Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Life is Like a Layer Cake

Life is like a layer cake. Sometimes you have to trim a lot of excess away to bring it into balance. And it can never be too sweet! (That's my inspirational quote of the day.) One's ability to make a beautiful and delicious layer cake is a prized possession, especially in the South. Growing up, there was always one home cook in the community who was known for her cakes. In my neck of the woods, it was often pound cake or coconut cake. My mom was all about the sheet cakes, so layers have always kind of scared me. However, my great Aunt Lucille on my Dad's side was one of those master cake makers. She sometimes sold her cakes, and of course they were always brought to family functions and church potlucks.

Not a great picture, but I'm darn proud of my 4-layer cake!

In other parts of the South, there's the caramel layer cakes, lemon layer cakes and the ubiquitous Red Velvet Cake. I finally got around to reading my copy of last month's Saveur which featured a big fat piece of Red Velvet Cake on the cover. The accompanying article was so inspiring and heart-breaking. The author, Ben Mims, grew up in rural Mississippi and now lives in New York. He was once very close to his mother but their relationship changed after he came out to his parents. He writes: "And I can't help feeling like I've lost touch with not only my mother, but also my lifeline to the world I grew up in. Thank goodness I still have the cakes." 

For Ben, cakes are more than something sweet and pretty. They are an important connection to his past. And I also hope that they represent the future hope of reconciliation with his family. The article touched me, I suppose, because I can also relate to being disconnected from my mother. Our circumstances are very different, but I too cling to foods that take me back to mother's kitchen. If we leave it up to the drive-thrus  and grocery store bakeries, what will our children have to remember? Will they get they get the "warm fuzzies" reminiscing about McNuggets and florescent colored store-bought cakes? I would like to think not. That's part of why is important to me to be a good cook. 

Last weekend I helped to coordinate a class on making layers cakes with Maggie and Kate Sweeney, the mother-daughter baking duo also known as the "Cake Hags." They operate Cake Hag Bakery out of the commercial kitchen at my neighborhood church. Several of us huddled together as they showed us how to make a perfectly tender and delicate butter sponge cake and Swiss meringue buttercream icing. We then attempted a feat I've long been frightened of - slicing two layers in half to make a 4-layer cake. Here are some tricks I learned:
  • You don't need fancy cake slicing tools - just a good serrated knife and a cake turner.
  • Use a dab of icing as "glue" to center your cake on a cake board or plate.
  • Pipe icing around the corner and fill in the center with icing between each layer.
  • Use an offset or icing spatula to smooth on a thin crumb coat of icing. Press down with the spatula as you turn the cake to smooth the sides and top.
  • Allow the crumb coat to harden in the freezer for about 15-20 minutes before applying the final layer of icing.
  • Smooth on icing with offset spatula and you can even use a large putty knife to smooth the sides. (Obviously, one that you don't also use for putty!)
  • Piping on a border is fun and easy. All you need are some basic decorating tips, pastry bags or parchment paper.

Special thanks to Candace Dixon for photos of our class.

We had a wonderful time and are already planning another class focused specifically on decorating. I'm more inspired and determined to make layer cake than ever. After all, it is my Southern duty!

I'm happy to share with you these recipes provided by Cake Hag Bakery. If you live in the Atlanta area and are interested in having them make a cake for you, give them a call. Follow Time for Good Food on Facebook and Twitter to keep up to date with future class offerings. I don't know about you, but after looking at this photos again, I'm desperately seeking cake (or at least a lick of icing)!

This cake was made by our youngest participant, Elise (13). She is on her way to cake superstardom!

Butter Sponge Cake

Printable Recipes

2 cups + 4 tablespoons all purpose, unbleached flour

1 1/3 cups + 2 tablespoons granulated sugar

3 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon kosher or sea salt

1 cup whole milk

1/2 cup oil (prefer sunflower or safflower but any vegetable oil will work)

4 large eggs, separated

1 teaspoon really good vanilla extract or 2 scraped vanilla beans

Before you start:

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees F
  • Prep 8" cake pans (either 2" or 3" deep) with baking spray and line bottoms with parchment (wax or aluminum foil will not work well)

Step by Step:

1. Sift dry ingredients into mixer bowl, adding the 1 1/3 cup sugar last, then stir together.

2. Make a well in the center of the mixer bowl ingredients put the egg yolks, milk, vanilla and oil in the well and using the paddle attachment mix on medium/low until the mixture is incorporated and smooth. At this point, if you only have one bowl that fits your mixer, scrape the mix into a holding bowl with room, set aside and clean the mixer bowl well.

3. In a clean mixer bowl and using the wisk attachment, began whipping egg whites on low/medium, gradually adding the 2 tablespoons of sugar - increase the mixer speed to medium/high or high, until you have medium to stiff peaks (these peaks will not quickly collapse when tested, but whites are not so stiff they can't be easily folded).

4. Gently fold the finished whites into the main batter, taking care to completely incorporate.

5. Bake for 30-40 minutes, checking and rotating at 20 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean and top springs back from touch. Remove from oven and allow to cool completely.

Vanilla Bean/Brandy Swiss Buttercream Icing

5 large egg whites

1 1/2 cups granulated sugar

1 pound unsalted sweet cream butter at room temperature

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon quality vanilla extract

1 vanilla bean, scraped

1 tablespoon brandy, cognac or flavored brandy

Step by Step:

1. Set mixer bowl with egg whites, salt and sugar over a pan of gently boiling water, mixing and scraping sides with a wisk occasionally, until mixture either reaches 130 degrees F or the sugar granules have become liquid (you can test this by pulling a strand of the mixture through your first two fingers and thumb - if you can't feel any granules, it is ready to be removed from the boiler). If you are going to need a color in your icing, this is the time to add that one color using paste or gel colors either from a cake supply store or the Wilton. Do not use the grocery store liquid colors because they can change the consistency too greatly. If you are going to need more than one color, it's best to add those after the buttercream is finished.
2. Put mixer bowl and contents on mixer and using whisk attachment, beat on medium/high for several minutes, until mixture cools and takes the form of a meringue. In this case, you want semi-stiff peaks - tops of peaks just barely falling over when pulled.

 3. Switching to the paddle attachment with the mixer set on low, begin adding butter in 2- tablespoon increments until butter is incorporated, then increase mixer speed to medium/high. Icing may and is likely to go through a few stages, from a globby separated stage to the final stage, where in a very short period it pulls together and takes the smooth, creamy and whipped consistency you are looking for. For this reason, watch the mixer as the icing develops.

 4. Add the vanilla bean scrapings and brandy, mix until incorporated evenly throughout.


  1. The birthday cakes I make my daughters might not be as polished as a bakery cake, but I know they appreciate the love and care that goes into creating them (And I always think that homemade cakes and frostings taste way better than storebought!). I love thinking about how the decorations each year were in keeping with what they were into at the time - I've made a fish-themed cake, a baseball diamond,a princess castle and a fairy tale cake so far... who knows what's next!

    1. I'm with you. Homemade cakes are the best, except N wants a 3D storm trooper cake this year. Hmmm .... may be calling the Cake Hags!

  2. I love your opening quote of the day :) I think your four layer cake is gorgeous and thanks for sharing all the great tips your learned at your decorating class. Also, thanks for the link to the Saveur article. Quite the story on Ben Mims. Hopefully his Mom makes an effort to reconcile with her son. Family is everything.

    1. Thank you so much, Paula! I loved that article in Saveur. I will definitely have to try that caramel cake!

  3. Taking this class was fantastic and the Cake Hags' sponge cake recipe is great because it makes for a very sturdy yet moist cake. My biggest takeaways from this class were: that using high-quality ingredients makes a big difference, to always use a circle of parchment paper on the bottom of a greased pan before pouring in the batter, learning how to properly slice a layer in half by using a large serrated knife and a steady, locked-at-the-waist arm, embracing the power of a crumb coat and how to make my own parchment icing bag (for piping fine lines). I'm looking forward to the next class!!!