Friday, July 10, 2009

the amazing coral reef cake

The coral reef cake was by far my most complex cake to date, and possibly my best, but since I made it a mere 2 weeks before we moved to Japan, I never wrote a proper entry about it. So I'm saving this to be posted while I'm on vacation - on the 10th, 3 months after Jackson's birthday.

I spent weeks working on this cake. Months, really, if you count the planning. This is the original sketch:

I did a couple of revised sketches, but not much changed. Mostly the final sketch was just more detailed. I decided to do fondant instead of buttercream because I was worried about a buttercream cake getting damaged during the drive to the party, not to mention that I wasn't sure how well it would hold up outdoors. I wasn't able to find any birthday candles shaped like surfboards so I changed gears for the top - I decided to stick with the overall concept a little better and do lettering that looked like skywriting instead.

The candle (just a regular old "1" candle - plus a candle shaped like an exclamation point) ended up on the smash cake. (The candles, incidentally, did not get lit. We tried, but it was just too darn windy.)

I originally planned to do a 10" cake for the guests and a 6" tier for Jackson's smash cake - hence the 2-tiered design. But when we booked a pavillion at Bellows AFB for the party we realized that in order for it to be worth it, we'd have to invite a lot of people. Then I realized that one 10" tier wouldn't be enough for all of those people. So I added a 4" smash cake to the plans.

The plan was to do the tiers in two different flavors. The bottom was going to be chocolate with chocolate ganache filling. The top was going to be banana-flavored cake, with coconut buttercream (as in, made with half shortening and half coconut oil) and macadamia nut filling. Jack's smash cake was a combination of the two - banana cake with ganache. (The kid is crazy for bananas, but he's too young for nuts.)

I was going to use essentially the same recipes that I used for the Cassie/Jim cakes. (Well, the same chocolate cake, and the butter cake recipe that I used for the layers in the tiramisu, but with banana flavor instead of almond.) Both had stood up really well to being decorated - I had even covered the chocolate cake with fondant and it held up fine. But that was an 8-inch cake. This cake, a 10-incher, didn't turn out quite so well. I think I took it out of the oven too soon, because it just kind of collapsed.

I did my damndest to fix it, I propped up one side with half a cake circle, and it seemed to do the trick.

I actually got to the point that I covered it with fondant. Ah, the fondant. From-scratch, delicious, white chocolate, perfectly colored fondant.

And then this happened.

Well. That just would not do.

My mother (my parents were in town) thought I was crazy to make such a big deal out of it. I mean after all, it's just a cake, right? No, no, no. I've been planning this cake forever. Everybody knows that I'm passionate about cakes - everyone is waiting to see what I've been working on. I can't show up with a cake that looks like this. I can't make the cake I've been planning with a bottom tier like this. It'll never support a top tier.

But I don't have enough fondant to cover another 10-inch tier. I was distraught.

Then Brian made the most obvious suggestion ever: go to Ben Franklin and buy a box of Wilton fondant, and make another cake.


So I went to Ben Franklin and got a box of fondant. And I stopped at Safeway on the way home to get ingredients for another cake - eggs, sugar, butter. I got home and we ate dinner - have I mentioned that all of this was happening on Jack's actual birthday? We ordered a pizza for dinner, because he loves pizza.

I ended up running back out to the store again to get flour, or something, I don't remember, and I baked another banana-flavored butter cake, since it was a proven recipe that hadn't failed me yet. (The 6-inch top tier had come out great.) I filled it with ganache, because I really wanted chocolate to be represented. (Also I thought it was a good idea to have a nut-free option.) I mixed the Wilton fondant half-and-half with the homemade stuff and it didn't taste bad - not as delicious as the from-scratch stuff, but it was definitely edible.

And then when the boys had gone to sleep, I got started on the decorating. The tedious work of making the coral - pipe out a few inches, go back and poke little holes in the slightly-crusted royal icing with a toothpick. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Finding spots for all of the little fish. (Actually I think I ended up placing the fish first and then piping the coral around them.) It was so tedious, and so wonderful. This is the part I really love, this is the fun part. It's a shame so much BS has to go into getting to this point.

I haven't talked about the fish yet, have I? I didn't want just a bunch of random, colorful fish, I wanted Hawaiian reef fish. During my ridiculously long planning stage, I whiled away the endless hours of Jackson-bouncing by surfing the "Hawaii Underwater" group on Flickr. I downloaded countless pictures of colorful, interesting-looking fish, and narrowed it down to, I don't know, 8 or 10. I made sure to include the freaky eel that I encountered in Hanauma Bay, and the blue fish that I remember so vividly from Ke'e Beach on Kaua'i - I didn't have a snorkel mask, and I didn't need one, all I had to do was look down and see a school of these bright blue fish swimming around my legs. This is a very special memory for me so I had to be sure to include it on the cake.

The fish were all hand-crafted out of marshmallow fondant. I bought all kinds of candy molds to use as push-molds, and they just didn't work out - not detailed enough. The only mold that ended up working for me was a play-doh mold of what I can only assume is supposed to be an anchovy - it's part of the pizza-making set. I used it for two of the kinds of fish - the humuhumunukunukuapua'a and the dark brown/black one with white spots. I used the molded fish as a starting point, and did LOTS of further shaping to get them to look the way I wanted.

All of the rest of the fish were done completely by hand, starting with a little ball, and making liberal use of my fondant-and-gumpaste-sculpting-tool set.

When they had dried, I painted them with icing color (most colors were the gel kind, the purple on the jellyfish was luster dust dissolved in clear vanilla).

Also re: the jellyfish: I did the bodies in fondant - lots of people thought they were gumballs - and the tentacles were royal icing that I piped right onto the cake. The anemones were piped onto wax paper and moved to the cake when they had dried. A couple of them broke a little, and I brought some royal icing with me to the party to fix them when I set up the cake, but I just never got around to it. There was too much to get done.

The dolphin on the top tier was an attempt to cover up the seam in the waves. I didn't do a very good job with the wave overlay, it's decent but I should have smoothed it onto the cake better before I started cutting, and the seam is awful. Even with the dolphin there, you can see it. As I often say about my own work: Kerry Vincent would be appalled.

The top tier didn't quite sit right on the bottom tier, but that's not my fault; I'm not the one who cut the dowels. I knew it was going to be a problem that they weren't exactly the same length, but by that point I just didn't care. This was a pretty darn stressful cake to make (all things considered). If I'd done a bottom border on the top tier, you wouldn't even have noticed the little gap - but that wouldn't have worked with the concept. So I dealt with there being a little gap there. No biggie.

The smash cake didn't come out so great. I mixed up a bowl of aquamarine buttercream, but didn't smooth it onto the cake right away - Jack probably woke up or something, I don't know, something distracted me - and I didn't think to cover the bowl of icing. So it was partially crusted and dried out when I went to smooth it onto the cake. Whoops. *Sigh*, well they can't all be winners, right? I so did not have the time, patience, or ingredients to whip up yet another batch of buttercream (and I didn't think to add some glycerin), so I just used the sub-par stuff. Good enough for a smash cake, I guess.

So that's the coral reef cake. Not too many people ended up showing up to the party, so it was way too much cake. The 6-inch tier wasn't even touched, it ended up getting brought to playgroup the following week - there was no way we could eat it at home, considering that we had 10 inches of super-rich (collapsed) chocolate cake to eat. But the cake was a hit, and I'm proud of it.

1 comment:

Mother Hoodwink said...

You did so great with all of it but those fish are amazing! I think you're supposed to be a cake designer.