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Thursday, Nov. 11, 2010 02:22 pm

A wedding cake to remember


Marzipan leaves in fall colors decorated a cake that tasted as good as it looked.
Have you ever wondered why wedding cakes are so expensive? Try making one, and you’ll find out. I did.

I made a few wedding cakes during my catering days, but they were for small affairs, usually no more than 25-40 people. I’m not a pastry chef, and have never taken a cake decorating class, but could manage a simple basket weave icing pattern. Fresh flowers decorated those cakes.

When my oldest daughter, Anne, and her fiancé, Ben, married five years ago this month, I took a giant leap, making their wedding cake for 200-plus people. Why? First, I’ve had too many wedding cakes over the years that ranged from just OK to truly awful. I’ve had good ones, too, several here in Springfield, especially those made by Patrick Groth of Incredibly Delicious. But Anne and Ben would be getting married in New Harmony, Ind. The small beautifully restored village on the Wabash River is picturesque, and the site of two former utopian communities. The first, founded nearly 200 years ago, was religious; it was followed by a secular society dedicated to arts and science. Deep in rural southern Indiana, New Harmony has a lovely inn and nice restaurant, but prospects for an exceptional wedding cake were dim. (Incidentally, I highly recommend visiting New Harmony; it’s wonderful for a getaway weekend.)

The other reason is just that I wanted to do it. I was determined that Anne and Ben’s wedding cake taste as good as it looked. Which meant that I’d be using a scrumptious buttercream icing rather than fondant. Fondant is the fun Play-Doh-esque sugar dough that’s used to make all those fantasic decorated cakes. But even the best of those can’t match the unctuous delicacy and flavor of a cooked buttercream. Of course, I’d bake the cake from scratch, and make my own fillings. I decided that each tier would have four cake layers; the bottom two separated by raspberry filling. The center would be a thick layer of chocolate ganâche, topped with two more raspberry-filled layers. I’d use that easy wicker weave icing pattern and decorate the cake with marzipan leaves painted in fall colors.

Deciding I’d better practice making something that so far was only in my head, I announced to my cooking classes that if anyone could use a cake for a special occasion and would be willing to be a guinea pig, I’d give them a cake that could feed about 30 people. (I only made the bottom tier, sans marzipan decorations.) Two couples took me up on the offer.

The first was for a midsummer picnic. Everything went well until I took the cake out into the afternoon heat. That wonderful icing started to melt. I rushed back into the house, let it firm up in the air conditioning, then got my car started and cooled down. The cake and I made it to our destination, and I hustled it into the hosts’ air-conditioned home. It was an outdoor picnic, but the cake was served inside. Fortunately everyone loved it. The second cake was for an early fall anniversary party. Heat wasn’t an issue, and it was equally well received.

Finally I was ready to start on THE CAKE. Baking, filling and giving each of the four tiers a crumb coat (a thin icing layer that eliminates exterior crumbs) took several days. Each tier was wrapped and frozen. Everything went well except for the first batch of buttercream. It was supposed to be colored lightly peach, but my hand slipped adding the red food coloring. The resultant hue was Pepto-Bismol pink. I couldn’t let the 48 egg yolks and six pounds of butter that it took go to waste, so I froze it in bags, giving some away and using the rest over the next couple years. (OK, I eventually threw some away.)

Small maple, oak, and gingko leaves from trees in our yard provided patterns for the marzipan decoration. Painting them was fun – and time-consuming. I also made marzipan bittersweet berries, attaching them to broken pretzels dipped in chocolate to resemble twigs.

One – though not the only – reason Anne and Ben had decided to get married in New Harmony was that they thought it would be less work for my husband, Peter, and me. Perhaps it was, but I’m not sure D-Day preparations were more complicated. A U-Haul truck, our full-size van, my smaller car, and my mom’s convoyed to New Harmony, stuffed to the rooftops. We hired two experienced guys to help things go smoothly. We rented three guest houses, the largest with four bedrooms, where we stayed, the smallest, a one-room cabin where Anne would spend the first night with her sister, Ashley; the next, her wedding night with Ben.

The day before the wedding was bustling and fun; the rehearsal dinner lighthearted. Afterwards, family, and guests congregated at the big house. A friend pulled out his guitar and started strumming; the music and laughter lasted well after I went to bed. I’d enjoyed the day, but couldn’t really relax – and knew I wouldn’t until the cake was successfully assembled the next morning.

The next morning, I crept into the kitchen and took a deep breath. It was crunch time. Methodically, I began piping the wicker weave onto the largest tier. Good friend Becky Croteau arrived with coffee and moral support. As each tier was finished, it went back into the refrigerator to firm up the icing. Several hours later, we carefully loaded the tiers into the van, along with the marzipan leaves and bittersweet twigs, the posts for stacking the tiers, and an emergency pastry bag of buttercream for touchups.

Assembling and decorating the cake went smoothly, although slowly. But I’m afraid I was a bit sharp with anyone asking questions during the process. Finally finished, I was proud – it was lovely – and drained. What I really needed was a brief nap – or even better, a massage – but there wasn’t time.

But after I’d showered and changed, adrenaline kicked in, and I was fine. The wedding was truly joyous. Sounds corny, I know, but Anne and Ben were radiant in their happiness. Having the entire shindig take place in the restored Rapp-Owen Granary – an old grain mill with beautiful woodwork – was wonderful, too – the ceremony first and dancing afterwards upstairs, the dinner on the ground floor. Local, but nationally recognized, acoustic guitarist Sam Bartlett and his trio provided American roots music for the entire evening. It was a very participatory ceremony: Ashley and I sang a duet, other family and friends giving readings. There was a gaggle of flower girls and leaf boys who behaved well enough during the ceremony, then spent the rest of the night racing around and up and down the magnificent oak staircase. Our attire might have been formal, but the atmosphere was relaxed and casual.

And the cake? It was exactly what I’d hoped for. It looked good, and tasted even better. Many people even went back for second and third helpings. The only near crisis came when we realized that the ring of votive candles we’d placed around the base were generating enough heat to melt the icing; fortunately it was discovered before any real damage was done, and the candles were blown out. Afterwards I had requests to make wedding and other celebratory cakes, all of which I declined. I might make other wedding cakes some day – for my two other children, if they’d like, or in some distant day for hoped-for-grandchildren. But making a wedding cake is something I’ll only do for love, not for money.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

RealCuisine Recipe

This is absolutely, hands-down, bar none the easiest, most foolproof made-from-scratch yellow cake you’ll ever find. It takes only minutes and has a wonderful flavor and delicate texture no box mix could ever come close to matching. I found the recipe on the back of a flour bag decades ago – so long ago that I can’t remember the brand of flour.

It’s also incredibly versatile. If you’ve eaten a yellow cake I made, it was undoubtedly this one. I’ve used it for sheetcakes, cupcakes, Mexican tres leches cakes, Bundt and layer cakes. I’ve added a tablespoon of lemon peel and 1/3 c. poppy seeds for poppy seed cake. I’ve used it for homey upside down cakes and fancy petit fours. I’ve filled it, glazed it, frosted it, dusted it with confectioner’s sugar, and served it plain with fruit.

And, of course, I used it for Anne and Ben’s wedding cake.

  • 2 1/4 c. unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 2 c. sugar
  • 1 tsp. kosher or sea salt
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1 c. unsalted butter, softened
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 c. plain yoghurt, whole milk preferred but not essential
  • 1 tsp. vanilla

It’s essential that all ingredients be at room temperature.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Grease and flour pan(s). Place all ingredients in the bowl of a mixer. Beat at lowest speed until ingredients are combined, then beat at medium high speed for three minutes. Pour into pan(s). Bake until a skewer or toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.

For Bundt cake, bake 60-70 minutes

For 2 9-inch round cake pans, bake 30-35 minutes

For a 9-inch x13-inch rectangular cake pan, bake 45-50 minutes.

For cupcakes, bake 25-30 minutes

RealCuisine Recipe

Chocolate ganâche is almost as versatile as the yoghurt pound cake. It can be used as a glaze, as a filling in cakes, tarts and pies, or whipped to make a fluffy chocolate frosting. Small balls of ganâche, whipped or not, can be frozen, then rolled in cocoa to make truffles. Ganâche is most often made with bittersweet chocolate, but semi-sweet, milk, or even white chocolate can also be used. I prefer using chocolate chips, because it eliminates the messy step of chopping the chocolate For the classic version, Ghirardelli 60 percent cacao chocolate chips are an excellent choice and are widely available.*

  • 12 oz. good quality bittersweet chocolate, OR use an 11.5 oz. bag of
  •  chocolate chips*
  • 1 1/2 c. heavy cream
If the chocolate is in bar form, chop it into small pieces. In a small heavy saucepan, heat the cream over medium high heat just until bubbles begin to form around the edge of the pan. Remove from the heat and add the chocolate. Stir constantly until the chocolate and cream are completely combined. You may need to return the pan to the stove over low heat for a few minutes. If using as a glaze, the ganâche should be just warm enough to pour. It can be gently reheated if necessary. To use as a filling, let it cool enough that it will hold its shape without running, but can still be spread. It can also be used as a filling and/or frosting by chilling it completely, and then whipping it as one would to make whipped cream. Though the chilled mixture might initially seem too stiff to whip, it does so easily.

RealCuisine Recipe

This is NOT the buttercream I used for the wedding cake. Truthfully, it was a risky and not very wise choice, because it was so delicate and heat sensitive. Ashley, who these days is a caterer in Chicago, discovered this meringue buttercream recipe that is just as decadently delicious, much easier to make, and far sturdi

  • 6 egg whites
  • 1 1/2 c. sugar
  • 1/4 tsp. cream of tartar
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 lb. unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 2 tsp. vanilla

For chocolate buttercream:

  • 1 11.5 oz. bag of bittersweet chocolate chips, melted and cooled to warm (Ghirardelli 60 percent cacao chips preferred)
In the bowl of a mixer, or a heatproof bowl suitable for using with a hand-held blender, mix the egg whites and sugar until combined. Set the bowl over a pan of simmering water, making sure that the bottom of the bowl doesn’t touch the water. Whisk constantly just until the mixture is hot to the touch – be careful to not let it begin to cook/curdle. Remove the bowl from the heat, add the cream of tartar and salt and begin beating the meringue at high speed with an electric stand or hand-held mixer. Whip to soft peaks, then, still beating, add the butter a few pieces at a time. Stir in the vanilla. If the buttercream is too thin to spread, set the bowl in a sink filled with cold water for a few minutes, stirring frequently, until the mixture is spreadable, but not completely chilled.

To make chocolate buttercream, mix in the melted and cooled chocolate after adding the vanilla.
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