Brides are crazy. This is a fact, not a judgment.
I know this, because I’ve been a bride.
I was crazy. How do I know? I made my own wedding cake.
You know all those “Baking with Julia” shows on PBS that have famous patissiers tossing off goodies with the venerable queen of the kitchen? Baking a wedding cake isn’t like that, although I did use Martha Stewart’s recipe from that series for the cake (not the filling or frosting or décor – that was Rose Levy Beranbaum all the way).
Here’s what happens.
A week before your wedding, when you are most insane, you buy a lot of sugar, and a very lot of cake flour, and a very, very lot of unsalted butter (it must be UNsalted, not regular butter), plus some other ingredients that require you to go to the extremely special cake and candy supply store way the other side of the universe.
You sharpen wooden dowels in a pencil sharpener to provide the support for the layers, which will weigh as much as Martha Stewart (her pre-menopausal weight, not her pre-jail weight, thank heavens), and then wash them for fear of giving your guests graphite poisoning.
You measure the quantities of ingredients. This is called mise en place but might well be called planning the D-Day invasion. Alternatively, one might call it the Bay of Pigs, at least in my kitchen.
You realize that your Kitchen-Aid mixer, although the ne plus ultra of mixers when you got it several years ago, cannot accommodate the very large quantities of ingredients you are going to have to mix.
You portion the ingredients into manageable amounts for the now-inferior Kitchen Aid mixer, organizing by layer size, since you’re making this cake in tiered layers.
You mix the ingredients, carefully following the directions.
You realize that you haven’t turned on the oven to preheat it, so you turn it on and have to wait.
You realize that you haven’t prepared your baking pan, so you spray it with a little Pam (should have used softened butter, but you forgot to get enough to meet that need), put in the parchment paper, which you didn’t cut as neatly as you wished you had, then spray it with Baker’s Joy . Will anyone know you aren’t using the butter and flour? Will this spell doom for the marriage?
You pour the batter into the pan and are on the verge of putting it in the oven when you realize you’ve forgotten to add the vanilla.
You pour the batter back in the mixing bowl, add the vanilla, re-prepare the pan, pour the batter back in and put it in the oven, praying that the leavening power of the baking powder hasn’t been compromised. (Do soldiers fear the power of their missiles is affected if there is too long a wait before they are fired? I think not. Baking is harder and more unforgiving than war.)
You hover over the oven. The rule about watched pots doesn’t apply to baking, where the art of the hover is finely tuned. You debate whether to open the oven when the timer rings, wondering once again about that faithless thermostat which is usually wrong, and how it might affect the cooking time. You test the cake with a cake tester, which took you ten minutes to find in your cooking tool drawer because it is so small, but it is better than a toothpick because it is EQUIPMENT.
You take the cake out to cool and wonder if perhaps you left it in too long because the cake has already shrunk from the sides of the pan and Rose and Martha told you not to let that happen. Will anyone taste the dryness of the overbaked cake? Will we be divorced by our first anniversary?
You repeat the process for the remaining layers. Timing must be adjusted for each because of the different sizes. But the change in timing is not a linear thing, and besides you’re miserable at math, so all you can do is hover and pray.
The cake layers cool. You drink a cup of coffee. You wish for a stiff shot of scotch, but fear the effect that might have on the cake.
Each layer must be torted, or split into two equal layers, so there is a place for the mousse filling to go. Getting the split even, so that the final assemblage doesn’t look like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, requires a few technical tricks (or trucs, as the French patissiers might say). Your powers of concentration are waning, your mother and Julia never taught you the trucs, and one of the layers does not look quite perfectly even. You contemplate making a replacement layer. You burst into tears and jettison that idea.
The cake layers must be frozen, since it is four days before the wedding, and nobody’s recipe will last that long. There are too many other steps that must be completed.
You go to bed.
You rise to face the challenge of the mousse. In a descent into a deeper trough of madness, you decide to make two different kinds of mousse to fill the cake, one chocolate, one not. You are modifying someone’s mousse filling recipe, which is tricky even when sane. You don’t know if the mousse will freeze, which it will need to do to hold the cakes for the buttercream phase.
You make the raspberry base for that mousse. Making the base takes longer than you expect. You think this project will never get done.
You wait for the raspberry base to cool. You do not think of melting the chocolate for the chocolate mousse, even thought this will require a cooling period as well, because you are insane. Rational thought has left the building.
You finish the raspberry mousse, and take out the frozen torted layers to fill, rewrap, and put back in the freezer. You thank the gods of baking and your landlord, who had a big freezer in the basement of the house you are renting. The gods are smiling.
You start the chocolate mousse, melting the chocolate, doing all the whipping cooking tasting adjusting things that one does for the chocolate mousse. It is 7 p.m. and the child wants dinner. How dare she interrupt this process with something so mundane?
You stop and cook dinner for the child. It is 9 p.m.
You take out the layer that will have the chocolate mousse. You fill it, but realize that proportionally there isn’t enough mousse to make that layer the same height as the other layers. It will be ½ inch shorter. You burst into tears.
You dry your eyes, rewrap that slightly shorter layer, and put it into the freezer.
You go to bed.
Waking is not pleasant. Today is the day of the buttercream. This is not your mother’s buttercream, made with confectioner’s sugar, butter, and a little vanilla and maybe warm cream. No, this is a classic buttercream, made with an Italian meringue base per Rose’s Cake Bible ( the chemistry text for those who bake – Rose is the Marie Curie of the field).
This is not only classic buttercream, it is VAST QUANTITIES of classic buttercream. Rose takes pity on you and gives you the proportions of ingredients for a cake the size of the one you are making, but once again the iniquitous Kitchen Aid is unequal to the task. You must break the ingredients into smaller portions (mise en place times two) and pray that the two different batches are the same in appearance, so the finished cake doesn’t look like the Washington Monument, with a demarcation line where work stopped when they ran out of money.
Buttercream completed, you bring up the layers to be frosted. You unwrap each one, dust off any crumbs, and apply what is called a crumb coat of frosting to, logically enough, keep any crumbs from marring the final finish coat. Invariably a few stray crumbs manage to sneak by, but you are on a roll. The cakes, being frozen, take the icing quite well. You finish off each layer by running a hairdryer over it to slightly warm the frosting so you can smooth it. You think that you have truly descended into madness, using a hairdryer on a cake.
You put the layers, unwrapped, into the freezer for a brief time to harden the icing before you rewrap them. You put the leftover buttercream into a plastic tub and put it into the refrigerator. You think little of that act at the moment, but it will be your salvation later on.
After an appropriate time, you once again take the layers out for the assembly. Each layer is on a thick cardboard pedestal. Just layering them without supports will cause them, once the cake defrosts completely, to sink like the lava dome at Mount St. Helens. You hammer in the wooden dowels with a rubber mallet as you construct the layers. This is just as Martha and Rose have taught you. Baking as construction project. The assembly is now almost three feet tall and weighs as much as a six-year-old child. You put it back in the freezer.
You think about what ordering a cake from the supermarket might have been like.
You go to bed.
The prospect of making flowers from an odd substance called gum paste sounds crazy. That’s alright, because we have already established that you are crazy. Gum paste, an amalgam of gum Arabic, sugar, glucose and other household chemicals, gives you a material that you can use to create the most delicate of flowers. You have decided that you are going to make gum paste flowers because Rose talks about them, and you’ve seen them in wedding cake books, and you know you can make the most beautiful things that are just like the flowers in your bouquet. Somewhere, the notion of just getting more of your flowers to decorate the cake, rather than creating an imitation of them, has slipped away, perhaps with your sanity.
You make the alchemical mixture. You start to form it into flowers, many flowers, many different kinds of flowers, each tinted slightly differently. You make gum paste roses, gum paste jasmine, gum paste ivy. You dust them with bits of edible gold dust, a silly thing to worry about since these flowers, though made in large part with sugar, taste awful, and no sane person will eat them.. You use the same sculpting techniques Rose has taught you when you make roses from chocolate modeling clay; at least that tastes like a grown-up Tootsie Roll. This tastes like you might expect from something called gum paste.
At midnight, you are still crafting gum paste flowers and assembling little sprays of them for the cake.
You fear you have developed diabetes from all the sugar products you’ve used over the course of the cake-making. You’ve read somewhere that a chef said he thought all chefs were fat because they absorbed fats through their skin. Perhaps this has happened to you.
You wonder if you will still be able to fit into the wedding dress you made for yourself – another foray into madness.
You put the assembled flower sprays into flat plastic shoeboxes (clean, of course) with tissue paper to protect them and keep them dry.
You go to bed.
You rise the next day, knowing that various relatives are coming to town today. You start the day by making the frightening trip to church with the cake. It will wait there, slowly defrosting for a day, in the huge refrigerator where it will share space with the half and half for coffee hour and the apple juice and baby carrots for the children in Sunday School.
You pray no one will touch it. You leave a sign on the door saying (in a very Christian way, of course) “Don’t touch this cake or you will die a painful, horrible death.”
You go home, take a shower, and dress for the rehearsal and rehearsal dinner. Your back hurts from carrying the cake.
Your directions to the rehearsal dinner are fatally flawed: one of the key road signs has been stolen. The out-of-town guests drive miles out of their way before finally making it back to the gathering. You are mortified. The children are bored.
You go to bed wishing you had just gone down to Town Hall, gotten a damned marriage license, and went to Bermuda.
You wake up the morning of your wedding, and realize that the sky is blue and you are happy. For some reason this shocks you, perhaps because you are insane.
You dress in casual clothes to go to the church and finish the assembly and decorating of your cake. You do not have any coffee, because you want your hands to be steady.
It is Sunday, and you arrive during the normal Sunday service. The giant refrigerator is in the kitchen where the coffee is prepared for the post-service Coffee Hour. Edgar, the 92 year old man who has made the coffee since the Johnson Administration, is there. His moods swing between charm and curmudgeonliness. He is reasonably sane, though.
You are insane.
The cake awaits you in the refrigerator.
You will take it out and put it on one of the rolling carts, for final decoration and moving into the chapel, where your reception will take place. You reach in to take it out of the refrigerator. Edgar says, “Let me help you, dear.”
“No,” you say.” I’ve got it.”
He helps anyway, tipping the cake into your chest. Fortunately, this is as far as it tips, and you manage to get it onto the cart with no further problem…except for the two roundish dents in one side of it.
You contemplate killing Edgar, but realize this will not solve the cake problem and will distress your guests, not to mention your fiancé, who is opposed to murder on principle.
You realize that there may be enough extra buttercream to address the dents. You smooth it on, put the golden ribbon decoration around each layer, add some additional buttercream edging in swirls and flourishes, gently place the gum paste flowers, glistening with the gold petal dust, on the cake, and carefully move it into the chapel. You manage to safely transfer it to the top of the piano, where it will be displayed during the reception. You say a prayer to Saint Elizabeth of Hungary and Saint Honore, patron saints of bakers, to keep it safe while you go home to prepare for the evening wedding ceremony.
You go to the hairdresser, where Lucien has made a special trip to fix your hair. He makes it excessively poufy a la Priscilla Presley (the early, Elvis years), but you still feel lovely, particularly after the drink of brandy he gives you to calm your nerves. He makes the child look like a little princess, which she is anyway. You go home to dress and put on the makeup.
By now the boys are in their tuxes. They have relented after making cash offers to be spared the indignity, offers which you have refused. You complete your preparations. You are on some other planet now, watching yourself move through the various preparatory steps to making a marriage.
You think this is what hope is, doing this again, loving again after a disaster.
You go to the church, you see your beloved, you know that this is more than hope, it is belief in the essential rightness of this love.
You have the ceremony. The music is lovely, the flowers are lovely, the words spoken are lovely, you remember nothing of it but the quality of the light in the evening.
You are still floating during the reception. The toasts happen, kind words are spoken, people seem genuinely happy for you. People bring you food. You eat, but do not taste.
The time comes for the cutting of the cake. There it sits, in all its glory. The work of a week, of a lifetime, waiting to be sacrificed on the altar of love. You wonder, for a moment, if it will taste good. You cut, with the cake server your mother used at her wedding. You each take a bite.
It tastes sweet. It is sweet. All is good.
Happy 18th, dear PH. Eighteen more 18ths would not suffice.