January: Do you Wanna Build a Snowman?

Oh man, I immediately regret starting off this blog with a Frozen quote, but now my soon-to-be loyal readers (hi Mom!) will know that I have a toddler at home. Of course I could just delete it and write something else, but some combination of said toddler having just been sick all over me and the bathroom (wait, what kind of food blog is this??), plus the lingering effects of seeing the Call Me Maybe/Head Like a Hole mashup for the first time (which I believe is exactly what the Internet was created for)… I just can’t.

So down to business. After New Year’s Day came and went — with an excellent Golden Almond Cake with raspberry neoclassic buttercream, both recipes courtesy of Rose‘s Levy Berenbaum’s Cake Bible (hereafter just referred to as Rose) — there were no other notable celebrations planned for the month, so I had no constraints on this month’s cake style. What goes with January, though, better than snow? (see Figure 1) Okay, I said to my husband, so I’ll make a 9 inch round layer cake with cute snowmen around the sides.

“Honey,” he said,”that’s not your style.”

Figure 1. Case in point: a recent photo from my front sidewalk. January = snow.
Figure 1. Case in point: a recent photo from my front sidewalk. January = snow.

My style, apparently, requires 3 dimensions: a cake sculpted into a snowman. I’ve made a few fun 3D cakes before, so I agreed to give it a go.

First I needed a recipe. White cake, of course. Rose’s recipe for White Velvet Butter Cake seemed perfect. The new equipment to put to the test this time were Magi-Cake strips, clever little aluminized fabric strips that you wet and then wrap around your cake pans before they go in the oven. True to the name, they magically result in perfectly flat, ready to stack cake rounds. Seriously excellent addition to my ever-growing set of cake accessories. I highly recommend them. *Update: JoAnn’s Fabric and Crafts carries a brand of these too. I haven’t tried them, but they seemed to be the same.

For the filling to hold the layers together, I pulled some plain neoclassic buttercream left over from the NYE cake and mixed in some wintery spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves.

Figure 2. I cut circles for the 3 balls of the snowman using drinkware as templates, then stacked them up and shaved the tops and bottoms to make them round.
Figure 2. I cut circles for the 3 balls of the snowman using drinkware as templates, then stacked them up and shaved the tops and bottoms to make them round.

I dug through my cabinets to find glasses the right size to use as templates for the 3 snowballs and started cutting. The bottom snowball is 2.5 cake layers tall, the middle is 2, and the head is 1.5, ish (see Figure 2). I used a steak knife to shave down the edges to make them round (again, ish. The wonderful thing about cake sculptures is that frosting forgives a lot of underlying imperfections).

They are held together with the spiced buttercream and 3 wooden kabob skewers, inserted just before the poor guy toppled over.

My plan was to use a white chocolate ganache for the frosting, but rather than my trusty (and quite easy) recipe in which I boil a cup of heavy cream, take it off heat and add a pound of chocolate and stir until melted and then intermittently as it cools until it’s the right consistency, I decided to try Rose’s whipped ganache recipe.

It was not as much of a success. Basically this recipe makes a white-chocolate flavored whipped cream, which is lovely but wasn’t thick or sturdy enough for building a snowman.  First, in an attempt to thicken it I over-whipped it, which is why it looks a little grainy (Figure 3). I also tried to thicken it with a little powdered sugar; fortunately I only experimented with a small bit of the ganache, because it was not an improvement.

Conveniently, part of the charm of real snowmen is their imperfections, so once I got enough of the frosting glopped on, I let it go. (That Frozen reference was inadvertent.)

Figure 3. Don't over-whip this stuff! It gets grainier, not thicker. Don't worry, it still tasted amazing.
Figure 3. Don’t over-whip this stuff! It gets grainier, not thicker. Don’t worry, it still tasted amazing.

Next up, it was time for the accessories. I still had some rolled fondant in the fridge left over from my son’s birthday cake. I modeled some into a baseball cap (my son chose the style), and we rolled another piece into a scarf and a little stub into a nose. My mother-in-law helped my son paint them with food coloring.

A few notes on fondant:

First, it’s not that hard to make. When a couple years ago I decided it was time to try decorating with fondant, I was just going to buy some pre-made stuff. Unfortunately, I was shopping for it online, where I was able to see reviews like, “this is really easy to work with but tastes disgusting — seriously, don’t pretend it’s food, and warn your guests not to eat it.” (paraphrased). I just couldn’t bring myself to buy it.

A little poking around online led me to The Cook Duke’s fondant recipe, which is what I have used ever since (except most of the time I substitute vanilla extract for the almond, but otherwise the recipe is great).

To tint fondant, gel food coloring is best. Water-based drops will make it too wet to roll. You have 2 options: knead the color into the fondant or paint the color on. Kneading gives you the most uniform results, but can be a pain. You’ll need to wear food prep gloves to keep the dye off your hands. Rose suggests using a food processor to mix in the color, which I haven’t tried yet but plan on next time I need it. For small jobs or when you need really deep color (or when you want to find a way for a toddler to help), you might try painting the color on. Mix some gel color and either water or vodka on a plate, and use an artist’s paint brush to apply it. You’ll probably need a couple coats and it will be a little streaky, but sometimes that’s okay.

I’ll probably talk more about fondant later, but now back to the cake.

Figure 4. The hat, nose, and scarf were modeled out of fondant and painted with food coloring by my 3-year-old son. He also applied the chocolate buttons, you may have guessed.
Figure 4. The hat, nose, and scarf were modeled out of fondant and painted with food coloring by my 3-year-old son. He also applied the chocolate buttons, you may have guessed.

Chocolate chips served as the eyes, mouth, and buttons. The buttons, you may have guessed, were applied by my son. The crudely formed hat and scarf gave the whole thing a cute rag-tag sort of look. And that’s our snowman! A cute and entirely delicious kickoff to the Year of Cake.

Figure 6.  On another style of cake you might call these accessories imperfect. Here they are charming!
Figure 5. On another style of cake you might call these accessories imperfect. Here they are charming!

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