Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Christmas Cakery: Doubling Down on Disaster (And What I Taught Myself) - Part 1

Christmas for me, as with a lot of people around the country and the world, means a lot of time spent in the kitchen. Popping pans, tins and sheets into the oven and pulling out freshly-baked desserts, treats and snack of all kinds is a singular joy for those of us who aspire to be good bakers (or pastry chefs, if you want to get all high fallootin' on me). Actually, I can't speak for others, just myself. This past season was an exceptional joy for me...even when things went horribly wrong and I had to fix them. And, trust me, things went horribly wrong.

Things Went Horribly Wrong Dept. – Layer Cake Division

Let me go on record right now: I have a checkered past with layer cakes. I enjoy eating them but I often have the devil of a time baking, filling and frosting them. I've ruined more layer cakes than I care to count and every time I convince myself that it's a good idea to bake one, I know that I'm taking a risk of it just blowing up in my face. To be fair, I've had some very successful layer cakes, including the two times I made the three-tier, three layers to a tear, wedding cake (pictured here) and several "special effects" cakes (I won't tell you about them now because I want to bake them again and show you). But I've botched a lot of cakes in my time.

So, I wanted to bake a few things and send them to my family (three homes, two states, and a combined 4,010.31 miles) for Christmas. Component A went off without a hitch: gingersnaps. I've gotten those down to my deep satisfaction, so no worries there. Component B hit snags like you wouldn't believe. Small chocolate cakes. With layers. And Icing. And filling. The very first snag I hit with this idea was time. It took me long enough to decide what I wanted to send but then understood that I might not have enough time to obtain the right sized cake pans. I found these on Ebay (although Bed, Bath & Beyond now has them, too) but knew I wasn't going to get them in time to do the baking. So I fell back on my two six-inch springform pans and a chocolate cake recipe from my trusty Good Housekeeping cookbook (good old Good Housekeeping):

2 cups cake flour
3/4 cup cocoa (I use Droste or Rademaker) (And, yes, I know that you're not supposed to substitute Dutch processed for regular cocoa but it seemed to work for me)
1 3/4 cups sugar
1 1/4 cups milk
3/4 cup shortening
1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
3 eggs

1. Preheat oven to 350ยบ. Grease two 9-inch round cake pans. Dust pans with cocoa. (I use the cheap stuff for dusting. Also, I've learned that it doesn't matter what size your cake pan is, just make the batter and fill the pan about halfway. You can always make more if you need more or use whatever excess you have in muffin tins or cupcake tins.)

2. Into large bowl, measure flour, remaining ingredients, and 3/4 cup cocoa (the good stuff). Note: I sift all the dry ingredients together. With mixer at low speed, beat ingredients until mixed, constantly scraping bowl. Increase speed to high; beat 2 minutes, occasionally scraping bowl.  

3. Pour batter into pans. Bake 30 to 35 minutes until toothpick inserted in center of cake comes out clean. Cool layers in pans on wire racks, 10 minutes. Remove from pans; cool completely on racks.

Now. All of that went as planned. This gave me enough cake batter for four six-inch layers, so I doubled it to make three cakes and extras. So far so good. Even the simple chocolate ganache I made – one cup of Ghiradelli semi-sweet chocolate chips melted in one cup hot (not boiling) heavy cream – was good. A lot of folks don't like Ghiradelli chocolate but it actually made a pretty good ganache. Plus, it was what I had on hand. So there!

Combining the two is where it all fell apart. Literally. I sliced the first two rounds into four. Simple enough. But filling the layers with the cooled ganache was a mess. Yeah...chocolate mess! It just wasn't stiff enough and the layers slipped and slid all over my work surface. Not able to be salvaged. Into the trash it went.

An Aside About Frustration and Perfection: Someone, I can't remember whom, asked me if I was a perfectionist with my baking. Knowing all the imperfect cakes, pastries, pies and more that I've served people over the years, I said that I considered myself a failed perfectionist. Things have to be just perfect enough to serve to guests and have them enjoy them. But I do get frustrated when I can't make the vision in my head appear on the table and that's led me to dump all manner of tarts, chocolate confections, pie doughs, fillings, etc. into the trash over the years. "Why didn't you just put it in a bowl and leave it for me to nosh on?!?" I've been asked. Because, it's not what I want it to be, so no one gets to see it, eat it, comment on it. 

So. I guess I'm something of a baking perfectionist after all. "Um. Yeah." Michele rolls her eyes.

End Frustration and Perfection Aside.

I had two more 6" cakes and a second attempt at using the ganache proved just as unsuccessful but instead of frustration, I let myself deviate from the initial plan enough to cover it and put it in the refrigerator for later use. The third cake I wrapped well and put in the freezer for later later use. It was like putting them into cryogenic freeze so that they might cured of their ailments once baking science (and inspiration) catches up to them. I promise that story is coming soon.

What would I do with the remaining cake batter, though? Well, I have a heavy mini bundt cake pan I found in my storage, and the silicone molds that my little sister, Miss Kee, sent me a couple of years ago. I used them for small pies a while ago but I don't think I ever posted the image here. Let me rectify that oversight.

Butterflies and Flowers!
I made apple and cherry "tartlets"/hand-held pies last December and I can't believe I didn't write about it! They were delicious and looked so cool! I promise I'll talk about this (or detail a new pie project using these molds) soon.

I'll get to how I used them for cake in the Part II.

Currently listening to: Holly Cole Trio - Trust In Me



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