Pastry chef I am not. I’m the type of cook for whom following recipes to the letter feels like dragging a ball and chain through the kitchen. Success in the pastry arena requires more discipline than I’m usually willing to allocate. With cooking, it’s easy enough to wiggle out of a flop: gluey risotto goes the way of arancini, too-thin sauce become a soup base, bland chicken perks up when coated in garlicky aioli.
It’s harder to successfully execute this kind of trickery with pastry: dry cake becomes a gluttonous mess when slathered in too much buttercream, overcooked brittle becomes toothachingly hard, and cookies baked with too-warm ingredients spread into a homogenous puddle when blasted with the high heat of an oven.
Baking instills in me equal parts excitement and fear. I love playing with sweet, pretty ingredients. I like making fudgey brownies and tall cakes with fluffy frosting, and am always in search of the perfect chocolate chip cookie. Making a French-style cake, though – and transporting it to hilly San Francisco – is a different story altogether.
For Kath’s birthday party, I combined recipes from Bon Appetit Magazine, Bakerella, and Alice Waters’s The Art of Simple Food II for a birthday cake that was all kinds of pretty. I’m a big fan of eight-inch cake pans and recently used a Williams-Sonoma wedding gift card to invest in three high-quality ones. Eight-inch cake pans make for petite, tall cakes – qualities I associate with pastry shop confections.
Bakerella’s meringue buttercream (inspired by Miette) nearly defeated my stand mixer. I followed the recipe to.the.letter and accordingly ran the motor for a good 20-25 minutes. The buttercream held up well in the refrigerator overnight and, left at room temperature for a couple hours the next day and re-whipped with a hand mixer, became fluffy and spreadable once more. I was shocked and horrified by the amount of butter I sunk into the frosting. If you think this knowledge will hamper your cake-eating enjoyment, don’t click that link!
I used a couple Martha Stewart recipes for Amy’s birthday cake, a festive little two-layer number with a basic yellow sponge cake, chocolate cream cheese frosting, and an avalanche of rainbow sprinkles. She’d been eyeing a Black Jet Baking cake on Good Eggs, but I’m always looking for a reason to bake up something fun and colorful and offered to attempt an imitation.
A tip from Real Simple magazine – to cool the cakes upside down on a cooling rack – helped yield cakes with flat tops and bottoms (important for layer cakes that look professional and don’t fall apart)! Cream cheese icing is vastly more forgiving than meringue buttercream. The vagaries of aerated egg whites meeting dense butter are potential disasters infrequently realized in the combining of melted chocolate, cream cheese, sugar, and butter.
Perhaps the most challenging part of Amy’s birthday cake was approximating the heavy, yet artful, application of sprinkles to the sides and top of the cake. Of course, I could’ve set the cake on my kitchen table and dumped an entire bottle of rainbow sprinkles over the top. I thought about this, but then I thought about my newly mopped floors.
Instead, I put the whole cakestand in my sink, and threw little palmfuls of sprinkles at the still-wet frosting while slowly rotating the cake on its stand. This left a kaleidoscope of rainbow colors in my sink and counter grout, but let’s be real: ‘rainbow’ is a prettier color for grout than its typical dirty beige.
Transporting these cakes to the city was an adventure, although I mitigated risk with Katherine’s by waiting to frost and assemble at her apartment. Delivering Amy’s finished cake, though, required the dexterity of a racecar driver and the hand-eye coordination of a professional restaurant server. I held the cake box like a waiter’s tray the whole time, striving to keep it on an even plane through the narrow, rolling hills typical of so many SF neighborhoods. Parallel parking with one hand – on a hill, in a tight spot, and on the left side of an one-way street – while balancing the cake in the other, was an accomplishment that probably shaved a year or so off of my life. It was worth it.