I know that you and everyone else must think that I’m crazy–it’s okay, I’m used to it–but I actually regret not making my own wedding cake. My cake standards are staggeringly high, and it’s nearly impossible for most bakeries–especially those servicing locations with 225-person weddings–to make cakes as good as homemade. They’ve got to start earlier than you or I would, and worse, they need to make sure that the costs are streamlined enough that someone can make profit along every step in the process, and hoo boy, do they, and in too many cases, they use shortening in frosting, when they ought to be using butter–hiss! And this is why I confess that when I had that first bite of cake gleefully shoved in my mouth, by a sweet husband, too concerned about messing up my makeup or dress to actually do the face-smoosh, my first thought was “aw” but my second thought? Well, the cake was really dry, and pretty flat-tasting.
I know what a horrible person this makes me, and I accept it, but I’m actually more interested in fixing this karmic imbalance. Aside from having a somewhat open invitation to make a wedding cake for friends who are not allowed to pay me for it, I’ve also finally come to terms with the fact that purchased cakes rarely cut it for me. My one exception is Carvel ice cream cakes, because I grew up eating them and you seriously cannot make them the same at home (believe me, mom and I once tried) lest you have a soft serve machine in your basement, in which case, I actually might move in and not tell you though you might figure it out when the crane comes to remove me from your house because I’ve gotten too fat and look! I’ve digressed again. After 10 years of Carvel birthday cakes in a row, however, this year I decided that I was making my own birthday cake and nobody could talk me out of it or should even try.
What’s it like to bake more or less for yourself? To not have pleasing others in the back of your mind? In this case, it meant following a recipe to the letter. I’ve actually made the Lady M Mille Crepes cake once before, but it was a fairly stressful experience, as I had, outside of French class in the 10th grade, never made a crepe before, nonetheless 25 of them, lacked a fresh vanilla bean and a brulee torch, and then let my husband and his people talk me into adding chocolate to the cake. People, not everything benefits from chocolate, especially the square or two that I used, which brought only a weak, background accent to the cream. Furthermore, I misjudged how much pastry cream to put between each layer, and ended up with a lot of extra and an under-filled cake. Was it crazy delicious? Oh yes. Did I want a do-over? Yes, yes, yes. Is it my party and I can craft my own exacting cake if I want to? You betcha.
But it was otherwise a cooking experience like any other, if not a little more fun. I wondered if I’d be more of a perfectionist than usual, but the fact is that when the top got kinda fugly-looking because I was using a brulee torch* for the very first time and didn’t know what I was doing, I didn’t care. (P.S. It was the tastiest part.) When I was too lazy to press the pastry cream through a sieve and it ended up kind of lumpy in the whipped cream, I just laughed, knowing it would be delicious either way. And when the cake slid around on its base, smearing this way and that in the cab ride over, I didn’t even flinch, barely recognizing my own indifference. Obviously, I’ve got to do this again next year.
Eight things to ponder before you buy your next bakery cake:
- Did you know you can bake cakes in advance? Even a week or two? Once they’ve cooled completely, wrap them in parchment paper and then completely in plastic wrap, and if you’re especially protective, then slip it inside a freezer bag. Bring it back to room temperature when you’re ready to use it.
- Did you know you can make buttercream frosting in advance? You can keep it in the fridge for a few days, and bring it back to room temperature when you want to use it.
- Ditto for fillings, like strawberry compotes or lemon curds. All of these things allow you to make a cake on your schedule, and only have to assemble it when you need it.
- Did you know that you don’t really have to have a pastry bag to pipe simple decorations? At the bakery where I worked in high school, we just grabbed squares of parchment paper for smaller bits (like writing on a cake or piping small dots) and rolled them into cones and snipped off the ends. Zip-lock bags work as well.
- Making a cake for a chocolate fanatic? You can pretty much skip the frosting, as nothing will make their eyes roll back in their head more than a simple ganache, made simply by melting some bittersweet chocolate with a glug heavy cream. Pour it over the cake and watch it dribble. Try and fail not to lick the bowl.
- I’ve got only one theory about eating high-calorie foods and that is that it’s only worth it if it’s something you just can’t get that easily. Cupcake from the trendoid bakery with lines out the door? Sadly, it looks like they’ll be there until the end of time. Supermarket-purchased birthday cake the secretaries always bring in to your office on people’s birthday? There will be another one next week. Mille Crepes cake? I’d suggest you dig in, because it’s going to be a while before I make one again.
- Is it too hot for words in your apartment and the thought of running your oven seems too ridiculous for words? Think outside the hot box. Crepe cake is a stove-top affair. Ice cream cake brings its own air conditioning. Icebox cake is not only no bake, but you’ll get it together in 30 minutes.
- Did you see Courtney’s comment last week? She’s so right. Next time you’re fussing because your frosting looks like a kid schmeared it on or a chunk of your cake stuck to the pan, remember that most of our brains are wired to know that lopsided desserts=tasty and homemade with love, and flawless petit fours=rarely the case. I know I always reach for the fugly ones first, so revel in those signs of homemade goodness.
Gâteau de Crêpes
New York Times, 5/15/05 who adapted the batter from ”Joy of Cooking” and the pastry cream from ”Desserts,” by Pierre Herme and Dorie Greenspan.
Serves (IMHO, way more than) 10.
For the crepe batter:
6 tablespoons butter
3 cups milk
1 1/2 cups flour
7 tablespoons sugar
For the vanilla pastry cream:
2 cups milk
1 vanilla bean, halved and scraped
6 egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
1/3 cup cornstarch, sifted
3 1/2 tablespoons butter
2 cups heavy cream
1 tablespoon sugar or more
3 tablespoons Kirsch
1. The day before, make the crepe batter and the pastry cream. Batter: In a small pan, cook the butter until brown like hazelnuts. Set aside. In another small pan, heat the milk until steaming; allow to cool for 10 minutes. In a mixer on medium-low speed, beat together the eggs, flour, sugar and salt. Slowly add the hot milk and browned butter. Pour into a container with a spout, cover and refrigerate overnight.
2. Pastry cream: Bring the milk with the vanilla bean (and scrapings) to a boil, then set aside for 10 minutes; remove bean. Fill a large bowl with ice and set aside a small bowl that can hold the finished pastry cream and be placed in this ice bath.
3. In a medium heavy-bottomed pan, whisk together the egg yolks, sugar and cornstarch. Gradually whisk in the hot milk, then place pan over high heat and bring to a boil, whisking vigorously for 1 to 2 minutes. Press the pastry cream through a fine-meshed sieve into the small bowl. Set the bowl in the ice bath and stir until the temperature reaches 140 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. Stir in the butter. When completely cool, cover and refrigerate.
4. Assemble the cake the next day: Bring the batter to room temperature. Place a nonstick or seasoned 9-inch crepe pan over medium heat. Swab the surface with the oil, then add about 3 tablespoons batter and swirl to cover the surface. Cook until the bottom just begins to brown, about 1 minute, then carefully lift an edge and flip the crepe with your fingers. Cook on the other side for no longer than 5 seconds. Flip the crepe onto a baking sheet lined with parchment. Repeat until you have 20 perfect crepes.
5. Pass the pastry cream through a sieve once more. Whip the heavy cream with the tablespoon sugar and the Kirsch. It won’t hold peaks. Fold it into the pastry cream.
6. Lay 1 crepe on a cake plate. Using an icing spatula, completely cover with a thin layer of pastry cream (about 1/4 cup). Cover with a crepe and repeat to make a stack of 20, with the best-looking crepe on top. Chill for at least 2 hours. Set out for 30 minutes before serving. If you have a blowtorch for creme brulee, sprinkle the top crepe with 2 tablespoons sugar and caramelize with the torch; otherwise, dust with confectioners’ sugar. Slice like a cake.
* There’s actually a funny story about this in which Alex, with a mind to my notorious clumsiness, actually said “no” when I told him I wanted a brulee torch, muttering something about “old, paper-like walls” and “need more smoke alarms.” A friend of mine, hearing this, took it upon herself to buy me one last year for Christmas, much to Alex’s chagrin. Alex stood by with a large fire extinguisher (sadly, no NYC Firemen) while I torched the cake-top with a flame not much bigger than a lighter. Totally anticlimactic, right?
** My friend Jocelyn has posted about the other part of our evening, grilled pizza and fajitas on her roof and the Sopranos finale. She even got a picture of a slice of the cake before it was demolished!