Days 51, 52, and 53: Pounds. Carrots. Rums.
Cake has begun, much to the danger of all around me. The threat was apparent from the very beginning, when we started with that commonest of all cakes, the pound cake.
There are varying schools of thought with pound cake. In the first method, the flour and sugar are creamed together very thoroughly with the butter. (Don’t even think about gluten; there’s way too much fat sitting between each little starch granule for them ever to become acquainted.) The liquids are then added and away it bakes. I tend to think of this as the Southern Method, since any pound cake I’ve had from the South has been of the texture this produces, which is light, fluffy, crumbly, and perfectly balanced with a clear flavor. The other method, which simply to equalize the matter I consider the Northern Method, is what you might think of as more traditional, if you’re from up this way. The butter and sugar are creamed together, eggs are beaten in, and then milk is added in alternating steps with the remaining dry ingredients. This results in a cake of a denser, less crumbly texture, and a richer buttery flavor (but not the oily quality of the plastic-wrapped slices at every deli in New York). Both cakes having completely disappeared with equal speed leaves me to conclude that neither the North nor the South will win this particular war. Both are good, in their own ways, and I can’t personally choose which I prefer. Unless, that is, we’re talking about the next pound cake, which I must have made with one or the other of the methods… forgive me if I can’t remember. I was probably distracted by the rum and hazelnuts we were adding.
We also created another cake that’s ubiquitous and overridingly popular: carrot cake with cream cheese frosting. A terrifyingly easy cake to make, we filled and then frosted ours with delectable cream cheese buttercream. I’m certain that the icing recipe made nearly double what we needed, to accommodate the huge amount of it we’d eat during the process. (I was reminded of the butter-tasting incident from Day 2, only whilst high on sugar.) We learned the messy way to frost a cake. It wasn’t a primary concern that things weren’t perfect, since we were to freeze the cakes overnight and trim them the next day. This is when a pall was cast over my carrot cake, after having promised a piece of it to no fewer than seven people. I had mistakenly put it in the fridge instead of the freezer. On the day we were to be trimming, mine was too soft to cut properly, so into the freezer it went to be cut up during the next lesson. When I arrived at that lesson, with the mob of people who did not get their carrot cake barely at bay behind me, I was confounded to find that it had disappeared from the freezer, nowhere to be found. (My theory, after noticing that a large amount of ice crystals had accumulated in the freezer, was that my cake too became covered in them, and someone threw it away. I’m not a very suspicious person, I guess.) I suppose I learned an important lesson, even if it had nothing to do with baking or frosting: don’t promise people carrot cake, just surprise them with it.
We finished the week with our first lesson in How to Frost Prettily. I don’t know if it’s an industry secret or not, but here goes. Put your cake layer on a round of cardboard that’s about the size of the cake. Spread big globs of frosting over it, and top it with the next layer. You then want to ensure that the cardboard at the bottom is about one-quarter inch larger than the cake all the way around. If it isn’t, trim the cake with a bread knife, without worrying about trimming it perfectly roundly. Then, with a metal spatula, put great heaps of frosting on the sides, using the cardboard as a guide by scraping against it. Allow the frosting to mount up past the top edge, and do this all the way around. Then, spread more piles of frosting on the top, going past the side edges. Don’t freak out about it, just do your best to make it smooth and level. Then, again using the cardboard as a guide, scrape the extra frosting off the sides, smoothing as you go. It’s pretty foolproof if you have a little patience and keep your spatula clean. If you expect it to look flawless or don’t have at least a little patience, just go buy a cake. We iced our white cake with a lightly rum-flavored buttercream, which I cannot recommend wholeheartedly enough.
Making all these cakes one after another made me come to wonder why in the world anyone with more than 6 minutes would bother using a boxed mix. It’s tremendously easy to do it properly from scratch, the only aspect approaching difficulty being the finishing, which you’d have to do in any case. The flavor of a homemade cake is pure butter and vanilla (and, as the case may be, chocolate or carrot or spice), and the sublime texture will make you question why you would ever even admit the boxed stuff was food. It seems like the lesson of this short first week of cake might simply have been to show us all how simple it really is.
Even easier than pie.