold (yes)
  • various lightbulbs
  • every wall, ceiling, floor and window
  • ourselves, by pressing the measuring end against our foreheads (no lasers in the eyes!)
  • front porch before leaving the house to see if we needed heavy or light jackets
  • water at various stages of boiling
  • hot cocoa

The battery is a standard 9 volt (the square kind), and one is included.

This thing is nearly magical! Touch nothing, just point and shoot, and bam! A fairly accurate temperature reading!

It only measures surface temperature, so liquids should be stirred before measuring and a probe thermometer is still needed for roasting meats. (I do so wish someone would create a laser-guided turkey thermometer. In our latest fiasco, we never fully plugged the sensor's plug into the base of the thermometer, and it kept claiming the chicken was "LO" degrees. I should have known better, as the thing accurately measures room temperature.)

The final test will be whether it lasts the year. If I can keep it dry and away from oil splatters, it should make it.

Chocolate wookiees and raspberry roses

I am keeping up with my vow to practice more to not embarrass my friends at their Halloween wedding.

I baked two cakes from the Cake Bible (delicious), a cake and Swiss meringue buttercream from Baking: From My Home to Yours (delicious), two dozen chocolate-raspberry cupcake "roses," and six dozen vegan, Star Wars-themed cupcakes for my son's birthday.

(On a side note, let me tell you what a score the vegan cupcakes were -- not for the birthday boy, but for his classmate who is allergic to eggs. I don't understand people who won't accommodate kids (and adults, but really kids) with food allergies. Can you imagine what it's like to worry that something you absolutely must do three or more times a day could send you to the hospital if you don't have the vigilance of a Marine sergeant during a surprise inspection? How about not eating the cake at every party you go to?)

Conclusion: the cake itself will be the easiest part. I am good with cake. Separating, sifting, whipping, folding, beating, creaming, measuring, alternating, melting -- all those verbs in the cake recipe? I can do them, no sweat. Sure, I sift my dry ingredients into a bowl and promptly drop it on the floor, overfill the rose tube pan and turn it into a cake batter volcano, and occasionally set things on fire. But in general, batter and I have an understanding.

Icing and I, on the other hand, have yet to reach detente. My icing still has swoop marks and small pot holes; it's not even close to smooth. The Swiss meringue was smoother and easier to work with; future practice might concentrate on that.


Then there are my piping skills. I'm about as proficient with a pastry bag as my kindergarten-age son is with a pencil. Smooth, swooping curve? Sustained pressure? No. Instead, the pastry bag of royal icing exploded on the rebel logos I was flooding, then fell to the floor. A teacup full of icing fell onto three Chewbacca cupcakes. The uninjured Chewbaccas did look more like wookiees than shar peis, but just barely. A week later, I fell back to creating roses with a large, closed star tip.


Flooded icing decorations are out (that's the technique people decorate sugar cookies with), but fondant is still in the game. After making three dozen lightsabers, the attraction is clear: fondant is sugar-based playdough. It's so sweet as to be inedible, but damn, it looks good and is easy to work with! If I can't get a smooth icing, the bride will just have to settle for a fondant-covered cake.


How can one book be intimidating?

Having committed to baking Shawn and Steve their wedding cake, it was time for the second best part of making a wedding cake &emdash; researching the design and flavor possibilites. Out came all the professional books and the standards of enthusiastic home bakers. I remembered that Rose Levy Berenbaum's Cake Bible had, in addition to a variety of scalable recipes for any size cake, gorgeous pictures of wedding cakes she'd baked over the years. For those featured cakes, she has recipes that start off not with a list of ingredients, but with a list of recipes to make (X batches of this icing, Y batches of this filling, Z batches of fondant, plus extra fillings and icings and oh yes the cake) and directions for assembling them into one giant confectionery skyscraper.

It was like opening the directions from that new super-cool Lego set (for young singles, substitute Ikea here) and finding that it's just the directions for how to ready the other seven booklets of directions. (That's an exaggeration; the big Lego sets have only seven pages of directions on how to read the directions and properly assemble the Legos, an important step of which is to throw out all your shag carpeting before you lose all the tiny pieces deep in the pile.)

Am I out of my depth here? Paging through the Cake Bible, I became convinced I was, although I'd made wedding cakes before.

Clearly, the answer is to bake more, if not absolutely everything in the Cake Bible before September. Also, I need to decorate more. The first step of which was to commit to six dozen Star Wars themed cupcakes for my son's sixth birthday, Dorie Greenspan's celebration cake (with Swiss meringue icing) for a friend's birthday, and Berenbaum's golden genoise for the hell of it and to use up the yolks left from the Greenspan cake.

So that's where I am in the wedding cake project: a freezer full of vegan cupcakes and a slice of breakfast cake every day this week.

(The best part of the wedding cake is eating the experiments.)

Our good friends Shawn and Steve will marry this October, in what will certainly be a themed, costume wedding. Because we have both looked forward to this wedding, my husband and I immediately volunteered our services, him as photographer, and me to bake the cake.

Shawn's favorite holiday is Halloween, hence the October wedding date; Steve is a Star Wars geeks of the first order. They are undecided between pure Halloween theme and Star Wars. Her college-age daughter opposes the Star Wars idea, but I pointed out that going along with it would make negotiations for her own wedding much easier.

So far, Shawn and Steve like the suggestion of each layer being a different flavor. What flavors, they haven't decided yet. Because I'm a home baker, this isn't any more work, because my mixer can only mix up batter or icing for one or two layers at a time. And chocolate is the easiest icing to dye black.

I've made wedding cakes before, but very simply decorated. Swirls of cream cheese icing with fresh berries! Smooth icing! Simple shell border! This will certainly stretch my decorating ability.

For the Star Wars cakes, the first thought a traditional tiered wedding cake with Leia in a veil, Han in a bow tie, and other toys (er, "action figures") arranged as a bridal party. Then I thought I could make a purely geometric Death Star or R2-D2 without cursing overmuch, even if it would be a lot of work and necessitating a course in fondant. The light-saber cupcakes would also be possible, and perhaps even some wookie faces in chocolate buttercream. There will be no expired tauntauns warming a near-to-death Luke Skywalker.

I've found three categories of Halloween cakes.

The elegant cakes appear to be traditional tiered cakes, but on closer inspection there are spooky accents, like black and dark red roses, or "pillars" and "rosettes" of icing that turn out to be bones and skulls on closer examination. Or this black-fondant covered cake with skulls, and swirls and beads of white buttercream.

The fun cakes come in Halloween colors, like black, orange, purple, green and blood-red, with stripes, swirls and polka dots of contrasting colors, and cute fondant figures of witches and vampires. There are topsy-turvey cakes and multi-story haunted houses, and silhouettes of bats and cats, and figures from popular movies.

The creepy cakes go beyond spooky, with dismembered body parts and dripping blood icing or filling (really red fruit jam).

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