MORE THAN A PIECE OF CAKE

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Thirty-one years ago when I was a teen-age bride, I could barely boil water. So no, I did not bake my own wedding cake. And since my husband is still my only heartthrob, I've never had another opportunity.

My most memorable wedding cake experience, therefore, occurred when I attended a reception at which the wedding cake was served only to the privileged few at the head table. But then, that wedding also featured a cash bar, so there's no accounting for bad taste.

Of course, you want your cake to be the piece de resistance for everyone. But the wedding cake has not always held the place of honor it does today.

Once upon a time people considered it good luck to pelt a bride with nuts, grains and fruit. Then the ancient Hebrews refined the idea by adopting the custom of serving cake at weddings -- not for eating but for hurling at the bride.

The ancient Greeks threw pounded grain and honey cakes and the Romans, who followed suit, introduced the custom to the ancient Britons. The game of breaking cakes over the bride's head was popular in medieval Europe; a "bride's cake" of dry biscuit dough was used for this ceremony.

It was not until the 16th century that pastry chefs were able to use sugar, eggs and spices to turn wedding cakes into real desserts. Even so, wedding guests continued to toss the cakes at the bride, either during the reception or as she crossed the threshold of her new home.

Under the influence of the French during the reign of King Charles II, the bride's cake became transformed into a tiered, elaborately decorated confection, yet pieces still ended up being thrown at the bride. Finally in the 19th century the bride's cake was transformed into our familiar modern-day wedding cake.

But what sensible modern-day bride would take on this culinary task? "It takes planning, patience and about 12 to 15 hours of work," cautions Elizabeth Esterling, summertime pastry chef at Hampton Square restaurant on Long Island. "So ask a friend; then lend a hand with the decorating."

Ms. Esterling considers a wedding cake within the abilities of an experienced baker. But "keep it simple," advises my friend Lainie Forman, a caterer. In other words, skip the chef's specialties (fondant, royal icing, pulled sugar and marzipan decorations) and stick with easy-to-make buttercream or flavored whipped cream.

Consider your choices: traditional dark fruitcake; pound, sponge, chiffon, yellow or white cake moistened with liqueur-spiked syrup; chocolate cake drenched with Kahlua; framboise cake with raspberry buttercream and fresh raspberries; carrot cake moist with raisins, crushed pineapple, carrots and apples; mousse fillings such as lime, chocolate with framboise, white chocolate with Grand Marnier or cassis to go between layers.

Summer weddings are murder for wedding cakes because heat and humidity are killers. When the cake is transported to the reception, it may melt and slip, collapse or slide across the car seat.

Ms. Forman recalls the time she delivered a carrot cake with cream cheese icing to a wedding reception on a 99-degree, 99 percent humidity day. By the time she got there it looked like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Undaunted, she inserted chopsticks to straighten it, re-iced it and hid the "multitude of sins" with fresh flowers.

To avoid these problems, Ms. Esterling suggests an easy-to-transport cake with a "melt-proof" buttercream icing. It's two-tier chocolate cake, first because chocolate is the cake of the hour and second because a three-tier cake must be assembled on site rather than at home. And her buttercream -- made with flour and milk -- "holds up better than pure buttercream in hot weather and tastes quite good."

ELIZABETH ESTERLING'S TWO TIER CHOCOLATE WEDDING CAKE

Serves 50.

THE CAKE:

1 1/2 cups unsweetened cocoa

2 1/2 cups boiling water

7 large eggs

5 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

5 3/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons sifted cake flour

3 3/4 cups fine granulated sugar

4 tablespoons baking powder

1 3/4 teaspoons salt

15 ounces butter, softened

THE SYRUP:

2 1/2 cups water

1 1/2 cups sugar

2/3 cup Grand Marnier or other orange liqueur

THE BUTTERCREAM FROSTING:

1 quart milk

1 cup all-purpose flour

2 pounds unsalted butter, softened

4 cups fine granulated sugar

2 1/2 tablespoons vanilla

Line two 10-inch and two 7-inch layer cake pans with parchment or wax paper. Butter and flour paper. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Whisk together cocoa and water until smooth. Cool. In a small bowl, lightly combine eggs, 1/4 cocoa mixture and vanilla. In a large bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Add butter and remaining cocoa mixture. Beat at low speed to moisten dry ingredients. Then, beat at medium speed 1 1/2 minutes. Scrape down sides. Beat in egg mixture gradually in 3 batches, beating 30 seconds after each addition. Divide batter among prepared pans, filling pans no more than halfway.

Bake 7-inch pans 30-35 minutes and 10-inch pans 40-45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool pans on racks 15 minutes. Loosen edges and invert pans onto oiled wire racks. Remove paper and re-invert. Cool completely. Sprinkle layers with syrup to prevent drying. (See recipe below.) If cake is not to be assembled immediately, wrap well in plastic, then in foil and freeze.

To make syrup, cook water and sugar in a saucepan over medium heat, stirring until sugar dis- solves. Increase heat, stop stirring and bring to a boil. Cool. Stir in liqueur. Chill. Can be prepared several weeks ahead.

To make buttercream, boil milk and flour in a saucepan to thicken. Cool. Cream butter and sugar. Add vanilla and beat well. Push flour mixture through a strainer into creamed mixture and beat until fluffy.

To assemble, place 1 cake layer of each size on cardboard rounds and trim tops horizontally to level them. To make bottom tier, spread a 10-inch layer with frosting and top with second 10-inch layer, trimmed side down. Spread with frosting. To make top tier, repeat with 7-inch layers to make a double layer. Place bottom tier on a 14-inch flat cake plate. Press a stiff plastic straw firmly into the layer. Mark straw 1/2 inch above where it emerges from the cake. Remove and cut at marked place. Cut 4 more straws to same length. Carefully press 4 straws into bottom layer 2 1/2 inches from edge and place 1 straw in center. Gently center top tier on its cardboard round on bottom tier. Spoon frosting into pastry bag and pipe out decorations as desired. Garnish with ribbons or flowers.

Elizabeth Esterling's recipe is adapted from one in "The Cake Bible" by Rose Levy Beranbaum (William Morrow, 1988), which is full of useful hints for baking your own wedding cake.

TIPS FOR A CONFECTION THAT TAKES THE CAKE

*BAKE AND FREEZE LAYERS two to three weeks ahead.

*Prepare and refrigerate syrup up to a month ahead.

*Make buttercream 1 day ahead and wrap well to prevent it from picking up refrigerator odors. Soften before using.

*For an avant-garde look, place top layer off-center.

*Decorate with fresh flowers and ribbons. They're easier to work with than buttercream flowers and can be strategically placed to hide mistakes. Place a replica of the bride's bouquet on the very top and use more of the same flowers around the layers. Ferns and leaves dress up the bottom tier.

*For more than 50 people, bake one two-tier cake and additional sheet cakes as backup. Decorate only the tiered cake and cut the sheets in the kitchen.

*Assemble the cake a day ahead or early in the morning of the wedding day. Be sure someone has an empty refrigerator with shelves removed for storing it.

*To transport, place cake on a large board or wooden tray. Bring along a pastry bag filled with buttercream for repairs.

*For an outdoor wedding on a hot day, place cake on its own table indoors. Later, carry the cake, table and all, out to the reception.

*One caterer told of a dog taking a big bite out of the wedding cake. Consider yourself forewarned.

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