Monthly Archives: May 2014

Mothers’ Day Cake

I like to celebrate Mothers’ Day, and this year I had planned to make cakes for at least four of the women I know that are Mothers and in some cases, even Grand Mothers. I started planning the cakes back in March; I saw a cake in my Wilton Idea Book that I liked, and thought it would be the perfect cake.

daylite 002

Now, if I am going to make four of these cakes, I need to plan ahead, and try to get some of the work done ahead of time. The book said the cake was a single 8-inch layer, torted and filled to 3 inches. To me, that is a lot of filling since the cake pans make a 2-inch layer. So I decided that I needed to use 1 1/2 layers to get the three inches the book prescribed. That meant that for each bake of 2 pans, I would get 4 torts; if I made 12 torts I would have 4 cakes; that would be 3 bakes of 2 layers each. And since I use 1 1/2 boxes of cake mix per 2 pan bake, I needed 5 boxes of cake mix and would have 1/2 a box left over. Wow! I hope you can follow all that math in my planning. (For why the 1/2 boxes of cake mix, see my article on the anatomy of a cake).

The book also said to plan for 40 roses for each cake. So in April, I started making butter cream frosting and making roses; I knew that they would dry and then I could decorate with them.

Since I had a lot of cakes to bake, I decided to start the last week of April and do a 2 pan bake each day, then I would cool the cakes, slice them, and put them in baggies in the refrigerator. I thought that bread keeps quite well when sealed and in the refrigerator so cake should also.

From this point on, it was a big learning experience for this amateur baker!!!

The first cake I put together had a couple problems; first, one of the dams leaked; I think I might have brushed it with the cutting board as I laid the next tier of cake on it and squashed it. Anyway, before I knew it, I was finding puddles of strawberry juice on the cake board. I tried to seal it off, but must have failed because days later, it was still pooling on the cake board.

The second problem with that first cake was with the butter cream icing. I changed the formula slightly, and forgot to take the difference between butter and shortning into account. Normally, I have made the butter cream frosting using the special shortening that the Decorette Shop sells; I decided to use half that special shortening and half real butter. What I forgot was that butter has water in it, and so I should have reduced the amount of water I added to the frosting.

The results were that the butter cream frosting gave in to gravity; a day after I finished that first cake, the frosting was all gathered at the base of the cake, and sitting in a puddle of strawberry juice! On to plan B, and into the garbage with cake #1!!!

So I learned something from plan A; be careful not to damage the filling dams, and remember to reduce the amount of water by a couple tablespoons when you make the frosting. And with that wisdom, I made cake #2 and #3. And when I started making cake #4, I looked back and found that I hadn’t beat gravity with cakes #2 and #3 after all. Again, the frosting was starting to sag and was tearing around the cake and coming apart in pieces. Now I was really frustrated, and was trying to revisit all the steps in making the cake to see what went wrong.

I decided that the problem might be that the refrigerated cake was too moist, and I needed to let it air dry before making the cake. So plan C was to let the cake tiers dry on the wire racks for half a day before assembling the cake. That gave better results, but I don’t feel it was perfect. And, I was down to a single cake!!

So, to compare a normal operation to this one I had been on, I decided to go to plan D and make a cake completely from scratch. I had thrown away all the extra flowers and leaves once I finished the fourth cake, so I salvaged flowers and leaves from cake #3 to use on cake #5. Then, in a single day I baked the cake, cooled and sliced the layers, assembled the cake, frosted it, and decorated it.

So, 24 hours later I still don’t have all the answers. I notice that the frosting on the sides of cake #5 is starting to droop and the top edge has come down with the drooping side.

I am sorry Mothers. First, I thought of you and was planning to give you a cake to celebrate your Day. But for the most part that plan failed. So I can only think of you on Mothers’ Day. I will deliver a couple cakes, but they are nowhere near the cakes I planned to deliver. I still have a lot to learn about icing a cake!

(Update: cake #5 also sagged and fell apart before it was delivered. I wonder if it was because it didn’t dry long enough; I did bake it and then ice and decorate it all in one day. Maybe there was still moisture in the cake).

The Anatomy of a Cake

This week, I have been making Mothers’ Day Cakes, and it dawned on me that I had received several questions about terms I used in describing what I had learned at Cake Decorating class. So I decided that perhaps I ought to take the time to show the insides of a cake, and discuss its anatomy.

Now, a cake can take on many different guises. The simplest of cakes is a box from the grocer, three eggs, some vegetable oil and water mixed for a couple minutes and baked at 350 degrees for about half an hour. Then a can of pre-made frosting spread between the two layers and over the outside of the resulting cake. If we are lucky, the frosting between layers creates a flat space so the dome of the baked bottom layer doesn’t interfere with the setting of the top layer, and of course the dome of the top layer will give the cake a bullet head look.

anat 016A flat, smooth frosted cake ready for decorating

So, the ideal is to have cake layers that are flat, and frosting that is smooth so that it can be decorated. I am not yet an expert in getting all that, as this picture shows, but I am getting close. Here are some hints about getting to that point.

First, I use much more dough than the box from the grocer suggests; that box implies that it is enough for 2 8-inch layers. I find that I need to add a half a box more in order to get a good 2 8-inch layers of cake. Now that would seem to be a problem since we are told to use 3 eggs for a box; I learned that I can use 2 eggs for a half a box (by weight) and get good results. So, I am increasing the powder by 50%, and also the vegetable oil and water, but increasing the egg count to a total of 5 eggs for 2 8-inch layers. (For 10-inch layers, I would use a full box of cake mix for each layer, and for 6-inch layers, a full box of cake mix will make 2 layers).

Now that we have enough batter in each pan, we need to consider the cooking of the cake. The dome is formed because the edges of the cake cook faster than the center of the pan, so the center keeps rising after the edges have crusted so that they can no longer rise. I do two things to combat the quicker cooking of the edges of the cake. First, I turn the oven down 25 degrees from what is “suggested” on the cake box; I cook the cakes longer at 325 degrees- until a bamboo skewer into the center comes out clean. That usually is almost 50% longer so instead of 30 minutes, it takes more like 45 minutes. And second, I use insulation around the cake pan. There is a product known as Magi-Cake that consists of fabric that I soak in cold water then wrap around the cake pan before putting it in the oven. This also slows the cooking of the edge of the cake so that it rises more and gives a much less dome to the baked cake layer.

Once the cake is baked, I cut off what little dome remains; this gives me a flat layer with which to work. I also cover my wire racks on which I will cool the cake with paper towel so that the wires don’t cut into the cake.

Now, you could go forward with making a perfect cake from this point. You no longer have a dome with which to contend, and you can get a nice flat-topped cake to frost and decorate. I like to tort my cakes; that is, I cut the layers from the cake pan in half and put some flavoring in between the two halves. But a warning; when you cut the layer in half, you need do be very careful not to pick up the half layer as it will often break. You want to lift the edge and slide a thin board under the half layer to support it. I use my acrylic cutting boards, or you can use plastic or cardboard cake boards.

What I am going to show in several steps is the making of a cake that contains three tort layers; that is, one and 1/2 layers or pans of baked cake. Because I was making multiple cakes, there was no problem on using only 1/2 of a layer in a single cake.

The first step is to position the bottom tier of cake on the finished cake platform. I am using cardboard cake plates that you can get at cake decorating shops. The plate is a couple inches wider that the cake, so these are 10 inches wide. I put a dab of frosting on the cake plate to help anchor the bottom tier in place. Now you are ready to fill for the next tier of the cake.

I am filling these cakes with two things; first a layer of strawberry glaze, and then a layer of macerated strawberries cut into small pieces. The glaze is sticky, and would not run out the side of the cake, but the berries would probably ooze juice out the side of the cake and make a mess, so I need to construct a dam to keep the juice in place.

anat 001First tier of cake showing dam to hold loose filling of berries; glaze already spread.

In this photo, you can see the dam I have created around the edge of the bottom tier, and then the glaze I have spread within the dam. The dam is butter cream frosting I had left over from a different project that I have piped about 1/2 inch thick around the edge of the bottom tier of the cake. (In the back of the picture you can see a second dish of glaze in a bath of hot water and a couple dishes of the berries all measured out ready to go. I discovered that 4 ounces of glaze and of berries was about the correct amount for each layer of filling). Now I add the berries to this layer of filling.

anat 002And with the berries added.

And that is the first tier with the filling going between it and the second tier. I slide the second tier of cake over the filling and we have a two level cake.

anat 003Gaps between first and second tier of cake filled.

The filling between the second and third tier is just the same as between the first and second tier. I create a dam, spread the glaze, and spread the berries. The interesting thing to notice in this photo is that I was not very careful in making the dam at the very edge of the cake, and this will create a gap between cake tiers. I need to go back and fill that gap so that the edge of the cake stays vertical. I have already filled the gap between the first and second tier of cake.

anat 004Space between second and third tier filled.

Again, I slide the next tier of cake onto this layer of filling, and now I have my three tier cake, ready for crumb coating. The crumb coat is a very thin layer of very thin butter cream frosting that locks the cake crumb onto the cake so that it doesn’t come up when I am icing the cake. Again, I am using some left over butter cream frosting from a different project, and thinning it down with a little more water. The tricky part is getting it thin but not too thin. I need about 1 1/2 cups of icing for the crumb coat. I understand that professional bakers do not use a crumb coat; this is an extra step for them and they do not have the time for making this step. But then, I would guess that with experience, you can spread the final icing without rolling up any crumbs into it.

anat 008The crumb coated cake

With the crumb coat on and dry, I am ready to ice the cake. I will be using a butter cream icing that crusts; not all butter creams crust and dry, but I am most comfortable with a crusting butter cream icing. I start by glopping on plenty of icing. After I get the cake covered, I will take off extra icing and start smoothing it out.

anat 010Cake with icing glopped on.

Now, I need to smooth the icing out. I start by flattening the top a bit to get an edge between the top and sides of the cake. Then I work the sides; this is where most of the work goes. I use my cutting board scraper to work the sides somewhat like a lathe; I rotate the turn-table on which I have the cake while holding the scraper against the side of the cake. All this removal of excess icing gives me a cake that has shape, but is still not smooth.

anat 012Cake with sides turned down to final thickness.

At this point, I use the “hot knife” technique to smooth the cake to its final state. There are other techniques like using parchment paper, but I have my best results using the hot knife. I also get moisture into the icing which also helps it give to be smoother. Still, I am not very good at this step, and am still getting my experience in getting the cake into its final smooth state. You will also note that the top edge of the cake is somewhat messy; I excuse this at this point in my learning because we normally decorate that edge to hide it anyway. But, I do need to learn to put a sharp edge on the top of the cake.

anat 016Final cake ready to decorate.

I hope you found this look into the anatomy of a cake interesting. Even though I have now made several cakes, there is still a lot of experience I need to gain to make an extremely smooth cake ready for decorating.

Tortilla Crepes

This recipe came to us through Auntie Evelyn. Peg Watson was her friend.

crepes 002Tortilla Crepes with Salsa

The two tortillas on my red plate almost look like a pile of mashed potatoes; it isn’t. The plate has two tortilla crepes and salsa.

When I was making the recipe, the hardest part was making the white sauce; I don’t remember watching Marlys do it, and so I was unfamiliar with the various stages the sauce would take. And I was nervous because of the note to not brown the sauce. When you start out, the sauce takes on a brown tone due to the color of the butter, and the cooking of the flour; I was afraid that this was the brown color I was to avoid. But it wasn’t; I kept stirring and trying to get the flour cooked so the taste of raw flour wouldn’t be in the sauce. When I started adding the milk, the white color for which I was looking came through.

While Peg calls the recipe crepes, I almost see it as a white sauced enchiladas. The technique is similar to the making of the rolled enchiladas, except we are using flour tortillas which don’t need to be softened. But, we fill the tortilla, roll it and put it in the baking dish. Then we top the rolled tortillas with a sauce and cheese.

One thing I like about this recipe is that it doesn’t have tomato in the sauce. I have always been partial to white sauces- like Alfredo sauce for my pasta; maybe that is one reason I am drawn to this recipe as an alternative to the Enchilada sauced recipes.

Tortilla Crepes

(Peg Watson, 1980

  • 12 flour tortillas
  • 12 thinly sliced ham pieces (or leftover ham, turkey or chicken sliced thinly)
  • 12 slices thinly sliced monterey jack cheese
  • 12 ortega chili’s (or to taste–about an 8 oz can)
  • 1 large sauteed onion
  • a few dashes Beau Monde seasoning.
  • grated cheddar cheese

Place a piece of meat, cheese and chili on a tortilla. Roll it up. Place in baking pan seam side down. When all are rolled, cover with a thick white sauce (4 cups) (see below) to which has been added sauteed onion and Beau Monde seasoning. Cover with cheese. Bake at 350 degrees covered for 1/2 hour and uncovered for 15 minutes. Serve with salsa. (If you increase the amount of white sauce it is softer).

White Sauce

  • 8 Tablespoons butter
  • 8 Tablespoons flour
  • 4 cups milk
  • Salt and pepper
  • dash of cayenne

(For each cup of milk use 2 tablespoons each of butter and of flour).
Stir together butter and flour, and cook to make a roux—do not brown. Stir in slowly the milk. Add salt, pepper and cayenne. Cook until thickened.


For the meat, I used a couple slices of the ham one now finds in the market- specifically, I used the Land-o’-Lakes Black Forest Ham. I couldn’t find sliced monterey jack cheese, and so I bought a 1/2 pound brick, and used the carrot peeler to slice off strips; I used a couple strips per tortilla.

I decided to go with the hint about serving with Salsa, and made the salsa recipe.