not just nourishment: a BEAUTIFUL disaster

RER 12.17.12
You know all those sayings; “don’t judge a book by its cover” or “looks can be deceiving” blah blah blah…. But this cake was absolutely beautiful. I’d say it is one of the best looking cakes I have ever participated in (other than a Harry Potter themed one we made for a family event years ago). It stood four layers tall and stately, smooth and well frosted, round, and pretty close to an aesthetic miracle for my baking skills. I was excited and impressed. It was a great group effort with my sister.

It was another day, another birthday, and that meant, another cake. Just what felt like a few days before, I went on a baking adventure, making my first chocolate cake. And it was to die for. Most everyone voted for a repeat for this next birthday, but I wanted to try something new.

Yellow Cake, chocolate whipped cream topping, and chocolate frosting (with a hint of coffee)… sounds delicious.
RER 12.17.12
We decided on a Smitten Kitchen yellow cake, after sifting through the plethora of recipes for yellow cake. Some had a gazillion egg yolks rendering them mildly impractical. This was a really good option for us (by us, I mean, me and my sister). Plus, I have always wanted to try one of her recipes and I have never made a yellow cake (which contrary to popular belief is not the same as white cake… more on this another time).

It was not a terribly difficult recipe, including most all of the things one expects in a cake (butter, sugar, eggs, butter/milk, cake flour…etc.). I read the instructions carefully, because there is nothing worse than messing up a birthday cake. The recipe called for a lot of beating; creaming the butter and sugar, mixing in each egg individually, stirring until the milk was combined, adding in the dry ingredients in three parts, each time more mixing. I am not one to always follow recipes to a T, but I wanted this birthday cake to turn out extra great (and the pressure was on considering the success of my last cake).

Once beaten to oblivion, the batter looked and tasted pretty normal, delicious in fact. It had a hard time baking, but I am beginning to think the oven here is a little temperamental and petulant. The whole question of when to take out the cake  is always a tumultuous one. No one wants an over done cake, the dryness suffocating and crumbly (well at least that is not my idea of a delicious birthday cake). And this time there was a lot of back and forth, peeking and toothpick sticking. But finally, we made (well I made) up our minds and pulled it from the oven. Only time would tell how done (or undone) the cake was.

AJR 12.17.12

As usual, I wanted to be a little fancy, just more as an exploratory element. So we decided to frost our inner layers with a chocolate whipped cream kind of topping to keep it light ish. Though I never made this kind of filling, it was easy to whip up (pun intended). It was just cocoa powder, powdered sugar and heavy cream, and a lot of love from the hand mixer. It also turned out magnificent, smooth, creamy, luscious and chocolaty, like a pillow.

RER 12.17.12
The frosting for the outside of the cake was part of a recipe I investigated in for my previous cake. This frosting involved chocolate, instant coffee and an egg yolk. We did not have all the appropriate ingredients, but we played around with what we had to recreate the recipe as best we could. The texture was a little interesting because of our melted chocolate substitute, which was a little concoction of the cocoa powder, sugar and vegetable oil that my sister manipulated for our use. And the inventive mixing of our double brewed sip of coffee instead of the “hottest tap water” mixed with instant coffee paid off too. The frosting was strong and delicious, sweet but also very adult at the same time, perfect for the cake recipient.

RER 12.17.12
It was even a piece of cake (pun also intended), to split this bad boy into four layers. My sister expertly applied the whipped chocolaty goodness in between each layer, adding just the right amount to prevent spillage. And then all was left was frosting, and even that went smoother than expected. In the end it was a beautiful cake, on the outside at least. We both were anxious; she about the whipped icing seeping into the cake or causing some sliding, and me, I was worried about the whole thing (as usual).

It was such a pity that the beautiful cake was a disaster on the inside. My cautious and literal interpretation of the yellow cake recipe might have been the downfall of the pretty birthday cake. The texture of the four layers of cake was completely off.  Just from the moment we cut the cake it was obvious. My sister and I did see some signs we were not expecting throughout the baking process.  Beating the batter to death resulted in what looked like curdling when the buttermilk was added (though this was mentioned in the recipe).  The recipe also mentioned to tap the pans before putting them in the oven to minimize those pesky air bubbles, which we did, but they failed to go away. Another warning sign was when we split the layers. There were tons of little pockets and tubes from the air.  I guess we thought nothing of it, until the moment of truth came, the tasting.  It was gummy and chewy, dense and grainy, essentially inedible. The cake tasted fine, the flavors were there, the yellow color was present, but the texture made all of us want to run the other way.

RER 12.17.12
“Should we just throw it out?” I asked. Silence.

I took that as a unanimous and resounding yes, so we started to pick at it. I went right for all the little sprinkles (which I put on similarly to how the yellow cake was decorated in Smitten Kitchen, it was so pretty).

While deconstructing the cake, scraping off frosting and, squeezing out whipped cream, mom busted out the giant Joy of Cooking, and researched the flaw of the cake. We found that the grainy texture was a case of over beating, which may have caused the oils in the butter to separate and play silly games with the other ingredients.

After that, the remaining three fourths of the cake was dumped in the almost empty garbage can, making a depressing thud.
AJR 12.17.12

I am still bummed about the cake.  But hanging out, baking, dancing, stirring, mixing and singing with my sister was really fun. It was an experiment and group project that made us giggle and alternate micromanaging. I always enjoy baking time with my sister, even though we tend to butt heads, it’s friendly banter and somewhat expected. This cake baking time made me look forward even more to our annual Christmas Cookie Bake-a-thon which is upon us(butter is softening at this moment).

No but really, I am still bummed and disappointed about this cake. I have never made anything that terrible that it needed to be directed to the garbage can so quickly. But in the end, it is a lesson learned which could only help improve my baking skills. Every experience is a learning experience, I like to think. We are not always perfect (or our cakes or food experiments), nor are we meant to be. In our own ways we are all beautiful disasters…
RER 12.17.12

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