A cookbook can change your life. Two years ago I reviewed one called "Southern Cakes," which did just that.
Like most people, I'd always thought making a cake from scratch was only for the heroic. In fact, Nancie McDermott's book showed me that all you have to do is beat butter and sugar to a cream, beat in some eggs and add flour and milk in alternating batches, and there's your batter.
Wow, really have to lie down and recover after all that.
I'm a different person now. People see me and say, "Hey, Cake Guy!" Because I'm usually carrying a cake around with a goofy grin on my face.
Once I'd grasped the basics (and tried just about every recipe in "Southern Cakes"), I moved on to Rose Levy Beranbaum's "The Cake Bible," and "The Art of the Cake" by her mentors Bruce Healy and Paul Bugat. Both books are crammed with sophisticated techniques, and I now follow Beranbaum's foolproof method of making butter cream frosting. Her discussion of the chemistry and physics behind her recipes is invaluable.
But many of the cakes in Beranbaum's book don't tempt me, and none of those in Healy and Bugat's do. Namely, the classic French bakery cakes.
French cakes are impressive-looking, but they strike me as chilly and fussy.
And they use a lot of ingredients that leave me cold -- spun sugar, marzipan, kirsch, candied fruit, chestnut purée (sorry, but I think of it as a kind of porridge). Gack. And look at all the stuff they leave out. There's not a single coconut cake in "The Art of the Cake"!
The French idea of frosting basically seems to be something that lies flat so you can decorate it. They have no use for our unruly American frostings -- no cream cheese frosting, no good old American seven-minute icing. And all that piped frosting they do -- forget it. In my book, real men don't know a star tip from a drop flower tip.
Though we got cake making from the French, we Americans have created our own repertoire. Notably, we make our cakes light with the use of baking powder (French cakes are mostly leavened with beaten egg white), so our cakes tend to be taller. French cakes are usually little short one-layer jobs anyway, and any cake under 4 inches high just makes me sad. The high egg-white content of French cakes makes a lot of them dry and chewy, so they have to be soaked with syrup before being frosted.
The French approach has been taken to an extreme by Charm City Cakes, the wild Baltimore bakery featured on the Food Network's "Ace of Cakes."
Though I appreciate the cleverness and skill and all-around wackiness, I watch the show pretty much the way I watch shows about people erecting bridges over dangerous gorges. I never think of their cakes as, you know, food. All that fondant icing, which is nothing but sugar syrup boiled to the consistency of putty; all that gum paste and royal icing, which are just structural elements. As chef Michel Richard has observed, they don't seem to be cakes for eating but for looking at.
Here are the steps on my way to becoming the Cake Guy. Pay attention. This could happen to you.
First, I bought some good 9-inch pans, and I started keeping fresh baking powder on hand. Freshness makes a big difference in everything connected with cake.
Then I started hanging out at restaurant supply places. I invested $4.50 in a package of 100 (9-inch) parchment paper circles; totally worth it -- butter your pans, then put in the parchment paper and butter it, dust everything with flour, and your cake will always come out of the pan in one piece, no matter how delicate the batter.
I found a little cake tester for $2.50 and some long, narrow spatulas for frosting. OK, the angled spatula was $12, which seemed steep, but it works better in close quarters. I bought a round French cake rack, which is very useful for transferring a cake layer from its pan to a cooling rack, though I was starting to run out of space in my kitchen.
I bought this thing to wrap around my cake pans so the layers would bake up with a flatter surface, though I've hardly ever used it.
Pretty soon I couldn't pass a restaurant supply place. One day I was a little early on my way downtown, so I stopped off at Surfas in Culver City, telling myself it was just to kill 15 minutes. First thing I knew I'd bought a small food mill. Well, it is handy if you're making a quantity of fruit purée too small to be done in a food processor.
A couple of days later I picked up a sugar sprinkler, a little worried that this might be a utensil too far. When I bought a package of 50 (10-inch) cardboard cake rounds (essential for carrying a cake to somebody else's house), I realized that cakes were kind of taking over my life.
But I don't care. I'm Mr. Popularity now. I'm the Cake Guy.