One day while I was working at the bakery, one of my customers asked if I would do a special cake for their birthday. It would be a three-tiered construction, something I had never attempted before. The price was negotiated at $45, a large amount in 1979 for a cake and almost a whole day’s pay for me at the time. That would have to cover the ingredients and my time, including delivery the afternoon of the party.
“I’ll give you the recipe and a photograph of how I want it to look,” the client said. “This cake is made with a pineapple filling and coated with sheets of marzipan which is my husband’s favorite cake. I don’t have time to do it myself. I got the recipe from the Dole canned pineapple company.” (The recipe was some sort of prize winner. I never saw the recipe again anywhere and I threw out the recipe I worked from, so I can’t be sure.)
I decided to do the cake at home rather than at the restaurant kitchen. I had made many layer cakes, so this was not looking like any type of problem theoretically. I would make the cake in stages. The cake was a traditional gold 1-2-3-4 cake, essentially a pound cake with leavening added, that would be firm enough to be stacked into 4 layers per tier. Then there was a vanilla buttercream frosting that would be used as a dual filling with one made from canned pineapple. The cake would be iced, then wrapped in layers of marzipan, just like English and French wedding cakes, then stacked with balls of marzipan around the base of each tier, and dusted lightly with cocoa. It was planned to be the impressive centerpiece of the table, and of course unique, since it was a one-of-a-kind handmade treasure. It looked like a challenge and I was gung-ho to master it.
Since it was my first job making a big cake, I had a dilemma: I did not have the right pans. The cake required three springform pans, graduated in size, 6-, 9-, and 12-inches in diameter. I had never seen a 12-inch cake pan before and it was pretty darn big. Luckily the customer agreed to buy the pans, otherwise any money I made for my time on the cake would have gone to buying them. I got good quality shiny aluminum pans, a nested set, at my local cooking supply store, really sturdy, since those bake the nicest cakes.
I decided to make the cakes the night before the party and refrigerate them. This would allow them to settle and be easier to work with. If you have ever tried cutting a freshly baked cake layer, you know how tender and floppy they can be, easily breaking into chunks. I would set to work early in the morning, delivering the cake in mid-afternoon. My gas stove, an efficient 1950s four-burner Dixie Queen, had a petite oven; it just fit only the 12-inch pan with only an inch on either side to spare. Even though the oven was was really dependable, I starting using an oven thermometer for this project, just to be sure the cake was baked properly all the way through (I still have the habit of a hanging oven thermometer in all my ovens to this day).
I made the cake batter in two batches, one for the 12-inch and the other for the 6 and 9. The layers were deep, a full 4 inches, instead of thinner like when made in regular cake pans, so I only baked one deep layer to split it into thin layers later.
The summer day dawned as the beginning of an oppressive heatwave. It was a scorcher in my kitchen. I laid all the ingredients out on the counter and began to follow the instructions for the buttercream.
It was a classic French buttercream, the crème au buerre, silky and rich. It is used in really extravagant bakery cakes and considered a foundation preparation in cake making. No solid vegetable shortening here, but all real butter, an extravagance as well as taste delight.
Egg yolks are set to beat on high speed in an electric stand mixer, in this case my trusty Kitchen Aid K45A that I had bought with my tax refund check in 1977. (That signified how serious a cook I really was–a heavy stand mixer was the badge of courageous baking in the dawn of professional-style-cooking-at-home days.) Meanwhile, you make a sugar and water syrup on the stove to melt the sugar; it gets really hot, hotter than boiling. You have to be of the utmost care not to splash yourself with the hot syrup as it can scald mercilessly. Professional bakers are notorious for having scars on their tender lower inner arms from splashed sugar syrup or lifting over sized hot pans.
So you ever so slowly drizzle the hot syrup into the creamy, foamy yolks while they are beating so as not to cook them into sweet scrambled eggs. It takes a knack to get this technique. Then the mixture beats and beats on high speed until cooled, something like 10 to 20 minutes, before you plop in pieces of butter. Then you have this luscious buttercream. It sounded straightforward enough.
All well and good, but that’s not how it went.
I think I would have been fine if I was making the recipe for one cake: 3/4 cup sugar, 8 egg yolks, and 2 sticks of butter. Well, I was using 3 pounds of butter, almost 4 dozen eggs, and 6 cups of syrup. I had to use a special candy thermometer since this was my first French buttercream and I did not know what I was doing. This buttercream was based on temperature at the different steps. I had to get it right. I had never used a candy thermometer before and I was constantly pulling the thing in and out of the saucepan to check the temperature. It seemed to take forever. When it was finally the exact temperature of 238º, I went to pour it into the whipped eggs. I added it too fast and the whole mixture looked curdled. In baking terms it broke. I also had a butter problem.
In the unwritten laws of cake making, it is understood that baking that is based on cool or cold butter is really tricky on hot days. Butter begins to lose its solid state instantly on a hot day. My cubes of butter went from ice-cold-hit-ya-in-the-head-and-hurt-ya-hard to goopy in pools of separated butter in 15 minutes since the counter was the temperature of a warm skillet. I had a mess. Of course I panicked. And I had to deliver this cake to a party in a matter of hours.
I had the presence of mind to pick up the phone and call my friend Gail who was a professionally trained chef and the most experienced baker I knew. She rallied to the distress call and was able to come over and help me make the buttercream by noon. That gave me time to clean up and run out to the grocery store to buy more eggs and butter. Now I was feeling the time crunch as well as my lack of technical adeptness.
By noon the kitchen was a steamy 95º. Gail set to work instantly with her trademark sure hand and vigor, chatting like a drill sergeant/cooking instructor combo all the while. I was flabbergasted at her lightening-quick competency assessing the mixture at its different stages. I responded to all her cues and commands. We had to work quick getting that butter incorporated into the egg mixture, then refrigerate it so it would not puddle while we were making the marzipan and getting the layers ready for assembly. We both dripped sweat.
Gail made the buttercream in no time flat and I was amazed at how easy it was. We refrigerated it immediately. Then she added cornstarch, sugar, and vanilla to the mountain of canned pineapple that ended up in my little stock pot. “Oh boy is this a sweet filling,” she exclaimed. “It will really jolt those people when they get a hit of it with the frosting in the same bite.” We glanced at each other and grimaced while instinctively gritting our teeth with that visualization.
I set to work on the marzipan coating. Marzipan is something that is taught in every classic baking class. It is touted as the medium in baking that allows you to be a sculptor. When properly made, it is pliable like Play-Do and can be tinted into a rainbow of colors. It is a traditional baking element in the British Isles, especially wrapped around fruitcakes of all sorts, but out of fashion here in California, where fresh fruit, chocolate truffles, and casual presentations decked with fresh flowers had become the standard of excellence. This cake was a throwback to turn of the century baking where cakes were as sweet as candy and a monumental effort, a symbol of the occasion rather a delicacy. In other words, a cake was not just a cake.
While marzipan can be bought ready-made in a tube, it is prohibitively expensive over a few ounces. All the recipes say “can be made from scratch quickly and easily.” And in my naïve optimism I believed that culinary propaganda.
I put equal amounts of almond paste, powdered sugar, and some corn syrup for workability in a big bowl on the kitchen table so Gail could continue to command the counters; she was also cutting the cake layers into sections with my serrated bread knife. I had a wooden spoon, like the recipe said, and began to mix by hand this lumpy, stiff mass. I could not do the marzipan in the mixer since the amount was over six times the mass that the Kitchen Aid mixer was designed to handle. I thought it would be quicker to do the whole batch at once rather than divide it and make separate batches in the mixer. Besides Gail was finishing up the buttercream, which was beating away with a nice fast rhythm.
Grunting and groaning, I combined the ingredients, the bowl instantly filling past full and I quickly broke the wooden spoon in half. With the added aggravation of the heat, I was sweating away and the bowl was very sticky. It was also slipping around on the table. I quickly decided to mix the mass by hand. The mixture was so stiff, I could dip my hands into the bowl, up to my forearms, and then pull them up with the bowl attached. I cried to Gail, look at this, and she turned and started laughing at the sight of me walking around the kitchen with my hands invisible in the mass of marzipan and the bowl turned upside down over my head with nothing falling out of it, rather like a metal umbrella held up by my arms.
I surrendered that the method I was using was not working and asked Gail to clear the kitchen sink and dry it with a towel. I dumped the entire contents into the wide porcelain kitchen sink and proceeded to start hand-kneading the mass. This was better. I could put my whole body behind the kneading. But it took half an hour to get it nice and smooth. I was worried that the oil from the almonds would seep out and I would have to trash the entire batch. Even though the marzipan was confined to the sink, somehow everything in the kitchen was sticky from it–the floor, the counters, the faucet, the refrigerator door handles, the back of the chairs, even my toothbrush in the bathroom. It was not to be confined. Our laughter had been reduced to a lot of complaining. We could feel the sticky sweetness between our teeth and on our skin.
Once it was all smooth, I still had to roll out the room temperature marzipan like pie dough and make sheets that would fit over each entire tier. Since it was in the era before I owned slabs of marble, which would stay cool and not shift while I was using the rolling pin, I used the over sized wooden cutting board that fitted into my cabinetry. I cut the mass into three portions and marveled at how heavy the stuff was, just like wet clay dug from the earth. I dumped it on the cutting board, with waxed paper on the bottom and top to prevent sticking. I had not acquired my precious industrial-sized, ball bearing rolling pin yet, so I was using a rinky-dink sized one circa 1950s. I took it by the handle and beat the marzipan into submission and a bit more workable thickness. I rolled it out, laboring intensely with the paste between the waxed paper to minimize the terrible stickiness and the tearing of the delicate matter, into irregular rounds as thin as I dared. During one of my bakery stints, I was responsible every morning for rolling out, by hand, an entire long worktable of croissant dough, so I was not timid about rolling something out into a much larger than normal size say suitable for a pie pan.
While I was laboring, Gail had sandwiched the cold layers of cake with the pineapple filling, icing it quickly with the buttercream, and placing separate tiers each on a dinner plate in front of me. I laid the sheet of marzipan over the top, peeling off the waxed paper. I wrapped the entire cake in the sheet, pressing it in place gently with my ever-so sticky hands. I took a sharp paring knife and trimmed it to size around the base of the tier. You could see the cut marks, so we shaped walnut-sized balls between our sticky palms then rolled them in cocoa, positioning them around the base to hide the uneven seam. Surrounded by the balls, the stacked tiers looked more like a cake commemorating some occasion in a Doric-style Roman temple than a birthday party in Palo Alto. I took all the racks out of the refrigerator, hoping to store it there, but the cake did not fit. So it would have to be delivered immediately. It was past three o’clock already so I could deliver it any time.
I placed the entire cake on a heavy round platter that the client had given me. Luckily it had a raised edge for easy picking up of the whole darn thing. It was a good thing because that cake was really heavy; if the plate had been plastic it might have flexed or broken in half. It was so dense that it would feed far more than 50 guests since the slices would need to be very thin or risk indigestion.
So proud of completing that cake, I had my neighbor, who helped load it into the car, pose alongside with a big smile while I took a photo for posterity. After all, it was my first cake on consignment.
After all that labor on the cheap, the client who ordered the cake did not want to pay for the pans. “Oh I will take the 9-inch and just pay for that,” she said. “I can use that size again. I don’t want the other ones; who wants a 6 and a 12. I won’t ever use them, so you keep them.” I was frustrated but at least I made $10. Sweet Gail never charged me a dime for helping me.
I still have those 6- and 12-inch springform pans in perfect condition. I have used them umpteen times in the past 32 years. Since I went into making wedding cakes as a business for a few years, they served as extra cake pans on many an occasion. I still use them for all sorts of sizes of cheesecakes and chocolate tortes. So they ended up being a good investment after all since springform pans are far more expensive these days than in the 1970s.
I scrubbed that sink many times, never quite being able to get rid of all the stickiness for about two weeks. Some other little patch would just show up and I would start scrubbing like mad, wanting to erase all visceral memory of that day of marzipan. Needless to say, I never made a cake that had to be decorated with marzipan again. Once was quite enough.