Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Great Big Birthday Cake!

Kristen reminded me recently that I'd promised a post about The Biggest Cake I've Ever Made. Which, I realize, as far as big cakes go, is not actually that large, but it still presented its own challenges to this enthusiastic but still definitely amateur baker.

It was a 50th birthday cake for a friend at work. The birthday girl's favourite cake is apparently butterscotch, which is fine if you don't mind using a cake mix (spoiler alert: I mind), or if you're under the (mistaken) impression that these have anything to do with actual butterscotch:
The internet is absolutely chock-a-block with "recipes" for "homemade" "butterscotch" "cakes" made from white or yellow cake mixes with butterscotch pudding mixes added to the mix (pleh!). But if you're looking for actual butterscotch, that can actually be a hard flavour to define. I mean, everyone knows butterscotch when they taste it, but when was the last time you actually tasted real butterscotch? I've had really great caramel, which is very close, but not quite the same.

Thankfully, the internets also have some good sources for food information, and pastry chef Shuna Fish Lydon at her Eggbeater blog breaks it down for us. As I understand it, there are 2 major differences between caramel and butterscotch: caramel starts with white sugar, which is cooked with butter to a lovely golden colour ("caramelized") before the addition of cream to thicken it; butterscotch starts with butter, which is browned, and then you add brown sugar and boil it till it looks like lava before adding cream to thicken. Minor differences in ingredients and technique, but there's a definite difference in the end product too. Martha Stewart turned out to be the only source for a butterscotch cake recipe I could find that did not include the aforementioned (pleh!) mixes. In addition to the usual cake and frosting components, this recipe includes a delicious butterscotch sauce that is brushed on the top of the bottom layer, both top and bottom of the middle layer, and the bottom of the top layer.

When I finally had a recipe, my next issue was size: Michelle's cake would have to serve at least 75 people, and I've never made a cake that big before. Every reference I found indicated that the cutting guides you can find (usually for wedding cakes) anticipate only a very tiny slice per person, since wedding guests have presumably filled up on rubber-chicken-and-host-bar wedding feasts, leaving not much room for cake. This cake was meant to be the only food offered at a mid-afternoon shindig (aka office oink-fest), and so I was concerned about quantity. I told Michelle's colleagues to order a Costco cake to make sure there'd be enough to go around, and got out my largest baking pan and my calculator.

Martha's recipe makes a 3-layer 8 inch round cake that purports to serve 12 to 14 people. I decided to do a 3-layer 11x15 rectangular cake, so I tripled the recipe — baking the entire batch of batter in one pan, times 3. That turns out to be a lot of ingredients, including 6 pounds of butter, 4 pounds of cream cheese, a dozen eggs, and over a litre of whipping cream.
Oh yeah, that's what I'm talkin' about!
I told Michelle's colleagues about how much butter and cream I had bought and they quite sensibly cancelled the Costco cake without telling me.

Aside from the pan size and tripling the overall volume, I followed Martha's recipe exactly, and let me tell you… this is a REALLY GOOD cake — deliciously moist, the sweetness of the brown sugar in the butterscotch tempered by the cream cheese in the frosting, but with that extra hit of butterscotch sauce at the edges of each layer - it was a real treat.

One very simple thing I should have done differently was to take the cake layers out of the freezer earlier on the day I frosted it. It took a long time for them to defrost, and it doesn't do the texture of the cake any favours if it's kind of damp from the cold while you're slathering the frosting on. The fact it was still so cold also made it a bit harder for the cake to accept the butterscotch sauce, I think.

I baked the cake about a week in advance, freezing each layer separately the night it was baked, and then assembled and frosted it the night before the party. If I had it to do over again, I'd look for a way to make the brown sugar cream cheese frosting a little stiffer — I worried (unnecessarily, it turned out — phew!) that the weight of the soft icing would just make it slide off the sides of the cake into an unholy mess. But if Michelle's birthday had been in July... it would've been awful. Another thing I'd do is check my math (especially the geometry part) a little more carefully… I tripled the entire recipe, not just the cake batter, and so wound up with lots and lots (at least 3 quarts?) of leftover frosting. It's been in my freezer for about 2 months now & seems destined for cinnamon rolls (and probably another, smaller butterscotch cake). And I hadn't read the frosting part of the recipe carefully enough, so that was a pretty late night, waiting for the butterscotch part of the cream cheese frosting to cool (in an ice water bath and the fridge, but still, it's boiling hot butter and sugar!) before I could beat in the cream cheese. More time to chill might have left me with a stiffer icing.

The layers were a bit tricky to handle, especially once the middle and top layers had one side coated in butterscotch sauce, that then had to be flipped over onto the frosting covering the layer beneath. I have a couple of cookie sheets with only 1 raised edge, which came in very handy as gigantic spatulas, helping me move and flip the butterscotchy layers. The cake, once it all came together, was a behemoth — it stuck out over the top of the cake box by over an inch, so I had to jury-rig a system to hold the lid up with chopsticks, wooden skewers, tape & plastic wrap. And thank goodness I'd told the girls right up front I'd need a ride to work that day… I could hardly carry this thing (on a cake board, in a box, and then on top of my biggest cookie sheet for support) out to Jackie's van — this is definitely not a bus cake!

Other than the masses of frosting in my freezer though, there wasn't really anything that went wrong. The cake was a big hit, but there was a little left over for the next afternoon. Most importantly of all, the birthday girl enjoyed it! I would definitely bake this cake again, also definitely on a much smaller scale.

So my final advice to someone attempting a very large cake would be:
Start well in advance so you don't feel rushed the day of or night before serving.
If you've baked the cake layers ahead and frozen them, they'll take a long time to defrost because they're so large
— give them extra time, because it makes a difference to the texture of the finished cake.
You probably won't need to triple the frosting, so save yourself a little money and maybe a lot of hassle and do one batch at a time.
A large cake box is shallower than the smaller ones, and will probably only hold a 2-layer cake, so if it's going to be transported somewhere, it's best to work that out in advance.
– Have fun: everyone's going to love it!


Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Hello 2011!


(The book drops in March, but I already have it on preorder.)
...is what I'm most looking forward to this year. You can make fun if you want, but I will be cooking up a storm with Gwyneth in 2011.

I can't wait! I hope you'll join me for another year...