Friday, July 10, 2015

Wedding Cake Construction

Every significant celebration requires a special cake. This post will take your knowledge beyond the basic layer cake; to tiered, stacked works of edible art. These towering beauties are usually a wedding celebration centerpiece, but can also be made and served for anniversaries, ‘Sweet Sixteen’ parties and any other special occasion where the cake must be awe-inspiring and serve a crowd.
Wedding Cake with Crystallized Edible Flowers and Mint Leaves ~ by Sally Rae

The elements of a tiered cake are the cake itself, the filling, the icing and the decorations. Design and flavor should reflect the style of the occasion as much as the bride and grooms’ taste. The cake can be nearly any flavor; many people are shocked to learn that in my experience, carrot cake and chocolate cake are the top two flavors for weddings! The filling can be jam, lemon curd or whipped cream and berries to name a few. Most cakes are iced with buttercream or fondant. Icing is a matter of preference, but also a matter of practicality, especially as it relates to climate and season. The soft simplicity of ‘Basic Buttercream’ is very appealing but should be refrigerated up to 2-4 hours before serving. ‘Rolled Fondant’ produces a porcelain finish; it holds up well and even helps preserve cakes to keep them fresh when they are too large to refrigerate. The decoration and structure of the cake will determine its personality, from simple tiered to elaborately iced. Decorations can be made of marzipan or ‘Royal Icing’ (which dries very hard and is the best material for delicate, long-lasting decorations). A cake can be embellished with sugared or plain fresh fruit or flowers. If using flowers be sure to use only edible flowers that are pesticide and herbicide free from a reliable source. Cut flowers should be added as close to serving time as possible so they look fresh.

Basic baking skills and supplies, patience and time are all you need to create a beautiful, classic cake. Though no one skill is difficult to master, each step must be executed precisely; the cake layers must be perfectly level with straight sides, the wooden dowels must be perfectly even, and the icing has to be perfectly smooth. Be sure to practice and don’t be too ambitious with your first cake. Once you have mastered basic cake construction, you can experiment with more elaborate shapes, colors, decorations and designs.

The internal structure of the cake influences its appearance. With each tier more support is needed; dowels prevent the upper layers from crushing the lower ones, cake board separators are placed between each tier, and a strong base is used to move the cake. One role of the decorative piping is to hide the inner workings and seams between tiers. Each tier needs a cake board, to make your own; trace the cake pans onto a piece of heavy cardboard, cut out the shape, and cover completely with tin foil and saran wrap. Prepare the strong cake base before assembling the cake. The board should be at least two to four inches wider than the cake and able to support the full weight. (I have a clean, sanded sheet of plywood specifically for this job.) Cover the plywood cake base with fancy foil or spread with a thin layer of royal icing and let dry overnight. Trim the edge with ribbon, secured with a glue gun.

The cake layers and buttercream icing can be prepared and frozen for several weeks. Alternatively, the day before assembly, bake the cakes in parchment-lined cake pans and let them cool slightly. Remove cakes from the pans, and do not peel off the parchment. Once cooled completely, place each cake right side up on the cake boards. Cakes seldom bake level, even them out with a serrated knife to make it even all around, then wrap in plastic. Refrigerate for at least 6 hours or overnight; this makes the layers firm and easy to handle. The cakes can be frozen at his point. A 'Baker's Secret' is to brush the cut surface of the cake with a 'Flavored Sugar Syrup' before wrapping or 5-10 minutes before frosting. The syrup both moistens and flavors the cake.

To prepare the tiers; first place a small dollop of icing in the center of one cake layer. Place another cake board on top then invert the cake, remove the original base and parchment paper. The smooth flat bottom of the cake is now the top, and the dollop of icing prevents the cake layer from sliding off the cake board. Place on a turntable. Fill this cake and add the second layer; for a single cake, split a single layer by working a serrated knife through while turning. Brush the cut surface of the bottom half with 'Flavored Sugar Syrup’. Fill with icing, jam, lemon curd or whipped cream and berries. If using jam or lemon curd, first pipe a ‘dam’ of icing around the perimeter to keep the filling in place and ‘glue’ the layers together. Do not use too much filling or the cake will slip and slide. Replace the top layer, cut side down and brush with sugar syrup. Let sit five minutes. Ice the top and sides of the cake with a very thin layer of buttercream to give it a ‘crumb coat’, this seals the cake. Smooth the icing ...this will be covered with more icing later. Chill the tier about 30 minutes to set the icing or until it does not stick to you when you touch it. Repeat these steps for each tier. Give each tier a final coating of icing, using an offset spatula to smooth the top and sides of the cake tiers. The icing should be smooth and uniform, refrigerate the cake tiers. 

Insert a ¼-inch dowel rod vertically into the bottom tier of the cake, mark it at cake level, remove it and cut eight pieces to this length using clean garden pruning shears. These are the supports for the next tier. Hold an empty cake pan over the finished tier to determine placement. Use five cut dowels to form a circle one-inch in from the edge of the tier that will be placed on top. Use the other three dowels to form a triangle inside the circle. Do not place dowels directly in the center of each tier. Repeat this process for each tier, except the top one, using fewer dowels in different configuration, as the tiers get smaller. At this point the cakes can be refrigerated overnight.

To transport the tiers, place each one in its own box (with double sided tape between the cake board base and the box), and place on the flattest surface in the car out of direct sunlight. At the reception site, assemble and decorate the cake. Dab some icing onto the center of the cake base to keep the cake from moving and place the bottom tier on it. Add the next tier resting it on the dowels. Once all the tiers are stacked cut a dowel ¼-inch shorter than the height of the cake. Using a knife sharpen the end to a point, and with a mallet, gently drive the dowel through the center of all the cakes and cardboard bases using your finger to push in the end. To finish use a pastry bag fitted with a decorative tip to cover the seam between each tier, add the other decorations. Secure the cake top decoration with icing. The cake is now ready to be admired by the bride and groom and their guests. 

*CHEF'S NOTE: This assembly can be done at home before transporting the finished cake to the reception site. The finished cake is then loosely and completely wrapped in plastic wrap. Transportation then becomes a nerve wracking 2 person job consisting of a careful driver and passenger who holds the cake steady. For every fully assembled, tiered wedding cake I have sent out of my kitchen, I have witnessed a very nervous pair of folks who all successfully got the job done... and many who swore they would never want to do it again!!

FLAVORED SUGAR SYRUP
This syrup will moisten the cake and add a subtle flavor. 

1½ cups granulated sugar
1 cup water
3 Tbsp. liqueur -Grand Marnier, Frangelico, Kirsch
OR try...
3 Tbsp. citrus zest or 4 Tbsp. dried Hidcote lavendar 

In a small saucepan combine sugar, water and zest or lavendar if using. Set over high heat; boil until the sugar dissolves. Remove from heat, strain and cool completely before using. Stir in liqueur if using. Brush cake layers with syrup and let stand 5 minutes before frosting.

Syrup can be made 10 days prior, store in an airtight container in the fridge.

BASIC BUTTERCREAM ICING   Yield: about 7 cups icing
This recipe makes a large batch of icing. The unused portion can be packaged in 1 or 2 cup containers and frozen for up to 4 months. To use, defrost in the fridge; bring to room temperature and re-whip the icing before using.

1 lb. (2 cups) butter, softened 
8 cups confectioner’s (icing) sugar, sifted 
½ cup whipping cream 
2 Tbsp. pure vanilla extract

Beat the butter on an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment until light and fluffy. Gradually add the icing sugar and cream alternatively, beating well after each addition. Add flavouring and beat well.

*VARIATIONS* 
  Almond ~ substitute 1½ Tbsp. almond essence for vanilla
Citrus ~ substitute 2 Tbsp. pure lemon or orange extract for vanilla 
     Coffee ~ dissolve 1½ Tbsp. instant espresso coffee in the cream before adding    
    Chocolate ~ beat in 1 cup sifted cocoa powder and 2 Tbsp. whipping cream

Till next week... Bon App├ętit!

Wedding Cake, Crystallized Flowers and Mint by Sally Rae
Photo by Sally Rae 

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