Sunday, April 1, 2007

Days 54, 55, 56, and 57: Taste vs. Taste

Things are really starting to get out of hand. Cakes shouldn’t be this good; it’s just not fair. First, I suppose I should give you a little background. You know those shows on TV where they do the competitions and all these women from various parts of our probably too-large country coalesce for the purpose of seeing which person can make the best cake? When I watch those programs, I always feel encapsulated in a feeling I can only describe as a sort of nonviolent terror, and it’s a feeling that I reserve exclusively for these shows. I think they shouldn’t call them Who Can Make The Best Cake shows, but perhaps something more along the lines of Which Enormous Cake Can Hold The Most Objects competitions. Even as I walked past a darkened bakery window in Manhattan sometime between late last night and early this morning, I saw a large white cake (at least six inches high) topped with a rim of enormous (out-of-season) strawberries. I thought to myself, Do people really like eating whole strawberries at the back of a piece of cake? Well, do you? I don’t understand the appeal of having an entire Oreo sticking out from the top of an otherwise harmless piece of cake. People seem to confuse jabbing with decorating. (I hope I’m not being too snobby here, but is that elegant? Really?) In any event, Chef said that we weren’t going to be making any “diner cakes,” and it was at that moment that two things transpired within my mind. First, I found a name for this phenomenon, which has for so long repulsed me. Perhaps somewhat more significantly, though, I realized that I was not alone in finding these the-higher-the-better confections to be revolting. That promise laid before us, I began to believe that our quest to perfection in cake was on the right track. I suppose every great teacher says one thing that leaves a mark.

It dawns on me also that I should explain how we’re filling these cakes, since I’ve explained the later step of icing. We cut them in half and then spread frosting in between the layers. There.

We began the week with a cake that was positively transporting. We first baked some dense, fudgy chocolate cake (clearly, a good start). Now, you occasionally see recipes that would have you take these cake layers and fill and frost them with a dense chocolate frosting, and then glaze it with chocolate, and then decorate it with chocolate, and then possibly even serve it with a chocolate sauce, and call it something like Chocolate Death. Yes, we get it, people love chocolate; you’re reading from one such person even now. But the truth is that many people, even those who wouldn’t admit it, like me, find desserts of this kind to be too rich. Beyond being too rich, though, they fail also to treat the eater to the ethereally perfect balance of texture that a good cake has. Well, there are reasons we’re learning all this. We did Pretty Icing Lesson No. 2 with the lightest frosting possible: whipped cream. While there’s nothing wrong with clean, fresh, lightly sweetened whipped cream, no one on my team argued when we were assigned caramel whipped cream. In a nutshell, this is made by melting some sugar into caramel, then (very carefully) pouring some cream into it, chilling it, and whipping it up. Really simple, and beyond excellent. The resultant cake, which I suppose would be dense chocolate cake filled and iced with caramel whipped cream, was stupefyingly good. (Stupefyingly might not even be a word but it’s the only one that makes any sense.) When I brought this cake to work the following morning, it was like watching some sort of nature show. Not the kind where they’re all cute and cuddly, either, but more like one where the entire pack has been hunting unsuccessfully all summer, until this one particular day.

Don’t worry, bliss was soon supplanted as the ruling emotion in the class. We moved on to working with marzipan. Marzipan, which is a thick, sweet almond paste, can be sculpted into any shape which it will hold, barring natural disaster, indefinitely. When appropriately tinted, it can be used to create an infinite variety of decorations. We began with the most cliché design (and therefore the one we’ll need to know best): roses. My first try was less than triumphant, but on repeating it the second day I felt I had made enough progress to display a photograph. To do this, you flatten small balls of tinted marzipan on the table, further thinning the edges with the back of an immaculate spoon. You then filet the marzipan discs from the table with a sharp knife, and then roll each into a specific shape – the first of course being the center of the rose, with the petals following. It’s a good start.

We concluded the week with a cake that still cannot trump the aforementioned one in sheer eating pleasure, but whose appearance leapt far to the front of the elegance line. We used one batch of ganache for two different tasks – icing and glazing. We each took about half of our barely cooled, still liquid ganache, and whipped it. We used this whipped ganache to fill our yellow cake layers and to ice the tops and sides of our cakes. After letting the cakes solidify in the freezer, we reheated the now cooled remaining half of our ganache to a liquid consistency, and proceeded to pour it over them, enrobing them entirely in a satiny, mirror-finish layer of sumptuous dark chocolate. Combined with a bit of cornet work, some chocolate shavings, a little gold leaf, and a ribbon, I produced my first cake of showpiece appearance. I brought this one, too, into work the following morning. It was greeted with oohs and aahs and many declarations that it looked “too good to eat.”

How quickly our convictions crumble.

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