Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Cake Dilemma - Compromising TASTE to get the LOOK?

My mother has a saying that she uses every year when I send her a tin of hand-decorated sugar cookies: "They're too pretty to eat!" I used to laugh, but lately I think I know what she means: they are lovely but in fact, they don't look edible.

Okay, so I am a scratch baker. I like to bake the old fashioned way, and take my time on it. Flavor comes first and all that.


I am also a cake decorator. And lately I am more and more at odds with myself over the compromises to taste that one often has to make in order to get a certain look. When someone orders a custom cake from me, I want to make it taste as good as possible, but people often don't realize that by asking for a certain look, they are putting up obstacles to having the freshest, tastiest cake possible. Some of the challenges are:

I actually kind of like the taste of fondant (a.k.a. sugar paste), when it is homemade. But the taste (and more important the texture) of fondant is something that is not palatable to everyone. On those occasions where I attend the function for which I have made the cake, I often see it peeled off of the cake slices.

There are distinct advantages of using fondant, of course: 1) There is a uniquely different look to fondant which is very popular. 2) You can sculpt life-like figures with it. 3) Fondant-covered cakes can stand up to heat like most buttercreams cannot.

But despite its popularity, I am seeing more requests lately to return to buttercream and only use fondant for the accents or toppers, if at all.

Gum Paste: Used to sculpt life-like figures and flowers, gum paste dries quicker and harder than fondant. But although it is certainly edible, very few people want to eat it. It is rock hard when dry, which makes it ideal for certain detailed sculptures (the shoe at left is gum paste). 

 The CAKE itself: When you order a wedding cake or any other custom cake that requires time-consuming, detailed decorations, that usually requires working over the course of a few days. So the cake is not so fresh by the time you get it. This can lead to cakes that are dry. There ARE things your cake decorator can do to help this somewhat - applying a sugar syrup to moisten the layers, choosing a cake recipe that is less prone to drying out in the first place, etc. But the simple fact is that elaborate cakes are, by necessity, several days old by the time you eat them. Not that they aren't still tasty, but they are rarely as tasty as simpler ones that were made fresh. This is a compromise that you pretty much just have to accept.

Sculpted/3-D Shapes: Speaking of the CAKE part of the cake, you may also have to compromise on the type of cake you were looking for if you have a unique 3-D shape in mind. Sculpted cakes are generally made with something dense like pound cake. If you were looking for a light, delicate white cake, you probably shouldn't ask for it to be shaped like a rowboat or something.

Warm Weather Outdoor Events:
If you absolutely HAVE to display your cake outside on a warm day, you will be limited about which frostings can be used. I have searched high and low for frostings that can stand up to high heat. There are many buttercreams that can sit at room temperature for several hours, but if your cake will be outside on a day that is 85+ degrees, you basically have two options:

1) Opt for a fondant covered cake (with fillings that can withstand heat). If you don't mind fondant, this is a great option.
2) Use a high-ratio shortening in place of butter for the frosting. Nobody likes the idea of a shortening buttercream (think of grocery store cakes with that really sweet frosting on them and that is what a shortening buttercream is) But if it is really necessary, there are ways to make it taste fairly good with extended beating and adding flavored extracts. I had to use it once for an outdoor summer wedding cake (the bride requested no fondant) and I actually got many compliments on how tasty that cake was.

If possible, the best thing to do is store the cake in a cool room and bring it outside just before cutting (of course, this may not be possible with a tiered wedding cake).  ALL cakes need to be kept from direct sunlight, so find a shady spot if it has to be outside.

Artificial ColorsI don't have a problem with artificial colors, but there is an ongoing debate about whether or not they pose a health risk. You may be surprised at just how much coloring you have to use to get the vivid colors seen in modern cake trends (This 8" cake took an entire small bottle of professional strength red coloring). All-natural colors just do not achieve the same shades.

Non-Cake Items and Architectural Supports:
If you have watched any of the trendy shows like Ace of Cakes or The Cake Boss, you know that there is a lot of Non-Cake in today's cakes. Rice Krispies are used to make shapes that can't be achieved with cake alone. And the more impressive the cake sculpture, the more likely it is that a large percentage of that structure is actually non-edible architectural support. I don't have a problem with that, but again it takes us one more step away from pure cake that tastes good. So people should be aware that when they order a fantastical cake, some of it may not be cake at all, and they may be sacrificing taste to some extent.

So what's the summary of all this? I actually don't know. Other than maybe I am just getting old. Because the older I get, the more I prefer cakes that look simply and utterly delicious. I am still heartily impressed by cakes that look like shoes, snakes, and cars. I just don't really want to eat them.

Vanilla Raspberry Cake with Raspberry Buttercream

Boston Cream Pie

1 comment:

  1. A dilemma to be sure...but think of this. The truly talented chef gives no thought to how the patron would like the meal prepared. He prepares it to his recipe using quality ingredients, professional preparation, and a beautiful presentation.
    That being said, I have to relate your dilemma to one I have in by business every day. When a client wants to use a certain fabric, in a certain style of treatment, I know there are times when it just will Not Work. I feel it is my obligation to my client to tell them that, make other suggestions, and let them make an informed choice.
    The cakes would be the same. Interview the customer and get all the details on what they want and how they plan to use it. (When you go to Nothing Bundt Cakes, they ask you if you are planning to serve your cake immediatley or later that day, and give you instructions accordingly.)
    Respond to the customer with all their alternatives so they can make an informed decision, maybe even ask them to read this post (which is fantastic and informative).
    There have been many times we have completed a clients treatment when we dissagree with the choices they made, but they were aware of any consequences to the choices they made and so they were a happy customer in the end.

    Great Post!