Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Christmas Cake

I just finished reading Judith Fertig's novel The Cake Therapist. It's been on my to read list for awhile. I finally decided to treat myself to a used paperback copy rather than spending over $3 for the Kindle version. I have a $3 and below rule on Kindle. I feel like if I'm going to pay more than that I should just buy the actual book. Or maybe I'm cheap. You can decide.

Anyway, in addition to being a very colorful, pretty book (it's worth the paperback just for the color it adds to my bookcase), it's also a delightful story. The novel follows a baker who moves back to her hometown in Ohio as her marriage is ending and her opportunities in New York are dwindling. She decides to open a bakery and it just so happens that her hometown has become a destination for brides and weddings. Her talent isn't just making exquisite cakes and pastries; it's knowing the exact flavor the person she's baking for wants most. Her ability to match the flavor and the person crates the perfect taste for the customer. This serves her well in the wedding cake world. I would like to tell you that I savored the book and lingered over it for a few days but that would be a lie. I read it in one day and had to order the sequel Memory of Lemon this week.

There's a quote early-ish in the novel that I particularly love. It perfectly encapsulates the way I feel about baking something.

"As I cracked each egg into the bowl and added the sugar while the mixer did its work, I wondered whether I was the only person who found the whir of a stand mixer oddly comforting. For me, it was the sound of something good about to happen." (page 63)

Baking, as I've written before, has always been a form of therapy for me. The process of making something, of following a recipe, measuring ingredients, prepping pans is soothing and calming. The process is great for working through an issue, problem solving something, or just ruminating on an idea for a bit. It can also be a completely blank moment where my mind focuses solely on what I'm doing and not my to-do list or stress at work or getting my move organized or whatever else is happening in my world. I love my stand mixer, Stanny (yes, it has a name) and I know the whir Neely, the baker in the book, is talking about. It's the whir that makes marshmallows out of water, gelatin, and sugar or brings together the perfect balance of ingredients for pumpkin cookies or apple cinnamon cake. It's a sound that's not too loud but certainly not quiet. It's a sound that is all about making something delicious happen.

Around the holidays, everyone I know seems to go into beast baking mode. Instagram and Facebook are full of tables full of cookies and candy and whatever else people have decided their family and friends need to truly enjoy the holidays. Some recipes are passed down generation to generation and it wouldn't be the holidays without them. This year, our cookie options include snowballs (a perennial favorite), coconut macaroons, and maybe chocolate chip. I made some fudge and my dad made chocolate chip cookies, banana bread, and cranberry bread. Did I mention there are only four of us?

We also have a newer tradition that I will be adding to this year: the Christmas Cake. It started before I really got into backing. My dad would make a rum torte as our Christmas dessert - did I not mention every of my family members bakes? My dad and brother both make great pies and my dad kills it at banana bread; I get that from him. My mom is an all-around baker; I learned how to make snowballs, cakes, and brownies from her. Anyway, I don't like rum or rum flavored things but the rum torte was always good. As I got more into baking, my dad and I would trade off on making the Christmas Cake. We started varying it up but almost always selecting a cake from Southern Living's Christmas issue. I don't know if you're familiar with the Christmas issue of Southern Living but there's always a beautiful cake on the cover and a section of creative, festive, and sometimes super complicated cakes to adorn your holiday table.

We can thank Southern Living for the Christmas present cake; it's shaped like a present and you use Fruit by the Foot to make pretty ribbon and is also fun for birthdays (and really the first complicated cake I made by myself), the caramel cake debacle of 2013, and my uncle's favorite cake, the Italian Orange Cake. I only make this last one every ten years. To do it right takes three days since it's the type of cake that gets better as it sits. The flavors come together over time so it's better to do each step over the course of several days. I like all of these cakes despite being a bit more complicated from a process standpoint than say, a regular chocolate cake. I want a holiday dessert to be special and more whimsical than my everyday baked goods. That's part of the fun of holiday baking;

Both my parents and I subscribe to Southern Living. I'm sure that seems excessive to some people but it's the way life works. My subscription was a gift from a friend who knows I like baking and reading about cities I love so I accept my dual copy each month with love and sass. The cake on the cover this year is a coconut rum cake with rum filling and ermine frosting. Wondering what ermine frosting is? It's also known as "poor man's frosting," boiled milk frosting, or butter roux frosting. It's a type of buttercream frosting that uses flour instead of eggs for the emulsion factor. I've never made it before but apparently from what I've read, ermine frosting was what was traditionally used on red velvet cake until the 1970s when cream cheese frosting became all the rage. Who knew?

As I mentioned earlier, I don't like rum flavored things so I told my family I'd make one of the other cakes in the holiday extravaganza issue, Peppermint Cake with Seven Minute Frosting.This cake requires me to buy disco dust. Don't know what disco dust is? Well, friends, it's edible glitter. Apparently, it gives the cake a little sparkle. Who doesn't want their holiday cake to sparkle?

There is one major thing about this recipe that makes it the best cake in the world: two different frostings! Peppermint buttercream frosting and Seven Minute Frosting! The cake itself is a pretty standard yellow cake but two frostings make it extra special and holiday worthy. If you've ever made anything with peppermint extract, you know that a little goes a long way. I made peppermint marshmallows once that tasted like toothpaste despite using the small amount of extract the recipe called for (they melted well in hot chocolate - that's a win). The peppermint buttercream looks so pretty in the picture; I would have made the buttercream for myself if my family had declined the cake. Bonus: I've never made Seven Minutes Frosting before so this cake also represents adding another item to my repertoire and I love adding baking things to my repertoire. (Reality: Seven Minute Frosting is basically marshmallow fluff that you whisk for seven minutes. Not nearly as much fun as I wanted it to be.)

You know what else is great about this cake? Smashing peppermint candies with a meat tenderizer. My arms are going to hurt tomorrow between this and the whisking for the Seven Minute Frosting, but it will be worth it. The peppermint extract isn't enough peppermint-y flavor so I have crushed up peppermint candy as instructed to add to the buttercream. I also crushed additional peppermints and added the disco dust (pearl dust according to Wilton) so the cake will really sparkle when it's decorated. I feel so Christmas-y I can't stand it.

I can't tell you how the cake tastes since it's for tomorrow but I can say that the buttercream is delicious, as I knew it would be. The Seven Minute Frosting is basically glorified marshmallow fluff. And the finished, uncut version? Looks like a sparkly winter wonderland. That's exactly what I wanted to accomplish with this cake. Something good happened over the whir of an electric mixer.

Happy Holidays from the Island!

Southern Living cover

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