Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Coconut and Karma

Funny how the universe has a way of working things out. Sometimes it takes twenty years...but when payback is due, one must pay.
You see, it was about twenty years ago that I asked two of my best girlfriends to make my wedding cake.

What was I thinking?

Were these gals professional pastry chefs? No. Were they trained in food service or food preparation in any way? No. Were they particularly crafty or foodie? No. Did they even like to cook? I think you know the answer...

The fact was that one of them (Onnie) had recently taken a cake decorating class with her sister and I made the executive decision that she, bolstered by the moral support of our other friend Susi, would be more than adequately qualified to bake, decorate, assemble, and transport a four-tiered wedding cake for 200. Wouldn't they be honored by my request? Wouldn't they be relieved to have their wedding gift choice made for them? Wouldn't they think it would be "fun?"

Never mind that Onnie's experience went as far as the remedial weekend course at Cake Art. Never mind that, at the time, Susi's idea of fine cooking meant that she actually took the tortilla chips out of the bag before serving them. Oh yes...did I mention that Onnie was about 22 months pregnant? No problem.

So, of course, my dear, dear, friends said yes...and the adventure began.

Needless to say, I dictated the cake recipe (one ladened with rich almond paste, sugar and eggs), the filling (wouldn't lemon curd be a lovely addition?), the frosting (a cream cheese buttercream) and a detailed piping pattern straight out of a book called  "Weddings" by some new upstart named Martha Stewart). Not to worry about keeping the rich, buttery, concoction cool. The wedding was in January after all.

Well...it doesn't take Einstein to do the math.: twelve logs of almond paste, ten pounds of butter, eight pounds of cream cheese, four dozen eggs, a small tree full of lemons, a giant sack of cake flour and a bigger one of sugar...add a pinch of inexperience, a 75 degree January day, and what do you get...the leaning tower of cake.

It gets better.  Charlie's dad was, at the time, the president and long-standing member of the golf club where our reception was held. As my friends walked through the door, gingerly transporting each tier to the cake table, the layers continued to shift like lemon-filled tectonic plates before their eyes and the catering manager watched in horror, shaking her head, as the tower began to buckle.

"Do you realize who's wedding this is?" she said to them as they stacked and centered and shimmed. "The groom is the son of a very important member and we just can't have this!" My friends stood there shaking in their patent leather pumps.

She had no idea that they weren't professionals...that they were my faithful friends, delivering a a labor of love filled more with their blood sweat and tears than sugar, eggs and flour.

The florist (thank goodness, another old friend) came to their aid, scurrying around the layers like a frenzied worker bee, shoving ferns and flowers under every divot until, when you looked at it from just the right angle, it shined like the masterpiece it was. I can still see them intercepting me at the entrance of the club before I could make my way to the cake table. They each took me by the hand, looked me sheepishly in the eyes and said, "at least the cake is moist."

It was beautiful. It was delicious. And, I can't imagine a more perfect cake.

Now the payback.

About a year ago, my friend Cherie announced that she was engaged, a wedding was in the works (yay!), and, by the way, would I make the cake (huh)?

OK. So I do like to cook, I've baked a cake or two in my day, I am a little bit crafty, but my "customers" are generally a bit less discerning and my home spun, boxed Betty Crocker creations usually take the shape of a  pink barbie doll, a fire engine or a space shuttle designed to serve 10-12 sugar-crazed kids who's only concern is if they get the piece with the rose.
Will insisted that his macho fire truck have pink roses like all of Sissy's bday cakes

A wedding cake? A creation that will be showcased and immortalized in photos on one of the most important days of my friend's life?  I broke into a flop sweat. "OK kiddo," I mumble to myself, "you're in the big leagues now."

Well, a couple of months passed, the wedding got postponed due to a move and I figured that I had fooled fate and dodged the cake bullet....until I got the call this May. "We're doing it. The wedding's on, it's in June and, by the way, you will still make the cake...right?"

Thank goodness Cherie scored much lower on the "Bridezilla" scale than me. Her only four requests were that the cake have a coconut flavor, that it not be dry, that the flowers match her bouquet and that I use the hand-crafted, monogram topper she ordered that was to arrive a couple of days before the wedding.

Alrighty then...I can do this. For three weeks, I'd lie in bed at night, visions of coconuts dancing in my head. What recipe would I use? How would I prevent a reenactment of the leaning tower? Should I risk adding a flavored filling? Would the layers slide? Was my fate already sealed?

Why even try?

But try I did

In the weeks that followed, my family and neighbors ate more coconut than the combined cast of eight seasons of Survivor. Don't like coconut? Don't care. I forced a bite on anyone that came through my door, seeking any opinion on the perfect combination of flavors and ratio of frosting to cake.

So here is my first attempt. I went for alternating layers of super-tangy lemon curd and cream cheese frosting. The thick curd oozed out the sides as I frosted and the unevenly-baked dome-shaped layers really looked awful when sliced...even if I did try to level everything out with gobs of icing. I tried a new coconut cake recipe too, looking for an alternate to my old standby (a recipe from a local cafe) that Cherie remembered as dry!

Ok...test cake #2.  Let's try a less cloying frosting: a Vanilla Swiss Meringue Buttercream and a more subtle lemon curd. I'm gonna use my old standby recipe too (I don't remember it being dry).  Let's even throw some flowers on from the garden to get in the mood...

OK. We're getting somewhere. The layers were not so humpy, the new lemon curd recipe and a combo of filling and frosting in each level versus alternating proved much more subtle. I was way less heavy-handed on the frosting repair too and, dog-gonnit , I'm using my coconut cake recipe...the bride just got out-voted. We also tried a little toasted coconut in the filling layers but nixed that idea...too chewy.

OK. T-minus two days until the wedding...time to get organized. First, under cover of darkness, we stole our lemons from the neighbors trees.

Next, we made four trips to the store for the ingredients...is it really possible I will be using all of this butter? We even had to buy more!

Now, time to make the lemon curd filling and get it chillin'. Butter, sugar, lemon juice, lemon zest and eggs, heated and stirred until you can run your finger across the back of a wooden spoon and it leaves a track.

Time to bake us some cakes...

Here's what happens when a teen-aged girl is your sous-chef...

God forbid, our layers aren't level (or someone find a long blonde hair in their slice)...

So far so good: 2 batches of filling made, twelve layers of cakes baked...time to whip up four batches of Vanilla Swiss Meringue Buttercream (that means four pounds of butter), recipe compliments of our friend Christa, a real live pastry chef!

Carly...let's do this thing. First, a little lemon curd...

...a little buttercream...

...just right.

Can't stop...must keep going.

Oh, did I mention that the cake topper (a shell-encrusted monogram of their last name) arrived...

...and although gorgeous, it was almost as big as the cake. No problem. "Carly...get out the glue gun and the hula shells. We've got us a topper to make."

Do you think Cherie will notice that we made a new one half the size? Gonna have to roll the dice on this one.

Let's start to put this puppy together.

We loaded all three tiers and ourselves into the car and arrived at St. Vincent's kitchen in close to one piece. We crossed our fingers and started to build. Sturdy wooden dowels inserted at each level did their work...

...and the improvised topper glued firmly to the top of a sharpened dowel got skewered through the whole tower...this thing was a brick house. Thank goodness Onnie and Susi took the bullet for me on Cake Construction 101. Had mine not buckled, I'd never known the questions to ask to make sure this sucker stood.

I dare you to knock it over!

Now the best part of all...flowers! Carly was genius. I couldn't have done it without her.

Carly...quick...take a picture with your phone! The wedding is about to start!

To our delight, the catering staff had moved the cake to the reception area while we enjoyed the beautiful ceremony. Phew...better them than us! High fives all around when we saw it safely in place.

I think it's safe to say they liked it!

So, when all was said and done, I'd have to say that as far as karmic payback goes, I got off pretty easy on this one. Convinced that the universe would not let me succeed after my torturous request twenty years ago, it turns out that the beautiful gift my friends made for me back then was one that kept on giving. Not only do I smile from ear to ear every time I come across those old photos but , twenty years later, I was able to learn from their stumbles and pay their gift of love forward.

Cheers to you Cherie and Jason. May you look at these photos twenty years from now and smile like I do about times shared with friends and gifts given with the love only a "sister" can give.

Vanilla Swiss Meringue Buttercream

Whisk in the bowl of a stand mixer and place over a water bath (bain-marie) and heat, whisking constantly (be careful not to scramble the egg whites), until the mixture is warm and sugar is completely melted (you should feel no graininess when you rub it between your fingers):
  • 4 egg whites
  • 1 cup plus 3 Tablespoons of sugar
Remove from heat and whip at high speed until it's cooled to room temp and is light like marshmallow fluff. With mixer on medium-high speed, add soft butter a few tablespoons at a time, allowing each addition to fully incorporate before adding another:
  • 1 pound unsalted butter, softened 
Add and beat well:
  • 2 teaspoons good quality vanilla

*Note buttercream will look "broken" part way through the mixing process but will come back together as soon as all of the butter is added. May be refrigerated for 5 days or frozen until needed. Return to room temp and beat with a paddle attachment of a stand mixer until smooth.

(The Art and Soul of Baking by Cindy Mushet adapted by Christa and Donna)

Here are the links to the lemon curd and cake recipes...