The Importance of Mad Cake Skills

I don't think you can actually consider yourself well-versed in the kitchen and the culinary arts unless you can pull off a Special Occasion Cake. My counterpart and I have had a couple of opportunities to test his skill in this area. The first was last spring when our favorite couple got married in an intimate and touching celebration with their families.

We provided the cake and were privileged to be the only non-blood relations at the ceremony. The second opportunity came earlier this month when their daughter (actually, his daughter and her step daughter) turned 16. We've known her since infancy,and when she asked us to make her birthday cake, we gladly rose to the occasion.Which is kind of why this is important. You never know when you may need this skill.

So, our Sweet 16 birthday girl chose the Candyland game for her theme and requested a red velvet cake decorated with this theme in mind.

Our first task was to find a suitable recipe. There is a vast plethora of recipes for red velvet cake out there on the world wide web, ranging from the mayonnaise-based cake I remember from my 1970's childhood to those that rely on buttermilk and acidulation to achieve the characteristic velvety texture. After a little bit of research, we learned that the original red velvet cake got both its texture and color from the alkaline levels from the cocoa that is its primary flavor. Most cocoas today are processed differently than 40 years ago, so we rely on food coloring for the red color and other form of acidulation for the moist, velvety texture.

Here is the recipe we finally used. This will make enough for a three-layer, 6-inch smash cake that's about 9 inches high.

You will need:

2 1/2 sticks butter

3 eggs

1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla

3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

2 1/4 cups sugar

1-2 tablespoons red gel food color mixed with 2 tablespoons water

3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa

1 1/2 cups buttermilk

1 1/2 tablespoons white vinegar

1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

First, preheat your oven to 350 and grease and flour your cake pans. We highly recommend spring-form pans because they are the easiest to remove the cake from. Also, we like to line the bottoms of our spring-form pans with parchment paper. This will help you remove the bottoms with minimal damage to your cake.

Cream together butter and sugar like you would for cookies. Add your eggs and beat for about a minute or so. Then beat in the vanilla until it is blended in.

Mix together the cocoa and your food coloring and water mixture. If you don't like the color, add some more food coloring, a little at a time, until it is your preferred intensity. We used 1 tablespoon of food coloring and got a cake that was more on the pink side. When you feel you have the right amount of coloring mixed in, beat this into the butter mixture until blended.

This was the strength of our food coloring

Sift together the flour and salt. Slowly combine into the butter mixture, alternating with your buttermilk. If you are using an electric mixer, you'll want to keep things at low to medium speed.

Combine the baking soda with the vinegar. Then gradually blend this into your batter.

Spoon the batter into your cake pans, keeping in mind that the batter will expand somewhat while it bakes. The recipe said this should bake in 22-28 minutes. Our cakes baked through in about 35-40 minutes. So, you'll want to make sure the batter has set and is no longer jiggly, and that a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean before you consider your cakes to be done.

Cool them on a wire rack and pop then out of those spring-form pans to cool completely before you decorate them. You'll want to do a dirty frost and let the cakes rest several hours before you decorate them in earnest. We let our cakes sit in the freezer overnight.

If you've never made a Special Occasion Cake before, the dirty frost is like a layer of primer. It helps lay down a smooth and even base for additional icing, ganache, fondant, or any number of other things. Plus it picks up any loose cake crumbs and prevents them from showing through your carefully planned out decorations.

Dirty Frost

After the dirty frost had set, we assembled the cake and frosted it again. If you are working with a large cake or multiple layers, wooden dowels are very handy. We used these for our multi-layered tiered wedding cake last year but did not need them for our much smaller smash cake. Also remember that a cold cake is easier to work with. If you are decorating your cake in summer, turn on that AC. If it's winter, turn down the heat and put on a sweater. 

In keeping with the Candyland theme, my counterpart stacked up three layers to create his own rendition of Gumdrop Mountain. He made the middle layer an inch smaller in diameter, allowing him to create some topography.

Two layers high

Fully assembled

To get the look and feel of the mountain, he wrapped the whole thing in fondant. Which is one of the great things about fondant. You can use it to transform your cake into just about anything, giving it a smooth, clean, uniform finish. You can make your own (which we tried once. Once.), or you can buy it ready-made in a variety of colors. And, because Baltimore has its very own celebrity cake-baker, our local Micheal's carries his full line of cake-decorating supplies, providing us with a full rainbow of brightly-colored fondant to work with.

Duff Goldman of Charm City Cakes

Your fondant will most likely need to be rolled out. If you have a pasta roller, that works nicely here. Remember to use powdered sugar here the same way you would use flour for pasta or pie dough.

First roll the fondant flat

Then run it through the pasta roller

Pretty strips of fondant

Remember also to avoid direct contact with the fondant if you can help it. This will ensure a smoother finish to your decorations and will also lengthen the shelf life of your leftover fondant. We used paper towels to maneuver the larger pieces of fondant into position as well as to brush off excess powdered sugar.

Paper towels help

We ended up with a green mountain with a white snowcap on a pink field. We also created part of the game board out of fondant squares that we ran up the side of the mountain. We finished it off with candy boulders.

Building the game board

Anchoring it at the top

A little icing to secure it

Now, this did take some time. We took several breaks, placing the cake back in the freezer to rest several times. As mentioned previously, a cold cake is easier to work with.

Our Sweet 16 cake topper

Right in place atop the cake

Our finished product was the centerpiece of a candy buffet at the Sweet 16 party, and looked as if it deserved to be there. Which is why this skill is important. You never know when yo will have the opportunity to contribute to a big day in the life of a young person. While it was honor enough to create a wedding cake for this couple, being approached by their daughter/stepdaughter for the Sweet 16 birthday party was truly a blessing. I am proud that my counterpart had the skills to pull it off.

The finished product - we made this sh*t!