In the world of cake-baking, there is a sort of hierarchy, in my opinion. At the bottom, you’ll find your cake mix cakes with tub frosting (no judgment here, I could eat an entire tub of store bought frosting myself). Next, you’ll find your homemade one-layer cakes, maybe with a sparkly gel “Happy Birthday” or some sprinkles. I’d place cupcakes around this level too. If you skip wayyy up to the top of the ladder, you’ll find the decorated layer cake. Here we find the multiple layer masterpieces with perfectly even layers of cake and fillings, a fondant or perfectly smooth buttercream finish, and intricate flowers or piping, everything crafted from scratch. These are the cakes you look at and immediately picture them in a bakery window or on a cooking show–basically anywhere BUT your own kitchen. At least that’s how I felt until this year.
My sister shattered this mindset when she asked me to take on the task of making her a combined birthday/high school graduation cake. My first reaction was massive excitement; my best friend was asking me to provide the centerpiece for two of the most important milestones in her young adult life! But after the initial high had time to dissipate, a paralyzing realization followed: I was a grownup cake virgin. Never had I embarked on the multiple-day, multiple-step journey of producing a top of the ladder cake, and never had I wished so much that wasn’t the case. Of course, I calmly rode the waves of my family’s trust, sharing design ideas and inspiration when inside I was thinking up a new culinary disaster every day that I could precipitate and ruin the party.
Soon enough, I was back home, the cake project looming uncomfortably near. Living up to my type-A reputation, I had taken all possible precautions to avoid disaster: determined how each recipe needed to be doubled, tripled, etc…; calculated the amount of each ingredient needed (for both a practice cake and the real deal); created a categorized a grocery list; rewrote all of it at least 3 times; and watched more YouTube cake tutorials than I’d like to admit.
The first day was practice day, my dress rehearsal. Except for the fact that I’d NEVER rehearsed this before. I surveyed my kitchen space like an understudy who’s been thrown into a performance I’d watched countless times but not once actually danced. You can only do so much preparation by observation–eventually you’ve just got to go for it.
So, I went for it. I successfully made the practice cakes. Alright, first step was done. I moved on to the frosting. My sister had asked for something whipped, and my lack of experience (and common sense) decided that a simple whipped frosting could support the weight of four layers of cake. As I watched sugary white filling seep from between the layers, I could feel myself shrinking beneath my apron, feeling suddenly like a child who tries unsuccessfully to walk in her dad’s oversize shoes.
For a good half hour, I whizzed around the kitchen in an anxious daze, accomplishing far too little for the amount of moving I was doing and mess I was creating. Eventually, I decided to take a step away from the project, accepting the small victory of the cakes themselves. Hours later, my panic faded into determination, and I focused all my energy on piping flowers…until 1 am. I was beginning to marvel at how the perky little bakers I saw on t.v. managed to remain so energetic and beautiful while I was over here transforming into a nocturnal cake goblin in my destroyed kitchen with icing crust in my fingernails and eyes stinging for sleep.
The day before the party, I worked with tunnel vision, cranking out buttercream and cake with as much confidence as I could fabricate. The morning of the big day, I unwrapped my chilled cakes, took the buttercream out of the fridge, briefly assessed that the world was ending when the buttercream didn’t look like it would thaw correctly, regained control after a talking to from my mom, and assembled the cake. All that was left to do was layer the frozen flowers I’d piped around the top, the simplest step left for the end.
I took a step back and looked at it. I couldn’t believe that it was finally complete (as complete as my perfectionist self would get it to be). Gingerly, I transported my work to the freezer and shut the door; the puff of frosty air that rolled off my face seemed to animate the cool relief I felt from the completion of the cake.
A couple hours and a much needed shower later, it was time to put it on display. I held my breath as each family member walked through our door and saw what I had made–the cake that had propelled me out of the immature phases of baking and into the adult world of dessert. When the moment came to cut into its purple ombre layers (another request from my sister), I became like a photo-happy mom determined to document every second of her child’s first day at school. As muffled mmmm’s and wow’s began to emerge from the living room, I couldn’t help but smile. (And take one more picture of the quarter of cake that remained).
I’m not sure whether any of the people who bit into that cake–excluding my parents–had any concept of the turmoil that ensued in the process of making it, and I’m pleased about that. However, I’m also really glad that those struggles happened. What would have been special about my first grownup cake if it had been a breeze, if all had gone perfectly to plan? Nothing, that’s what. Anyone who’s ever worked hard for something knows that the satisfaction you feel in the end is not from the end result itself–it’s from the fact that you pushed yourself to get there despite the trials along the way. So, I leave you with the advice to never shy from a goal just because it’s foreign to you. Read, watch videos, observe others as much as you can, but eventually just get out there yourself! Remember that the people you learn from all had their first cracks at things too, and they were probably pretty ugly (they just chose not to broadcast that part). Choose your grownup cake, pull up your big girl/big boy britches, and lose your virginity!
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
James 1: 2-4
Vanilla Swiss Meringue Buttercream (much improved since my first try!)
- 6 egg whites
- 1 1/3 cup sugar
- 3 1/2 sticks of unsalted butter (room temperature, cut into tablespoon sized chunks)
- 1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- 1/4 tsp salt
- (vinegar or lemon juice to wipe down equipment)
- Wipe down the metal bowl of your stand mixer, a whisk, and the whisk attachment from your stand mixer with vinegar or lemon juice.
- Fill a saucepan with water about halfway and bring to a boil over medium heat.
- Combine egg whites in sugar in the metal bowl from your stand mixer, and place the bowl over the simmering water to form a double boiler. Be sure that the bottom of the bowl is not touching the water; if it is, carefully dump some of the water out.
- Whisking constantly, allow the egg whites and sugar to cook in double boiler until mixture reaches 140°F and the sugar is entirely dissolved.
- When the temperature is reached, remove the bowl from the saucepan and attach to your stand mixer. Secure the whisk attachment on the stand mixer, and begin mixing on high speed.
- Continue whisking on high speed until the mixture has cooled to room temperature–test this by placing your hands on the bottom of the bowl. The meringue mixture should form stiff peaks at this point. (The amount of time this takes will vary depending on your kitchen and equipment; be patient, and don’t move on until the mixture has cooled).
- Reduce the mixer speed to low (about 2-3), and begin adding in the butter. Add 1-2 pieces at a time, and wait until they’re fully incorporated to add the next pieces.
- Continue until all butter is incorporated. Do not panic when your buttercream starts to look clumpy, goopy, or deflated. It will often seem like you’ve done something wrong before the final product is reached–just be patient and keep going.
- When you’ve added all the butter, remove the whisk attachment, and fit the paddle attachment on your mixer. Continue whipping on low-medium speed until buttercream is fluffy and smooth.
- Mix in vanilla extract and salt.
Use immediately, or refrigerate/freeze for future uses. If you chill it, allow it to come to room temperature, and then beat again with paddle attachment until fluffy before using. Makes enough to frost a 2-layer 8″ cake.
**If buttercream seems too liquidy after continued mixing, place the entire bowl in the fridge for a few minutes, and continue mixing after. Often this will resolve texture issues that are commonly caused by adding butter to a mixture that hasn’t cooled enough.