Sunday, August 5, 2012

Bake me a cake as fast as you can.

Lavender cupcakes. © Ryan Schierling
Practice, practice, practice. I'm honing my skills for the big day. I have been bestowed the honor of baking the wedding cake for one of my dearest friends this summer and the challenge is turning out to be an education that is even tastier and more gratifying that I could have ever imagined.

I'm justifiably anxious. It's an August wedding, out-of-doors and out-of-town. If I don't have utmost confidence in the methods I've chosen, I'm screwed. I haven't exactly spent years staking my reputation on this particular variety of baked goods. I mean, this is a WEDDING CAKE, and holy mother of all that is pink and glittery… I simply mustn't let this lovely couple down.

So, I have officially baked more cakes in the past two weeks than I have in the past two years combined. I've tested cake recipes and successfully executed my very first (ever) Italian Meringue Buttercream (IMBC), including variations. When the big day arrives, I plan to be cranking out several batches of that fabulously fluffy IMBC with experienced gusto, gosh-darn-it!

There is tremendous satisfaction in the mastery of a new creative endeavor, but thank goodness I didn't have to re-invent the wheel here. There are those who have traveled this path before me, and whether via online video or traditional cookbook, I have found trusted mentors in this venture. As with all baked goods there are principals and nuances and detailed instructions to attend to, but with every new batch I'm having more and more fun. Instead of late-night cookie baking for relaxation, there's a good chance that cupcakes will fall into place as my go-to alternate.

The Italian Meringue Buttercream recipe/technique seems to be the gold standard per the interwebs, but actually doing it was a bit intimidating at first. It took actually watching the video podcast by Warren Brown of Cakelove to really demystify the process for me. The very idea of pouring boiling hot sugar directly into egg whites whipping around in the KitchenAid mixer would have been considerably more frightening had I not seen it done half a dozen times online. But, this recipe is solid, no fuss, quick and very dependable when you have your ingredients in place and follow the directions precisely. It also produces a beautiful airy icing that is rich, sweet (but not cloyingly so), and will not only maintain its shape once set, but hold up admirably in warmer weather conditions.

The white cake deemed the winner is a tried and true recipe from the book Joy of Cooking. The difficulty with cakes from scratch is that they can get heavy. This one, with folded-in egg whites, has a lovely crumb with more body than typically found from a box cake. I also love that it includes real butter instead of vegetable oil and, while the butter does warm the finished color slightly, it is still a delightfully white cake. I've also learned a lesson here: sometimes all the internet research, specialty cookbooks and celebrity chefs in the world can't beat the reliable recipes and wisdom contained in traditional cookbooks like Joy of Cooking. Sometimes success truly depends on getting back to basics.

For this week's practice run I made lavender cupcakes. This is not the flavor for the forthcoming wedding, but was instead inspired by a two-ounce pouch of dried lavender I had in the pantry, begging to be used. A few days before baking, I put 1/4 cup of dried lavender in a pint-size canning jar and filled it to the brim with extra-fine sugar. Over the next few days I pounded on it and gave the jar an occasional good shake to perfume the sugar with the essence of lavender. When I was ready to bake, I employed a fine metal mesh strainer to sift out the lavender pieces so I could use the sugar in the cake. (Save the sugar dusted lavender for garnishing the tops of the cupcakes.)

I'm a big fan of using lavender, and other floral essences, in baked goods. The trick of it is to be judicious and keep it simple. Too much lavender can be perceived as overwhelming and even bitter. Use a delicate hand and the subtle fragrance will enhance the underlying sweet flavors in magical way. I wanted this delicacy to be reinforced visually, as well, so I stayed away from the use of food colorings to allow the creamy warmth of the vanilla to elevate the lavender.

Cake with Italian Meringue Buttercream and lavender. © Ryan Schierling
Lavender Cupcakes (Adapted from Joy of Cooking "White Cake")

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Sift before measuring:
3 cups (or 11 ounces*) bleached all-purpose flour
Resift together with:
1/2 cup (or 3 ounces*) potato starch
4 teaspoons double-acting baking powder
Add to dry ingredients:
1 teaspoon kosher salt

In a stand mixer, cream well at low speed:
1 cup (8 ounces) unsalted butter (65-70 degrees is optimal)
Add gradually and continue to cream at low speed until very light and coating the side of the bowl:
1-3/4 cups extra-fine sugar with lavender essence (prepare as described above)

Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture alternately (in 3 to 5 parts) with:
1 cup, plus 1 tablespoon, whole milk  (65-70 degrees is optimal)
Stir the batter until smooth after each addition.
Beat in:
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 teaspoons of the lavender flowers which were used to make the sugar. Be sure to remove any leaves or stems.
Continue mixing at medium speed for 2 minutes.
Just before incorporating into the batter, in a separate bowl begin by whipping until frothy:
7 egg whites (from large eggs)
Turn mixing speed up to high, continue to whip until just past soft peaks and gradually add:
1/4 cup extra fine sugar (or remaining lavender sugar)
Continue whipping only until stiff peaks, not dry.
Using a spatula, gently fold the whites into the batter a portion at a time – folding, cutting and rotating the bowl – to incorporate the egg whites into the batter. As per Joy of Cooking, "… the objective is to  blend thoroughly, yet not lose any of the air you have previously worked into your materials."

Fill baking cups using a quick release scoop for equal portions. Bake for 20 minutes, or until a toothpick insert comes out clean. Allow to cool until they can be handled and removed from the pan by hand.

* Because I wanted to be able to replicate my dry measurements by weight instead of volume, I used the handy-dandy Pastry Nomogram in Bernard Clayton, Jr.'s The Complete Book of Pastry - Sweet & Savory to estimate the conversion to ounces. Note: the recipe this is based upon called for cake flour in lieu of the bleached all-purpose and potato starch combination I used as a substitute.

Italian Meringue Buttercream 

For the icing, I used this recipe from Warren Brown of CakeLove. However, I wanted to stay a little closer to the texture of a simple Italian Meringue (where you would stop before incorporating the butter), so I reduced the amount of butter by half (8 ounces instead of 16 ounces) in order to maintain a lighter, more delicate flavor for this cake. At the end, I added 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract and (though optional) a 1/2 teaspoon of "lavender flavor" (soak 1/2 teaspoon of dried lavender in 1 teaspoon of water or vodka for about 30 minutes and use a 1/2 teaspoon of the liquid for a flavoring.)

Immediately after icing the cupcakes, sprinkle some of the lavender florets left from the lavender sugar on the top. It only takes a few on top to introduce your senses to the fragrance with the first bite. 


  1. J- these are GORGEOUS!

    1. Thanks! I think this lighter version of the buttercream is my new favorite. Pipes nicely, too.


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