Sunday, March 30, 2008

A Tale of Three Cakes

It was the best of cakes; it was the worst of cakes. I was unsure about what I could make to celebrate my sister Laura's successful dissertation defense. I looked around the internet for ideas for graduation cakes, but I couldn't really find anything that was exactly right for a Ph.D. dissertation defense. But it did help me come up with the idea of creating a gigantic tome out of cake and icing. Read on to find out how I managed to bake this beautiful cake:

I was nervous because I'd never done anything decorative with icing, but this idea required me to write her dissertation title in frosting. I decided to reduce my nervousness by rehearsing what I wanted to do. So a few weeks beforehand, I made a practice cake, using the same recipe and techniques I planned to use for the final cake. I learned a lot from my "concept cake" -- first and foremost, that the overall concept was good, but also that pastry bags and my orthopedic problems don't get along. It was good to learn this ahead of time, so that I could buy a mechanical pastry bag before I did the real thing.

But like I said, the concept was there, and it worked out pretty well:

I had one of those frosting comb things that I used to shape the white parts into what looked kind of like leaves of paper between the covers of the gigantic tome.
I had quickly run out of steam when I was using the pastry bag to make a texture on the cover of the book, but the below picture shows the part I did get done and what I had envisioned to simulate the grainy leather for the tome:

None of these pictures show it but one of the other sides of the comb thingy had a pattern to it that looked like the leather binding of a book, so on the fourth side, I used that to smooth the chocolate frosting.

The night before we left for Virginia, I began baking the real thing. The underlying cake is the same cocoa devil's food cake recipe from the Joy of Cooking that I used for the turkey-shaped cake in November. Here is a picture of some of the more interesting ingredients.

For this recipe, you mix the cake flour, baking soda, and salt in one bowl, and then the buttermilk, sugar, cocoa powder, and vanilla in another.
You cream the butter, add the sugar, and beat in two eggs in your main mixing bowl, and then add the flour and liquid mixtures, alternating, in parts.
I had to make two batches because the cake pan is 11" x 15". I didn't try it, but I suspect that my mixer bowl is too small to hold both batches, so instead I did one, emptied it into the cake pan, then hurried and mixed up another. Here's the cake just before I put it in the oven:
And here's how it looked after I took it out:
As you can see, it has a huge crater in the center, and also a crack that goes about 2/3 of the way through it. I was pretty upset, really, because it was after midnight and I was going to have to start all over again. I was also completely out of eggs. What to do?

I just went to bed and resolved to get up early and bake another one before we left.

I tried to assess what had gone wrong with that cake. I had a couple of suspicions so I tried to fix all of them. First, I had baked it at a lower temperature (325 rather than 350 F) because my practice cake was baked at the higher temperature and had been kind of dry. I decided to go back up to 350 because a dry cake is better than a crumbly cake. Second, I thought my baking soda could have been a little bit old so when I went to get the eggs I also picked up some more baking soda. And third, I realized that the center was where the crater was, and it's also where pretty much the entire first batch of batter had ended up, with the second batch filling out the pan to the corners. Its leavening may have all bubbled away while I was making the second batch of batter. So I spread that first batch across the entire bottom of the pan, and spread the second batch on top of it.

Whatever the problem was, I did manage to fix it, as the second cake turned out quite well:
Next, I packed up the non-perishable ingredients
and the recipe (which I copied from a website that has all kinds of icing recipes)
for the icing, packed the crumbly cake pieces to take along for a snack, and we headed for Virginia.

In Laura's kitchen, I made the icing.
I'd never actually used a handheld mixer before so it was a new experience for me.

In her dining room, I began decorating the cake:

I was going to write more than that on the cake (we had figured out a good play-on-words for the subtitle of her dissertation) but I actually ran out of vanilla frosting. This didn't seem to matter, though; the cake was a big hit:
And that, friends, is how I made the dissertation-shaped cake for Laura's party!


Anonymous said...

Beautiful cake!! You're becoming quite the "baker" (or in your case "Hartman-Baker") Pun intended!

You've never used a hand held mixer??


EcoGeoFemme said...

It looks both beautiful and delicious! I want to invite you to my party if I ever graduate. :)

Rebecca said...

Ginger, I'm just trying to live up to the family name :)

And no, I've never used a hand-held mixer. Growing up we always had a Kitchen Aid stand mixer. My mom got it in the 70's. As of five or six years ago, it was still going strong.

Ecogeofemme, I will totally bake you a cake when you graduate :)

rachel said...

Cake pr0n!

I took some of those tasty pics!

Anonymous said...

ooh ooh bake me one too! :-D
That cake is beautiful. You did a good job with the frosting decorating!

Thanks for the great tutorial, now I know how to do it too! And I'm totally jealous at your having only used a stand mixer. I've only used a handheld myself, but a stand sure looks nice. I bet it's a lot better for your arm, too.

If I find a cake is too dry, I usually cook it at the same temperature but alter the ingredients. I'll add some more of one of the liquid ingredients like the buttermilk, maybe a quarter cup. It works to my liking, anyhow.