Saturday, 2 April 2011

This One Takes the Cake (Literally): My "Books 2 Eat" Entry, pt 2

Part 1 of my cake posts focused on marshmallow fondant work I had prepped Wednesday night. Undoubtedly one of the largest (if not the largest) photo food albums I have to date is of the construction and painting of my Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows cake entry to this year's Books 2 Eat contest, which is the focus of this second part of this recent series of posts.

As noted at the end of my previous post, I had baked my cake just before going to work, which allowed ample time for the cake to cool in the baking dish. When I got home from work Thursday evening, it was time to size up the cake and carefully take it out of the baking dish. Before pouring in the dark chocolate cake batter, I had greased the dish with canola oil and sprinkled dark cocoa powder on top (for yellow cakes, custom would be to sprinkle flour). In retrospect, I must've had some Felix Felicis somewhere down the line because the cake came out rather easily, and when leveled and stacked (more or less) is the same thickness of the seventh Harry Potter book.

With the cakes out of the dish, it was time to prep the buttercream frosting and fruit filling. Since I needed the filling to be as cooled down as possible, I started off with this and sliced two small handfuls of strawberries (depending on size, about 10 strawberries) into small chunks and allowed it to break down on med-hi heat with one tablespoon each of sugar and freshly squeezed lemon juice. After about 10-15 minutes, the juices have been released and are heating up together; at this point, I added 1 tsp cornstarch to thicken up the reduction and 1/4 c orange juice. Let this all boil down to a thick, jelly-like consistency and trandsfer the (now) tangy strawberry filling into a small bowl to cool off while you make the buttercream frosting.

When working with fondant, the tradition is to first cover the cake with a buttercream frosting to help keep the fondant moist; the fondant itself is used to keep the cake moist (which this cake typically is already because of the recipe). Especially with marshmallow fondant, buttercream isn't typically needed, and since I had also made the fruit filling, there wouldn't be any issue with layering the cakes with that alone. Despite all of that, buttercream is just plain tasty, and since I was making a dark chocolate cake, where's the harm in making a chocolate buttercream? (My thoughts exactly.) And after researching different buttercream recipes, I used Wilton's as my starting point. Again, because I was making a smaller cake, I didn't need nearly as much frosting as Wilton's makes; for my version, I creamed 1/4 c unsalted butter (I still don't have a working hand mixer so I went my cannelle-and-scrape method; this step can be done as the tangy strawberry filling is coming together). To this, I mixed very well 1/4 c vegetable shortening (read: Crisco) which resulted in a fluffy base to work with. To this, I added 1/2 tsp vanilla extract, and then began an alternating process of folding in 2 c (in 1/2 c increments) sifted confectioner's powdered sugar and 1.5 tbsp milk (in 1 tsp increments); be sure to fold the ingredients at this point, as stirring will tend to get the powdered sugar all over the place. Since I wanted chocolate buttercream, I added 2 tsps dark cocoa powder and 1/2 tsp ground sea salt.

With the tangy strawberry filling cooled down and the chocolate buttercream frosting all finished, it's now time to assemble the cake. For the serving base, I simply wrapped a piece of cardboard with aluminum foil. Since I planned to have the cake stand up at an angle, I made sure to have a flap on the cardboard so that it could rest on a book rest typically found in libraries (this'll all make sense in my next post). After a small layer of buttercream on the foil to help adhere the cake to the base, I leveled off one of the cake halves and put that leveled-side down. (Due to the shape of the baking dish, the angled edge helps create the illusion of a book cover.) Onto this layer first goes a thin layer of buttercream, then the tangy strawberry filling, and finally the other half of the cake, flat side down.

Take all of the remaining frosting and get that onto the top of the cake. Using a frosting spatula (or something similar), cover as much of the cake as possible with the frosting, especially what will be the binding of the book cake, as well as the top and bottom of the book. I didn't have enough frosting to cover the complete "pages" side of the cake, but I did have enough to at least seal in the tangy strawberry filling. Indeed, the frosting helps to keep the fillings in so they don't accidentally leak out and mess with the fondant work. Once fully covered, it's time to let the (now) crumb coated cake set in the refrigerator. Make sure you don't have any foods with strong odours (e.g., onions) in the fridge, or else it can leave a strongly odoured taste on the frosting!

After about 30 min, or whenever the frosting doesn't come off the cake when you touch it, it's time to take the cake out of the fridge and begin to cover it in fondant. Throughout this process, pre-grease your mat and rolling pin with Crisco to prevent the fondant from sticking. I started with the sides of the book in white to represent the pages and then tucked in some brown around three of the edges (not the binding side, i.e., the left edge) to create the illusion of the back cover. Then it was time for the biggest piece (which for me, took two tries). As shown above, roll out the fondant to the size you need (estimated 3/16" thickness; you can go thinner because marshmallow fondant will allow you to do so). Try and get it right at this point as it's quite difficult to blend pieces of fondant together and hide where the pieces meet, once it's all on the cake; don't worry about needing to re-roll the fondant. Then carefully roll the fondant onto your rolling pin and then roll it all out over the cake. It's definitely better to have more fondant than needed than it is to have to go back and patch things up. Tuck in the edges of the top, right, and bottom, part of the book to enforce the side of the front cover, and using your hands or a fondant smoother, smooth out the fondant from right to left to remove any trapped air and end with a smooth finish. Also, moving from right to left will force more fondant to the binding which is arguably the most important side of this cake in terms of execution of clean fondant work. Trim off any excess and then it's time for the most difficult part of this entire process: painting.

As mentioned in my previous post, seeing the (water-based) liquid food colouring bleed into the fondant was not a good sign, and while I suppose you can still use it, the different websites I had taken a look at suggested the best one could get is a watercolour-looking painting. And so, Wednesday evening, went to a local craft store and literally spent at least 20 minutes debating what kind of colourant I should get. Before arriving, I had read powdered food colouring mixed with alochol is best as the alcohol will evaporate and leave behind strong colours; however the store didn't have any, and it would take more research time to figure out a specialty store that might have it. And so, I settled on icing colouring (which just like the paint brushses, fondant smoother, and inspiration recipes were Wilton-branded). In a gel form, these colourants are extremely concentrated and based on my frame of reference can be treated as tubed oil paints. To "thin out" what I'll be calling here on out as paint (but do make sure you're buying the safe and edible food colourants!), you can use alcohol (e.g., vodka, rum) but I chose vanilla extract which is recommended by Wilton and in itself has a high alcohol content.

I first started out with using different shade variations and vanilla extract because the background of the cover is much more watercolour-like than the foreground, which is of course where the focus is on. This initial stage is also important as it's much easier to hide these lighter, guiding lines than it is mroe deeper colours. While you should practice first and take proper aim the first time around, do take note that if you need to "erase" your work, you can make corrections by thinning out the colour on the fondant canvas with vanilla extract and then dabbing that focused area with a clean piece of paper towel. I found this trick particularly helpful when I needed to paint in the author's name at the bottom (as you'll see it would barely be noticeable if I didn't do so, against a darker background).

When mixing paints, make sure to use a toothpick or some clean point to pick up some paint and then mix that with the vanilla extract or other colours in a palette; you don't want to contaminate the colours and again the pigments in this form are strong so a little really does go a long way. For darker colours, don't mix with the vanilla extract and just take the paint directly from a dipped source as seen in the left photo above.

And don't forget the binding!

In this case, nearly three and a half hours later, I was done with just the painting portion of this challenge. I transferred the finished product into a box and covered it with aluminum foil (making sure not to let it touch the cover) overnight until I could transport it up to campus. Unless your filling is made of needs-to-be-refrigerated fillings, such as fresh fruit, do not store your cake in the refrigerator as the subsequent condensation can aesthetically ruin the fondant, and especially painting, work. Rather, leave it covered in a cool room/area.

The final part of this blog post is up next, and focuses on the Books 2 Eat contest and the inevitable cutting of the cake.

To check out photos of prepping the fillings, assembling the cake, and the start to finish of the painting process, click here.

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