Have you seen the movie The Queen starring Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II? If you haven’t, bear with me. If you have, you may recall the part in the movie where the Royal Family has decamped to its vacation place to escape the media’s attention on the Family’s horrible handling of Princess Diana’s death. In one scene in particular, tea service is brought in and the Queen squeals “Teeeeea!” (I will occasionally randomly do this around my house, and Todd thinks I am insane when I do). I squealed (to myself, of course) in much the same way when I found out at the end of week 8 that class would be moving on in week 9 to “Cake!” (in squeal tone). And not fancy pants French-style cake, but good old-fashioned American-style cake. Finally! Familiar territory and on to a subject I should be able to pick up quickly and easily.
1234 Cake. No, not like “1, 2, 3, 4, ready, set, go.” That is actually the name of the cake we learned about and made during week 9: 1234 cake, or yellow cake. The most basic of all American cakes. Do not ask me why it is called 1234 cake. I could barely contain myself knowing class was moving on to cake that learning the origin of the name was inconsequential. Who cares? We were moving on to “Cake!” I do know, though, that it is also called yellow cake because it contains egg yolks.
It is easy to mix up yellow cake batter, and chances are you have all the ingredients in your kitchen: butter, sugar, eggs, vanilla, baking powder, cake flour, salt and milk. But don’t be discouraged if you don’t have cake flour. Why? Well, if you have good ‘ol all-purpose flour, just substitute APF for the cake flour and then you can make cupcakes, which is probably what you really want to do anyway. Right? I thought so. Cake flour is ground finer than APF and has less protein which results in a lighter, taller cake. APF, however, makes the batter a bit more dense so it can better hold things in it, such as fruit, nuts, chocolate chips, whatever you might add to your cupcakes. If you keep both types of flour in your pantry, you can have yellow cake and cupcakes whenever you want.
The pictures above make the batter look more beige than yellow, but trust me, it was yellow (albeit a light one). Regrettably, I don’t have a picture of my beautiful baked cake. I think I was still distracted by the excitement of making simple, delightful, old-fashioned cake.
If you look carefully, you may notice that the two batters look slightly different. This is because I substituted half of the cake flour for the all-purpose flour (remember I mentioned the flour modification when making cupcakes). In other words, I used equal parts cake flour and APF. I did this because I wasn’t going to be adding anything to the batter so I didn’t need it to be dense enough to hold something, but I was worried that all cake flour might make it too light – like a cake. It seemed like a good compromise. The baked cupcakes had a nice consistency, so I think my experiment worked. Yay, me.
And, of course, a discussion on American-style cake would be incomplete without what? Frosting, that’s what! And frosting we discussed and made. Not only one kind of frosting, but two: Buttercream and Italian meringue buttercream.
I think I can assume that anyone reading Sugar Talk is familiar with buttercream, at least the name anyway. What you may not know about buttercream, though, is that there are two categories of buttercream: uncooked and cooked. Uncooked buttercream, also known as “American” buttercream is a simple ratio of one pound of sugar to a half-pound of fat (shortening or butter), a couple of tablespoons of a liquid (water, milk, half and half) to thin it out and flavoring, if desired. The choice between shortening and butter is a personal one – mouth feel, application, etc. Since I’ve never really understood what shortening is, I’m sticking to butter.
Cooked buttercream, also known as “French” buttercream, on the other hand, has some kind of egg product (whites, yolks, whole), butter, sugar cooked to 238 degrees, light corn syrup and flavoring. Cooked buttercream made with egg whites is the most stable while cooked buttercream made with yolks is closer to a pastry cream.
The cooked buttercream we made in class was Italian meringue buttercream. If I understand correctly the various buttercream nomenclature, technically we made a French buttercream called “Italian meringue buttercream.” Hmmmm. Seems odd.
To make the Italian meringue buttercream, you have to first make the meringue. But it is cooked meringue, not just tossing some egg whites and sugar in a stand mixer, turning it on and coming back ten minutes later to find perfectly fluffy, stiff-peaked meringue. No, this is tricky meringue that first requires the sugar to be cooked to 238 degrees before it is added to the egg whites. You may be thinking, “What’s the big deal, Rachel? Use a candy thermometer.” Well, we do things the old-school way, okay? And to confirm the old-school way that sugar is cooked to 238 degrees requires hovering over it, not blinking or moving a muscle, carefully watching it for bubbles and other things and then testing it in ice-cold water to see if it has reached the “softball stage.” The softball stage essentially is when a bit of the sugar is suspended in ice-cold water for a few seconds and then when removed, it can be rolled into a ball that is somewhat firm and holds its shape when placed on a surface. Like a softball. Let me warn you if you think you are up for going old-school at home: The sugar quickly, and I mean quickly, goes from softball stage to rock candy. I am not lying about this. It happened to me and my partner and we had to start over again. Embarrassing.
Once the sugar reaches 238 degrees, be it the first or eighth try, it is whisked with the egg whites until the meringue forms and reaches room temperature, about 20 minutes. Mix in the butter and flavorings, such as vanilla (and you can also add things like lemon curd, raspberry jam, chocolate ganache), and your Italian meringue buttercream baby is born.
I am wondering if past debacles with the Italian meringue buttercream sent enough students over the edge that including frosting a cake during the same class became too much. We didn’t frost our cakes, but we watched Chef Theresa (Chef is still out for personal reasons, getting worried) frost with the Italian meringue buttercream the cake she made, and I think it might have sent me over the edge if we had done that as well during week 9. A steady and creative hand is needed, neither of which I had at this point in class.
But after a slice of that beauty, a week’s rest and some regained confidence from my cupcake baking success, I am ready to tackle frosting my cake in week ten’s class. And I have my candy thermometer tucked away…just in case.