Wednesday, November 9, 2011

First Wedding Cake Part I: The Research

I can't remember if I ever officially announced this prior to it actually happening, but back in February my friends Traci and Stephen asked me to make their wedding cake in October. Naturally I was flattered, but I was also a little nervous - me, make a wedding cake? Are you sure you trust me enough? But they did. After numerous tastings with other bakers, they thought my stuff tasted better, probably because they were eating fondant, which is about as tasty as a cardboard box. Since they were having a dessert bar at the wedding full of delicious mini goodies, they just wanted a smaller cake to cut in pictures. For this purpose, I was the most economical, delicious, and personal way to go.

Stephen (white shirt), Traci, and me (and Josh in the back left) back in the good old college days.
Which meant... I was making a wedding cake!!!! AHHHH!!! That's kind of big-time in the American baker world. People place A LOT of importance on their wedding cake, often spending a lot of money on it. Everyone does the cake cutting tradition, you take lots of pictures with the cake, guests talk about how good the cake was (or was not), etc. And Traci and Stephen wanted me, trusted me, to fulfill this part of their wedding. This lit a fire under my ass: it had to be the most beautiful and delicious thing I had ever made.

While the thoughts of tiering and decorating scared the crap out of me, I decided to work on the more manageable details first - the inside of the cake. Stephen, Traci, and I went back and forth on flavors but struggled a bit to find some harmony: Traci doesn't like chocolate, Stephen likes anything mocha/coffee-flavored, and I just wanted a simple buttercream frosting as a foundation for whatever decorating route I chose. Eventually, we allowed the wedding to dictate the flavors, and a Florida beach wedding called for something lighter. Traci asked about something fruit-flavored, perhaps lemon or raspberry, so I suggested the same raspberry-lemon cake I had made for Joanna's cake truffle wedding favors. Traci loved the idea. One aspect down; (what felt like) 897 to go.

I had set goals of researching, developing, practicing, etc. all summer, but never got very far with it - most occurred in my thoughts and that was the extent. So, when Traci asked if she could do a tasting after her bachelorette party over Labor Day weekend, a fire was again lit under my ass - time to figure out the exact cake composition. I did some research on what fillings might be best for the cake and decided upon either homemade rasperry filling or lemon curd; I figured I would serve samples of each at the tasting to see what tasted better with the cake.

Additionally, I did extensive research on buttercream recipes. Did you know there are MANY kinds of buttercream? American buttercream, French buttercream, Italian buttercream, Swiss buttercream, etc., with the difference residing in the eggs and fats used, as far as I can tell: some use no eggs (American), some use egg whites (Italian, Swiss), some use egg yolks (French). For the fats, some use shortening (often, American, or "Decorators" - the crap on grocery store cakes), and others use butter (French, Italian, Swiss). If you know anything about food, you'd clearly concede without tasting that French, Italian, or Swiss should be more delicious, as eggs and butter make everything better (and not just in baking - think fried eggs on burgers, butter in cooking à la Paula Deen, etc.). The problem with butter-based buttercreams, however, is their stability, or lack thereof - butter melts more easily than shortening, which, if baking during the summer months or in more tropical locales, could result in a mess and a complete failure in the cake department of the wedding.

Since this wedding was in Florida in October, when the average temperature ranged from 70-85 degrees (thank you for your monthly averages,, I was a little nervous. But, I didn't want to use a shortening-based frosting, as this would defeat the purpose of them asking me to do it - I make things that taste good, but not necessarily as fancy-looking. Luckily, at the time of the tasting, we were experiencing a heat wave in Chicago for late-August/early-September - around an 85-degree high. As this properly mimicked the conditions in Florida in terms of both temperature and humidity (ugh, a hot Midwest day can be disgusting), I knew that if the samples withstood this tasting, the cake would be fine.

Now: time to choose a recipe. French, Italian, Swiss? I was loathing the idea of doing French and Italian out of laziness, as they both require a candy thermometer to heat the eggs, sugar, etc. to a certain temperature called the "softball stage" that I just didn't want to deal with, especially if Swiss tasted just as good. I considered making them all to see if I could even tell the difference. One day, I happened to be looking at the Celebration Cake section on one my favorite food blogs, Smitten Kitchen, for a birthday cake idea, when I stumbled upon her blog posts about her first wedding cake. I pored over her posts, which contained tons of tips and tricks for the first-timer. The one that caught my eye in particular, though, was the post about her buttercream experimentation, which happened to be Swiss. It looked super easy, and she swore it tasted delicious, was easy to spread and smoothe, and stood up well to heat. Delicious, easy to work with, stable? PERFECT. While I'm somewhat skeptical of a lot of blogs and recipe posts, Smitten Kitchen is pretty legit, so I trusted her on this one. Plus, the tasting would be the perfect opportunity to test it out.

Raspberry-lemon cake, raspberry OR lemon curd fulling, and Swiss buttercream frosting. Time to prep for the tasting....

1 comment:

Traci said...

yikes, don't we have a better pic where we aren't posing as pufferfish?