When my brother rang to tell me he had got engaged to his girlfriend I said, “Congratulations! Can I make the wedding cake?”by Wendell Steavenson / November 13, 2017 / Leave a comment
The first seriously ridiculous cake I made was for my Dad’s 75th birthday. He was a military history buff; I made him a tank cake. Two sheet pans of chocolate cake sandwiched together with chocolate buttercream and carved into the body of the tank and the turret. It took me a long time to get the fondant overlay icing the right shade of khaki. It was very tricky to transfer the sheet of thinly-rolled fondant and smooth them into place. The turret was small and went OK, but the fondant tore against the slanted flank of the chassis. Fondant is not like pastry, you can’t patch it. The cake was ruined. I smashed my fists on the worktop in frustration.
“OK, it’s not perfect, but it looks fine,” said my mother trying to be consoling. I looked at her, wild-eyed with fury.
“When was ‘fine’ ever good enough?” I yelled.
The crack was on the underside, I smooshed the edges together and it looked a little better. The turret fitted on top. I made track wheels out of fondant circles painted brown and indented with the spokes of an apple corer. I cut out fondant details of hatches and latches and stuck them on the top of the tank. I covered a chopstick in fondant for the canon. It was a triumph.
Since then I have made: a gravity defying cake with a tube of red paint being squeezed over the Happy Birthday; a surprise cake which when you cut into it revealed the vertical red, white and blue stripes of the French tricolour; a cake that looked like three books stacked on top of each other; a chocolate bust of Napoleon filled with mousse. When my brother rang to tell me he had got engaged to his girlfriend I said, “Congratulations! Can I make the wedding cake?”
I thought about putting live doves inside, but doves are quite big, the cake carcass would have to be enormous, and there was the problem of bird poo. I thought about suspending the cake upside down. I considered intricate lace piping, the support structure needed for five tiers, naked cake and dry ice. There is no cake madness that trawling Instagram will not encourage. No, I thought, trying to get a grip, let’s go in the opposite direction of bells and whistles: simple, elegant. I got stuck on the idea of a cloud. White, ethereal, pretty. Meringue, candy floss, cream. I could make a sun rise out of molten sugar tinted yellow and little chocolate cherubs gilded with edible gold leaf…
Then I found a mould. There is a trend in pâtisserie (if you routinely hashtag that sort of thing) for desserts in new and preternaturally precise shapes made in silicon moulds. A water ripple, a twisted ellipse, faceted gems. One looked like a bubbly cloud. I immediately ordered four.
You can cook a cake in one of these silicon moulds, but they are more commonly used to make entremets, an absurd fiddly apotheosis of a pâtissier’s obsession: layers of genoise, dacquoise, gelée, crème pâtissière, feuilleté, mousse enveloped in a mirror glaze. I decided I would make my cloud out of white chocolate mousse with a hazelnut biscuit base. Red raspberry jelly hearts would be revealed when the bride cut into it.
What could possibly go wrong? Over two weeks I practised the cake, correcting gelatine levels and calibrating the relative structural integrity between the freezer (where the cake would need to harden so that it could be unmoulded) and fridge and room temperature. I wanted the cake to be cloud shaped. The problem was that the mould was square. I thought I could cut off parts from one cake and stick it around the edges of another to achieve a more amorphous effect. But when I tried, I couldn’t. No amount of white chocolate velvet decorating spray could cover the gaps and if I tried to weld the bits together with extra mousse it just looked a mess.
Apparently I like making cakes. But it nearly destroys me every time. I get an idea in my head, but inevitably there comes a point where the gap between concept and my ability to execute it becomes apparent. The cake won’t come out of the tin, the batter splits, the texture of the cake is like a flat oily flan, the buttercream mousseline is runny, the meringue decorations go brown in the oven. I throw cake on the floor, tip whole bowls of sugary egg whites in the bin, I rail, I scream. My loved ones know this stage. They stand well back in case of flying chocolate covered spatulas. They call it “cake rage.”
The technical complication with the wedding cake was the white chocolate mousse: gelatine needs to be hot to melt and cream needs to be cold to whip.
On the day I made the cake for real, the mousse came out too slack and the jelly hearts sank. Mine too. I held my head in despair. My mother looked at my tear-stained face. “I don’t know why you do this to yourself,” she said. “Try and put it in the fridge for five minutes and see if it firms up.”
It did—along with a sense that it is time to address my issues. Why do I impose such a high standard on myself that I must necessarily fail, no matter if, in fact, I haven’t?
Cake is not the only part of my life that turns out not to be ideal. Ideals are, after all, by definition unobtainable. Everyone knows that the photos on Instagram are altered. But in my self-defeating head, everything is a failure because nothing is perfect. How can I learn to be happy with pretty good? What monstrous ego prevents this? Should I go to a therapist or on a patisserie course?
As I watched my new sister-in-law cut into the cake, I swore it would be the last one I ever made. But two days later I sat up in bed with the laptop on my knees Googling unicorn vomit (yes, it’s a thing) because I had a genius idea for a gravity-defying rainbow-coloured Vomiting Barbie cake for my niece’s ninth birthday. I think this is the point where you’re supposed to raise your hand at the back of the meeting and admit: yes, I have a problem.