Sunday, March 30, 2008

Too Much of a Good Thing; Or, The Baker's Dilemma

It is the human condition to rail against imposed strictures of behavior. Revolution is almost as inevitable as the eventual disenchantment with reality television programming. The precision of baking is part of its allure, and yet there comes a time when every baker feels the desire to grow past the boundaries of the recipe. Some are more bold than others, actually experimenting with such volatile components as types of flour, leavening, amounts of fat, sugars, &c. Personally, I tremble with terror at the thought of playing with levels of baking soda versus baking powder. When it comes to pushing my creative envelope in the kitchen, I resemble a mosaic artist, assembling the tesserae of different recipes in order to create innovation. I may use three different cookbooks to make some cupcakes, but, by thunder, I won't stray from the recipes themselves.


This month's challenge was the Perfect Party Cake from Dorie Greenspan's much-beloved cookbook. (I count myself amongst its devotees.) Per our gracious hostess, the Daring Bakers were allowed to add their own creative touches to the cake, flavoring it as we so desired, but we had to adhere to the recipe for the batter and buttercream--at least, as the basis for the cake. We could flavor the cake itself, change the flavor of the buttercream, switch out the raspberry jam in the filling for another variety, or even substitute something else entirely (preferably something edible). Given such carte blanche, I felt a tremor of panic. There were so many options! How could I decide? Besides, this cake would be posted on the internet, before the critical eyes of perhaps six or maybe even seven people! Could I possibly formulate and bake something that would fill these half-dozen readers with wonderment?

Yes, I thought to myself. Yes, I could.

Gentle Reader, I will spare you the countless permutations that ran through my head and the dozens of options I presented to Z. The only thing I knew for certain was that the suggested coconut topping from Dorie's recipe would have to go, unless I didn't want to eat a bite of the cake I'd made. (A good strategy for dieters, but I was not so masochistic.) Before despair set in, I recalled that I had a container of caramel, recipe taken from the Tartine cookbook, quietly sitting in my fridge and without use. In the Tartine book, it suggested spreading the caramel between the layers of a Devil's Food Cake. I always liked the sound of that idea, and so, ruthlessly co-opted it for my own nefarious purposes. No raspberry jam for me, thank you, sir. Out went the citrus flavoring in the cake layers, substituting vanilla extract for the lemon. But the lemony buttercream wouldn't quite work with this new flavor profile. Again, the incalculable variations for how to flavor the buttercream, until I glanced in Nick Malgieri's Perfect Cakes and saw a very similar cooked buttercream, with directions on how to create a chocolate variation. We have a winner!

All of the components came together beautifully, and when it came time to make the buttercream, I got to use my sexy new 600-watt Kitchenaid stand mixer (a gift from Z.--thanks, honey!). The caramel was a bit independently-minded when I spread it on the cut cake layers, and I didn't wind up using it all. (This was fortunate, as I wound up eating gobs of caramel from the container throughout the week. Sigh. Back on the elliptical trainer.) So, instead of cake, jam, buttercream, my variation was cake, caramel, chocolate buttercream. Once it was frosted, then I played around with some fondant decorations I'd made the day before using premade white fondant that I'd dyed and cut.

AmyS-Googie Cake

So, after all of this hand-wringing and existential crisis, how did it taste? Delicious. The caramel gave the cake layers a good, chewy body, and the chocolate buttercream had a silky texture and mild chocolate flavor. The cake itself was a winning vanilla cake that would, indeed, be perfect for a party. I may, one day, attempt it as Dorie intended, lightly citrusy with the jam filling and pure white lemon buttercream. Leftovers were given to my father-in-law for his homeowners association meeting the following night, and he reported it was very well received. Although, I imagine that even a hydrochloric acid eyewash station would be a welcome relief from the tedium of a homeowners association meeting.

In this mad world in which we live, much like Janet Jackson, we all strive for control. For a few hours, I commanded the whys and wherefores of the cake, and emerged, I believe, the victor, both over the recipe itself, and my own indecision. Thank you, again, Daring Bakers, for showing that the path to true self-awareness is paved with buttercream.

Nota Bene: Please forgive the fact that there is no photo of the sliced cake. I always hate it when there's no money shot! But time was short and the camera was not at hand, so please use your imaginations to envision the interior of the cake. Anyway, isn't using your imagination that much more provocative?)

I remain,
Your servant, &c.


Lis said...

'kay you need to start your own blog, lady. I LOVE your writing and my gawd, you crack me up! Bless your cotton socks. :)

The cake is GORGEOUS!


Rachel said...

wow...nice read!

NIce cake and simple yet attractive fondant there..

JJ said...

Wow...that was deep. But now I can't get "Control" out of my head:-)
Love the cake.

Anonymous said...

This creation deserves a showing at an art gallery.

Morven said...

You SO need your own blog. I loved your post and your cake is tres chic! Wonderful.

Angel said...

Caramel filling that's GENIUS!!! Oh man your cake looks so pretty. You did a fantastic job.