Monday, March 2, 2015

Vanilla/Vanilla Cake

My handwriting isn't the best, but I'm still proud!
Cake! Ohmigoodness, I love cake! I wish I could take back every time in my life that I was offered cake but turned it down, because I love cake. Actually, I don't have to, because I never turned down cake. Who turns down cake???

Diabetics, probably. Or people who don't like cake. But who doesn't like cake?? Cake is delicious, especially when done right. I can't stand the cakes that you get at the grocery store anymore because they so often use that "bettercream" stuff, which is a shelf-stable soy buttercream substitute which is used to frost commercial cakes. You'll see it on most ice cream cakes and supermarket cakes. It has a very distinctive taste, which I have grown to hate, from using it for over a year in a job I had once. I also hate American buttercream, which is just butter and powdered sugar. This is the buttercream you probably learned when you were a kid, while your mom(or dad) made cakes for your birthday. Just butter and powdered sugar. The end. You love it as a kid, but as a grownup you probably scrape it off your cakes because it's just too much. Another thing about powdered sugar is that it has cornstarch in it, which does keep it from clumping and whatnot, but it also leaves a weird, gross kind of film on the top of your mouth when you're done eating it. So, as an adult and as a professional, I tend to shy away for the American buttercreams in lieu of French or Italian buttercreams, which are less sweet and more fabulous, with a much more beautiful sheen than your typical American buttercream, and certainly shinier than your typical fondant.

While we are (sort of) on the subject, I have to say this:<rant>

 I am sick of friends(acquaintances, rather, that sort of only know me by proxy) that find out I'm a Pastry Chef and then send me pictures of crazy fondant-ed towers of confection saying things like "U should maek this for my 4yo's bday party pretty plz??? :):):):):)"

How about "No"?
Just because I'm a Pastry Chef doesn't mean I know how to make those crazy cakes that take literally days of work. Also, "should"? You know what I should do? Shower. Brush my teeth. Up my fiber intake. Take a Spanish class. Those are things that I should do. I can't fucking stand people saying "you should make this" and then show me a picture of something I have literally zero interest in. A giant wedding cake in the shape of the characters of Yo Gabba Gabba? How about no. Go to a fucking bakery and pay someone else to care.

</rant>

Being a pastry chef nowadays is an interesting task. Being self-taught, I only really learned the things that I was interested in or thought of making for my job. If I wanted to make a pumpkin pie for the new menu, I looked it up and gave myself a little crash course on that. Cakes are a tiny bit of a struggle for me, since I make them so seldom. After tons of youtube videos, though, and several rules in mind, I've found the perfect white cake recipe and the technique to go with it.

For my recipe and technique, I turned to none other than Chef Ron Ben-Israel. This man is a world-renowned cake designer, and master baker. I love his personality on all of the Food Network shows, and I eat up every episode of Sweet Genius like no other. He showed up on an episode of "Worst Cooks in America" in their 4th season to show the cooks how to make cakes. The thing that blew my mind was that he used a food processor to make the batter. It was like a lightbulb: of course!

The enemy of cakes is gluten, which makes a product chewy, and produces odd bubbles called "tunnels", which are air pockets trying to escape their gluten-y trap. Who wants chewy cake? Not me. The perfectly cooked cake has tiny, uniform bubbles, like a teensy little sponge. Anyway, use a food processor for this method. But the original recipe, found here, says you can use a standing mixer with a paddle attachment. Another little tip is that, when baking a cake, you want all of your ingredients to be at room temperature. I don't know why this is better, necessarily, but I'm not one to question good results. Thank you, Chef!

White Vanilla Spongecake
yield: 1/2 sheet pan, or 12-16 servings

  • 6 large egg whites, room temperature(don't throw away the yolks! You'll need them!)
  • 1 1/4 cups whole milk, room temperature
  • 1 scant Tbsp vanilla paste(recipe calls for 2 tsp vanilla extract, but I prefer the paste)
  • 4 cups cake flour, sifted(to make your own: 1 c AP flour, take out one tablespoon and replace it with cornstarch. So that means 4 cups ap flour, minus 4 Tbsp, plus 4 Tbsp cornstarch)
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1 Tbsp + 1 tsp Baking powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 8 oz (2 sticks) unsalted butter, chopped up in pieces, at room temperature
Preheat your oven to 350. Grease and parchment-line two cookie sheets, 2 9" cake pans, or 3 6" cake pans. You can also make cupcakes with this recipe. I used a half-sheet pan.

Place all of your dry ingredients in the bowl of your fully assembled and ready-to-go food processor. (Don't put in the stuff without the blade in it and then try to attach it to the machine. You feel like an idiot because you are.) Blitz all of your ingredients for at least 45 seconds to get everything fully incorporated and chopped up tiny. While that's going, mix your vanilla with the egg whites and about 1/4 cup of the milk using a whisk. You'll want your mixture to be smooth. 

Add your butter and blitz for another 30 seconds, at least seven pulses. Add your egg mixture and pulse about seven times. Now add in half the remaining milk, and pulse a few more times, just until it's incorporated. Repeat with the last bit of milk. The result will leave you with a smooth, delightfully shiny cake batter.

Divide your cake batter evenly between whichever pans you decided to use. Use an offset spatula to really get that cake batter spread evenly, and in the corners of your square. An even spread is crucial to an even bake. Even go so far as to give your cakes a few taps from the bottom, just for good measure, to make sure your cake is evenly distributed.

For the sheet pan, it took about 15 minutes to bake. For a round, I would expect it to take at least 20. Check your cakes after the first 20 minutes, and then decide from there whether to go further. You'll want your cake to be golden on the edges, and pull away from the pan just ever-so-slightly. You'll also want it to be firm when shimmied, and dry when pricked with a toothpick in the center. Let cool completely before you assemble your cake.

For this recipe, I used the French Buttercream recipe from Thomas Keller's Bouchon Bakery cookbook. If you can't read it, here's the amounts that I used to frost what ended up being a 4-layer cake:

French Buttercream
  • 1 scant cup of egg yolks(about a dozen)
  • 1 1/4 c milk
  • A scant 1 1/2 cup sugar, divided
  • 2 lb 2 oz butter 
  • A fat pinch of salt
  • 1 tsp vanilla paste**
Bring to boil the milk with half the sugar and whatever flavoring you decided to use. Whisk the remaining sugar with the egg yolks until smooth. When the milk is steaming, remove from heat and splash about half of the hot liquid into the yolk mixture, then whisk. Combine the now warm yolk mixture into the remaining hot milk and return to the heat. This technique is called tempering, and it's absolutely necessary to create  perfect custard sauces every time. Are you making a custard? Yes, you are! You're making a custard, which is going to be turned into a buttercream. Yum!

Return your custard to the heat and, on a medium flame, whisk until it gets thick. Remove immediately from the heat and pop about 2 oz(4 Tbsp) of the butter into the custard to stop the cooking. Pass the mixture through a sieve and into the bowl of a standing mixer to ensure that you get an uber-creamy and silky texture. You can skip this, but you've already gone this far...why half-ass it at this point? You've already separated those eggs...

Attach the whisk attachment and whip on medium speed until cool, about 4 minutes. Begin adding the butter in small increments, no more than a few ounces at a time. I know that this is a pain, but trust me, your patience will be rewarded. It may not look like much when you start, but by the time you get that last bit of your 2 lbs in, you'll be so happy. This buttercream is delightfully custard-like, and tastes like straight-up creme brulee when you use the vanilla bean. So tasty! And what a beautiful shine... Remember, everything in the pastry world should be shiny

To Assemble

Cut the layers of your cake as desired. If you used the 2 round cake pans, simply slice them in half crosswise to create the layers. You can take this opportunity to use a simple syrup to moisten your layers, if you like. I love having simple syrup on hand, as it's an instant sweetener to iced teas and an instant life saver to your drier cakes. It's just a simple 1:1 ratio of water and sugar, boiled together, but you can infuse flavors into this very easily, and then just go nuts with its many applications(cakes, cocktails, flavored teas, etc). I used a sheet pan for my cake, so I just cut mine into quarters, which then stacked up to be four layers. 

The thing to remember is that you shouldn't over-fill your layers with frosting. No more than half an inch, I'd say, when all spread out. Pick your piece to be the base(the most-level) and then douse with simple syrup, if
See the sheet tray that it's sitting on? That's the size I used!
Layering cakes create exponentially more servings without
having to actually bake MORE CAKE!
you're using it. Pop a dollop of frosting on and spread evenly. Repeat until you get to the top layer, dousing and frosting respectively. You want to make sure your cake is level now, versus later. Trim off any edges that are hanging over, now, too, using a serrated knife. Take your time with this step; look at the cake from all angles and from the top to make sure it's evenly round or square.

Once this step is complete, it's time for the crumb coat, which is just a thin layer of frosting to catch all of the crumbs and to make sure that the cake is nice and uniform. Just grab a fat dollop of your buttercream and schmear all over, evenly, using this coat to cover up any cracks or crags you might have. It's not intended to be pretty, this coating, but it's intended to give you a smooth, uniform level on each side of your cake. Once this is done, pop it in the fridge for about 10 minutes, so you can go to the bathroom or grab a Coke or something. 
Haha. Kind of looks like a marshmallow wearing a hat...
To finish, dollop a very generous amount of buttercream right smack on the top, and then just distribute it over all sides. Once you have a nice even coating all around, you can play with decorating combs or piping or whatever. This cake is your creation and you gave it life. You made it to share. Or to eat with a fork on your coffee table while you binge watch Parks and Rec on Netflix now that it's gone. *sob* But you should probably share it. You put all of this love and effort into creating this giant thing (baking cakes is a lot of work!) so you may as well share it. Bring it to a friend's house. Give it to a homeless guy. Go into a coffee shop and be like "Hey I made cake but I don't have any friends. Who wants a slice?" Totally do that. There's no way that could end up badly.

Happy Baking and Happy eating! Comment below with any questions or concerns! I am an open forum!

Hopefully your handwriting will be better than mine!