Saturday, March 5, 2011

Cake Successes, Frosting Failures

I often make bread in my sleep.

Okay, not really, but I sometimes start the dough just before I go to bed, knead it, and do a few stretch and folds before leaving it in a cool place in the house. Then I sleep, wake at six in the morning, shape the bread, plop it in the proofing basket, turn on the oven and sleep for an additional two hours before I bake. So, in a sense, for me, baking bread is integrated into my sleep.

Cakes, on the other hand, are not.

I've heard it been buzzed around that you are either a cook or a baker. And further, a cake baker, or a bread baker. I actually began with baking cakes. My dad had this recipe for a coffee cake that was very simple, with a bit of streusel at the top. The first time I made it, it was a complete flop. I think I might have mixed up the baking soda and baking powder. He didn't like it, but I ate it anyways, every odd bite.

At University, I would often buy cake mix- I know, I know. You're tempted to stop reading and shun me forever, but hear me out! It was THE FEAR. Forever I had been hearing that cake is difficult to make, that the only way I could make one was to add whatever it was in the box to water, oil, and eggs. I had decided that it was not for me. I stuck with bread and pies, both super-easy to make.

Eventually I progressed to quick breads, and brownies, and from there, it was a small Katzensprung to your basic cakes.

The first cake I made that I absolutely adored was Clotilde's eponymous Chocolate and Zucchini cake. In 2010, I made it a whopping five times in the first half of the year before moving on to the wonderful Buttermilk Raspberry Cake found on Gourmet's website. 

Then the delicious Almond Cake (also on Chocolate and Zucchini) three times. Just look at that crust. It needs nothing more. Not even frosting! Despite it appearing like I am strictly a bread baker, I have made my share of cakes.

When I got David Lebovitz's Ready For Dessert book last summer, I swore to myself that I would bake more cakes. In fact, there were so many amazing cakes in there that every time we needed any dessert for any occasion, I would look in there first. In fact, since I got it, it's one of the few cookbooks that has a permanent place in the kitchen.

The book is so foolproof that I made my very first cake involving folded egg whites. For someone who is so shockingly familiar with yeast, I am unshockingly unfamiliar with folding egg whites. And for good reason, no? I bake bread. You mix everything together, knead it a couple of times and then sit back and don't worry.

Cake baking is a little more complex- Sift dry ingredients together and then mix wet ingredients together then add both to each other slowly, taking care not to overmix. It's a little more complicated than baking bread, but you still let the baking powder or baking soda do its thing. With this sponge cake, however, it only has a shocking half-teaspoon of baking powder (for insurance, probably). I mean, look at this crumb! It almost looks like bread! I was shocked and pleased when I pulled the sponge cake out of the oven.

But that's as far as my cake baking success goes. I can now make a successful sponge cake, with custard, but I keep failing on the frosting.

Take another look at that Chocolate and Zucchini cake. Yes, that's ganache, but it is all melty. That's what happens when you decide to make it last minute on a hot summer night. At least the cake underneath the ganache went over super well. It almost made people forget about the runny ganache. Not that the cake needs any, because it is delicious with just a light dusting of powdered sugar.

Take another look at that beautifully crusty Almond Cake. Notice anything missing? Yes, frosting. I did say it didn't need any, but, still, it typifies the type of cake I make. Cake like bread. All almondy- dense and delicious.

And the Coconut Layer Cake above? It would have been perfect had it not been for the frosting. It was just whipped cream and a bit of sugar, topped with toasted coconut, and was the best Coconut Cake I've ever had- not to pat myself on the back or anything.

So, yes, I can make delicious cakes from recipes from my two favorite Parisian Bloggers. But it's frosting that I have problems with. And it's not like I can't make frosting. I just don't have enough experience, what with relying on Pillsbury canned frosting, long after I had moved past cake mixes.

Nevertheless, I keep persevering. With book in hand, and inspired by Kelly's post on Something Shiny (check out her picture-perfect cake), I set out to make the holy grail of cakes- well, at least in Ready For Dessert- the cake on the cover.

If you buy this book for one recipe alone- well, actually, that's not a phrase you'll be able to use for this book, because it's full of such recipes. One of them is actually a recipe within a recipe- Salted Caramel Peanuts, as part of the mouthful- Banana Cake with Mocha Frosting and Salted Caramel Peanuts. The name of the cake could have been Yum Cake, and it would not have mattered, because the Salted Caramel Peanuts are something of which you'll have to make sure to make a double recipe. Because they are awesome.

And because no matter how the cake looks like, or how much the peanuts get in the way and roll everywhere when you're trying to cut the cake, no one will be able keep their hands off them.

Oh, yeah, and the cake isn't shoddy either, banana layers mixed with the mocha frosting, creating this trifecta of deliciousness. I know, I know, I can't describe flavors, especially when they make me lose all objectivity.

What no one will notice, though, is the frosting- Years of being used to radioactive-colored frosting from a can will make anyone eat anything. Or, rather, they will make people not care, as long as what they are eating is delicious. Sure, appearance and a glossy frosting like the one on the cover of the book might be all you think about when you are ashamed to present the cake, but really, no one cares. Because the cake tastes good.

In case you're wondering where it all went wrong- I let the coffee go cold, and made the frosting a bit later than the rest of the cake. The cold coffee made the melted chocolate seize up, and it took lots of stirring and whipping and refrigeration (gasp!) to even make the mocha frosting lose its graininess. I almost died of shame, but luckily, I knew what to do to try to barely rescue the cake.

 My worst frosting disaster, though, has to be this amazing carrot cake from a guest post by Barbra Austin on David Lebovitz's blog.

Take a close look. Well, not too close, because my frosting-spreading skills have a way to go before they catch up to my photographic skills.

You don't see it? Well, let me change lenses for a closer look. You see those lumps? Don't say no, because they are clearly there. The recipe calls for cream cheese and butter to be creamed together, but somehow the whole thing started melting on me as I was putting it through the mixer. Again, cooling down the frosting did the trick, but the butter sort of stayed in little lumps in the frosting. Little yellow bits taunting me until the end.

Of course, the end of the cake came with people telling me how delicious the cake was. Someone even told Amy, "Tell Daniel this is what carrot cake is supposed to taste like." A high compliment indeed.

Oh, and in Germany, no one makes carrot cake. Almost all of them have been weak attempts to make a cake that has cross-over appeal for Germans, though, in truth, carrot cake is an acquired taste, even for most people in the States.

Still, it doesn't matter. If I can make a loaf as awesome as the one above that displays my mad scoring skills. I think I can try again and again to master frosting, no matter how many kilos of butter and powdered sugar I have to ingest.

After all. I'll still have my bread. And that, I can make while I sleep.


  1. How about becoming a 'proper' German (whatever that may be) - and you can simply forget about frosting ;)

    Most of the time it's just sickingly sweet, often ruining a perfectly good cake. The only frosting I am happy with myself is a dark chocolate ganache, and that's really simple: melt 150 g dark chocolate (70%) in 85 ml milk; very low heat (take it off as soon as it's almost melted), keep whisking until thick. That's all.

  2. Daniel,

    I am laughing away. I bought a cake cook book just so I can overcome my complete inability to make cakes, it sits, unused!

  3. I had a longer comment, but sadly after several attempts I'm going to reduce to a very important question: do you think you can use frozen berries for that buttermilk cake? It looks amazing. How did I not make this already? (I had a Gourmet subscription).

    I have studiously avoided frosting myself....

  4. Hi!
    Looking at the picture of your carrot cake with cream cheese frosting, I feel oddly reminded of my own failed try-outs.
    I've come this far:

    No lumps anymore, but the frosting is supposed to be white, with a stiff consistency and nice vanilla flavour.. which I'm miles away from.

    I know, as being a "real German girl", those frostings aren't part of my culture anyway - but I want to get it right.. I just figure that I need a whole lot more practice in "american baking".. But who's to eat all that sugary sweet stuff?

  5. No one makes carrot cake in Germany? Hm... I keep coming across it *everywhere*, which is a bit of a problem seeing as I don't like it. Perhaps it's a Southern German thing and hasn't found its way to Berlin yet?

  6. Thanks everyone for the lovely comments!

    Zeralda- I love making a simple ganache- but even for me, sometimes it all goes wrong, especially in the summer when it just won't cool enough to stop from being runny. But yeah, I would just love to forget about frosting.

    Oh, Anne Marie- I know exactly what that's like, but somehow I've been volunteering to make cakes for occasions when bread is just not special enough, and sometimes I wish I didn't have to!

    Hi Sara- You can make the cake with frozen raspberries, but make sure they are thawed, and at room temperature or so, otherwise the cake won't cook sufficiently in the middle- I learned this the hard way during a Halloween party, and had to do some cake fixing.

    Ann- Your frosting recipe looks really interesting! First beating the sugar into the butter then beating the cream cheese in. I'll try it next time. But can't you get proper Philadelphia at your supermarket? I see it everywhere in Berlin. Oh, and the frosting is always a touch off-white, never perfectly white.

    Bettina- Okay, I do see carrot cake here, but it is often dry with the frosting way too sweet or too runny. It might be a memory thing, but it is never as good as most carrot cakes in the States. Though the recipe I linked to tasted the way that I remember carrot cake.

  7. Of cause I can get Philadelphia at my supermarket, but I don't think it's firm enough. Besides - there are a lot better tasting cream cheeses on the market than Philadelphia :)

    That's good to know! In all those American youtube-videos the cream cheese frosting always looks extremely white.

  8. But we do have carrot cake! Just omit the frosting (and maybe just top it with a thin royal icing!).

    Your breads look amazing - I am saying this as the spoiled German that I am...

  9. I love a cake without frosting! I admire your lovely attempts in cake's a whole 'nother area of baking! I have not had many successes in from scratch cake baking. Your post has got me wanting to learn more!

  10. Such an inspiring post! as you may remember, I love baking breads, but have a complete phobia with cakes, particularly.... genoise (I swear, I am NEVER attempting one again, my greatest failure in the kitchen)

    indeed, it's a completely different area of baking, and a scary one... so, I'm impressed by your adventures

  11. I'm off to try the Chocolate & Zucchini recipe - the last one I tried (Nigel Slater's) wasn't that great so I've been on the lookout for another one.

    To avoid lumps in the frosting. Whisk the butter until it's really light (super soft to start with helps). Then whisk in the cream cheese. Then whisk in the icing sugar. Finally fold through your flavouring (orange zest, vanilla essence, cinnamon, maple syrup, etc....)

    Always works for me.
    Katie H

  12. Great post, funny as always. And yes, the real American carrot cake is an acquired taste for Germans - I do not like it ;o). Hey, forget the frosting - you live in Germany where cakes don't need any frosting ;o))))))).