I don’t consider myself much of a baker and yet I’ve had more than one person ask me recently if baking is my speciality. I think it’s probably because I actually make an effort with cake presentation – with savoury dishes, not so much. Then it’s usually a case of ‘more is more’ over pretty food – I think I’m probably just greedy.
Having said that, when my older brother called me up one morning to tell me that he was planning on proposing to his long-term girlfriend, rather appropriately in his birth town of Boston, and that he was giving her a ring he’d bought from Tiffany & Co., I started scheming. I thought about an engagement party, I thought about an engagement surprise and I started to doodle a very special engagement cake. Of course, she hadn’t even said yes yet but I knew she would, so when the excited call came through on Jubilee Sunday that he’d popped the question and the answer had been a resounding yes, I started to firm up my plans.
The plan was to make a cake that looked like a Tiffany engagement box: as you can see from the above photo that didn’t quite work out but I think the end result was much prettier and a whole lot tastier… and I still got to use the Tiffany Blue colour we’d made for the box!
I could tell you the ins and outs of making this cake but actually I think it’s much more useful to give you some of the tips and hints I found very helpful, as well as what I learned about making big cakes – measuring 10″ x 10″ and consisting of 4 layers of Red Velvet cake, sandwiched together with cream cheese frosting and covered in vanilla buttercream roses, this was the largest cake I’ve ever made. It fed 70+ people and still had a small strip leftover at the end for Brother Lee & Sister Sylv to nibble on at home. It took me 3 days to make but it really was a labour of love.
Special thanks must go to my lovely and wonderful friend Mowie who came over to help with the original fondant plan but then declared it a “hot mess” and advised that I use buttercream instead. He came up with the roses, I came up with the bunting and magic was made. And when I was upset that the fondant was a disaster (and evil, I’m pretty sure fondant is evil – does anybody actually like fondant?!) he gave me the straight-talking I needed and told me to get it out of my head, even after he’d spent 20 minutes kneading the fondant that I’d ruin in 10 seconds. Everybody needs a friend like Mowie – you can’t have him, though: MINE.
TIPS FOR BAKING LARGE CAKES
1. Plan ahead.
I looked like a total mad woman on Friday, sitting on the train furiously scribbling into my notebook. But all of the planning and doodling was totally worth it, because seeing it there in front of me meant that I was more confident about how I could make it work. If nothing else, it puts your mind at rest.
2. Don’t leave home without your towel.
This is probably the weirdest tip I’ve ever seen for baking – have you ever heard of Bake Even Strips? They’re these metallic strip things that you wrap around your baking tin to stop the sides from cooking too fast, thereby ensuring a more even cake with no cracking or doming! I’d explain the science to you but I don’t really get it, so from now on we’ll just refer to this as “Cake Magic”. Well, I was a little short on time and cash at this point so I did a bit of research and you know what works just as well? A strip of damp terry cloth. Grab an old towel, cut it into a strip that fits around the sides of your pan, soak it in cold water, fasten it around the pan and secure with a couple of safety pins – voila! Homemade bake even strip!
I was pretty dubious at first – what if it burst into flame in the oven? Would it really bake my cakes evenly? The proof was in the puddin-… er, cake – beautifully even cake layers came out of my oven. Thanks “Cake Magic”!
3. Whack it in for longer and lower.
Another way to ensure more even baking? Turn the temperature down and give it longer in the oven. Turn the temperature down by about 50 degrees and add maybe 25 – 30 mins at first. I had a little bit of uneven baking because I don’t think I baked a couple of the layers for quite long enough (they were cooked all the way through, just probably a little less cooked than it should’ve been as the middles sank in a little). The last layer, though, which I gave an extra 40 mins or so, came out perfectly.
Freezing cake layers – this was a total life saver. You can freeze layers weeks in advance, if you’re so inclined and it not only makes stacking layers easier, it just saves you so much time. Can you imagine trying to make a cake the day of delivery? You’ve got to deal with prep time, baking time, cooling time, decorating time – in other words, total panic. Bake your layers ahead of time, allow them to cool to room temperature, wrap them in a few layers of cellophane and pop them in the freezer. When you’re ready to use them, just take them out and stack away to your heart’s delight. Bam: done. Next!
5. Keep it moist.
Worried that your cake will dry out? Brush the layers with a little liquid before you frost them. I used a bit of water mixed with vanilla essence on this cake, but you can add some booze or anything your heart desires really – all you need is a pastry brush. A moist cake is a happy cake.
6. Nobody likes fondant: buttercream is your friend.
Find a great Italian Meringue Buttercream recipe and learn it by heart. Seriously: nobody likes fondant. Nobody. It’s too sweet, it smells weird and chemically, and everybody picks it off the cake. Sure, the cake can look a lot prettier and more “finished” but nobody likes fondant. It’s notoriously hard to get buttercream smooth on a cake, though, so invest in a few piping tips, learn how to make different patterns and shapes (I went for roses, very simple: use a Wilton 1C swirl tip, start in the middle and swirl to the outside then lift off gently – ta da! You just made a rose! I filled in the gaps between roses with swirls of buttercream) and Bob’s your uncle.
Also buttercream hides a whole host of sins: I’ve always wondered why people pipe a border around the bottom of the cake and now I know – it hides all of the gaps at the bottom and messed up edges of buttercream! I just made little overlapping swirls.
7. Keep your cake board clean.
Use strips of baking paper on your cake board to stop your frosting from getting on the board. Simply place 4 strips around the base of the cake so that the cake is resting on the edge but the width of the strip hangs off the board, frost and then gently pull out the baking paper. Be sure to work quickly and be careful of your cake defrosting onto this strip – if the cake is tacky when you pull the baking paper away you’ll start to pull the side of the cake away, too!
8. It’s all about the little touches.
I must confess, the bunting was not my sole idea. I’ve seen bunting on a few people’s cakes before and thought it would be a nice little personal touch so I made it out of coloured paper, a needle and thread, bamboo skewers and double-sided sticky tape (cut the triangles out of the paper, use the needle to thread it in a line, wrap double sided stick tape around the skewers, wrap the thread around the tape and tie a few knots, then cut off). The letters and engagement ring are all hand-drawn.
9. Above all: don’t panic.
We’re all human and we all make mistakes – with a big celebration cake there’s obviously quite a bit more pressure but the thing to remember is that at the end of the day it’s just a cake. If you mess up you can probably fix it and if you really mess up that badly you can start over. Give yourself plenty of time and keep an air of cake zen about you – much better for the soul!
Brother Lee & Sister Sylv loved the cake and really that was all that mattered to me. They also loved this little surprise that I put together for them, involving a bunch of Brother Lee’s Uni friends and my ukulele. It descends into chaos somewhat towards the end but considering how we only managed 2 quick rehearsals in the toilet on the night, it wasn’t half bad.
Brother Lee & Sister Sylv are now in Jakarta where they’re beginning their new life together and will be back in London for the wedding next August, where I’ll be a bridesmaid and a very proud sister. I just hope they don’t ask me to make their wedding cake… Congratulations Brother Lee & Sister Sylv! I love you both very much!
Brother Lee & me: 20-something years later and we haven’t really changed a whole lot: we still like cake and we still like to sing.
Until next time, peace and love,