March: Back to basics (the ABC’s)

The March edition of Year of Cake celebrated the impending arrival of a new baby to my good friend/ former roommate. I had a couple of grand plans for the new skills I’d try out this month, but instead I spent my time preparing for and passing (!) my preliminary exam for my PhD program, which was scheduled just a few days before the shower. So I did not refine my 3D modeling skills in SketchUp by designing the cake digitally first, nor did I try piping the letters in royal icing separately and then applying them to the cake later (which would eliminate the anxiety I face every time I have to write something on an up-to-that-point beautiful cake), but ultimately advancing to PhD candidacy was a better use of my time and efforts this month.

So rather than seek out new recipes, I went with a couple of old standbys, and I chose a cute but simple design: alphabet blocks. It’s a 3D cake that looks really impressive, but assembly was actually quite easy.

Alphabet blocks are cute, classic, and really pretty simple to pull off.
Alphabet blocks are cute, classic, and really pretty simple to pull off.

Unfortunately I didn’t take too many pictures of the process (and still haven’t rendered the 3D model), but I think you’ll be able to follow along.

The 3 separate blocks make it easy to have a couple different flavors. I went with a yellow cake (Golden Luxury Butter Cake from the Cake Bible) with chocolate ganache for letters A and C and Guinness ginger cake with white chocolate frosting (from Sally’s Baking Addiction) for letter B.

I baked the cakes in a 9×9 square pan and then cut each into four (roughly) 4x4x2 squares, which when stacked made two 4-inch cubes each. The leftover batter went into cupcakes.

2015-03-09 22.02.39
Not saying these cupcakes were the reason I passed my defense, but they can’t have hurt.

I’ve baked the Guinness ginger cake from Epicurious several times. With a husband who can’t have chocolate and a friend who can’t have dairy, this is one of the few dessert recipes that works for all of us when we get together. Most importantly, it’s moist and delicious and I’ve successfully baked it into a bundt cake, rounds, and cupcakes before. The extra cupcakes from this one went to my proposal defense with me as treats/enticements for my committee members.

This was the first time I’d made the Golden Luxury Butter cake. When it came out of the oven, I was a little concerned. The cupcakes were definitely not going to help me get a PhD, and the cake rose more than seemed reasonable. I leveled it off to make the blocks and covered it with plenty of ganache and fondant, and fortunately it worked out just fine.

This batter rose and spread a lot. I didnt snap a picture of the 9x9, but it was very tall. Fortunately they all tasted just fine.
This batter rose and spread a lot. I didnt snap a picture of the 9×9, but it was very tall. Fortunately they all tasted just fine.

I’ve talked about the chocolate ganache before but haven’t included the recipe, so here it is in its beautiful simplicity:

  • 2 C whipping cream
  • 1 lb bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped (Note: better chocolate = better ganache)
  • Splash of cognac or other liqueur (optional — I left it out of the cake for the pregnant lady, but it adds a nice depth)
  1. Bring the cream to a boil in a saucepan.
  2. Remove from heat and add the chocolate and liqueur, if using. Stir until smooth, then place in refrigerator and stir occasionally until thickened to a frosting, about 2 hours.

This recipe is so much better than anything you can find in a tub at the grocery store, and is super easy to make. There’s really no reason to buy a tub of artificial chocolate frosting ever when this is an option.

The one new thing I did try this month was a new technique for coloring fondant. It’s one of my most hated tasks, but I read that a food processor can do the job, so I gave it a try. Since I had 4 cake cubes and wasn’t sure yet whether I’d do ABC blocks or BABY, I divided my fondant into fourths. Obviously I wasn’t going to clean out the processor after every color, so I started with the lightest (yellow), then green, red, and finally blue, which I didn’t end up using for this cake.

This is the most excitement my food processor has seen in a while.
This is the most excitement my food processor has seen in a while.

It was amazing. Perfectly uniform color distribution in a matter of seconds, and the processor looked pretty impressive by the end, too.

As it turned out, 1/4 of a fondant recipe is not quite enough to really cover a 4 inch cube of cake, so it came out a little thin. The yellow, which is a light color trying to cover a dark chocolate ganache, looked especially thin. And by the time I got around to the lettering, it was pretty late the night before the brunch shower, so I piped on a little white frosting along the edges and drew the letters and other decorations (an apple, a baseball, and a cat) by hand and called it a night.

To me it felt like a rush job, but to my guests — and most importantly, the mother-to-be — it was a great success!

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