The Buttercream Project: Wedding Day, part one!

So…

I made a wedding cake.  For a wedding.  And it was served.  At a wedding.  And no one threw anything at me, or snickered behind my back, or insinuated the bride and groom would have made a better choice by hiring a professional baker.

In fact, several guests, and a few of the employees at the winery where the event was held asked me where I worked, or whether I had a business, or how many wedding cakes I had made before.  I was forced to respond to these questions thusly: my kitchen, no, none.  And they were surprised!  And I, still struggling with the sickeningly sweet baggage of failed buttercreams weighing down my memory, was surprised they were surprised.

But there we were!

Deep breath; here’s how we got there, in two parts:

The wedding took place on a Saturday.  After consulting a professional baker through a friend who is also her sister, I decided to do all the baking on Thursday, the majority of the frosting on Friday, and the detailed decorations and mini cupcake flowers on Saturday morning.  The cakes would still taste fine, she said, and the rewards of working with day-old rather than freshly baked cake are staggering.

My biggest comment about the whole process is that everything takes longer than you expect it to.  And it “takes a village,” as they say.  I knew approximately how much cake I was going to make, but I didn’t really stop and think about how much time it would take to bake, or how much space it would require, or what 36 egg yolks looks like (6 egg whites in each batch of batter = 36 unused yolks).

Anyway, I baked on Thursday, and despite my naïve assumption that I would bake in the morning, tidy up the kitchen and rest in the afternoon, I baked almost all day.  See, butter takes time to come to room temperature, and egg whites take a while to whip to soft peaks, and when you only have one muffin tin you can only make 12 full size cupcakes at a time!  My friend J. joined me for lunch, which was a welcome break (relatedly, crisp, juice-laden pink spears of watermelon are incredible when you don’t have to slice them up yourself, and Stash’s pomegranate raspberry green tea makes a wonderful iced tea that requires zero sweetener), and a bit later M. came by to keep me company while I scooped and poured and measured and mixed and sweated and burned myself only twice!  The entire day!

Completion of the day’s project took some finagling, because as much as we tried to use up perishables to create fridge space, it hadn’t occurred to me how much room it would take to fit one 9”, one 8”, and one 6” cake in there along with 52 cupcakes and 90-something mini cupcakes.  There weren’t enough shelves!  We improvised by double stacking the cupcakes and minis on sheet trays, separating each with upside down drinking glasses to keep them from squashing each other.

Thursday night, I was exhausted.

But that was nothing.

Friday, I got up with excited anticipation and set a pot of water to boil so I could peel the apricots for the filling.  Once the raspberry apricot compote was cooked down to a thick, sticky jam and nearly ready to chill, I would set out the butter.  I knew now it didn’t take an eternity to soften.  This was going to be a breeze.  It would be my best buttercream ever.  Well, as these things often go, it wasn’t, and it wasn’t.  

Apricots don’t like losing their skins.  They hang onto them like some living thing.  By scoring an x in the bottom of each and plunging them into a boiling bath for a minute or so, I thought I would be able to slip them free and naked, like peaches.  Instead, the skin came off in little peels as though they’d been sunburned, and sometimes it wouldn’t come off at all, unless attached to chunks of flesh.  This, then, took longer than I’d anticipated.

When the apricots were finally mostly nude, slippery chunks of ruddy gold, I flopped them into a big stock pot with 3 pints of dewy, just-rinsed raspberries, a light sprinkling of sugar (maybe ½ cup?), and the leftover champagne from the previous day’s baking.  There was maybe a cup of liquid when I began, and I worried this would not be enough.  Half an hour later, as the raspberries broke into fragrant, molten juice, I worried there was too much liquid.

I’ve never made jam, so I don’t know how long it really takes for fruit to boil off its liquid, but at an hour into the process, when I still wasn’t mixing up a batch of buttercream, I panicked and poured off about half the compote into a colander, making the sink look like a murder had been committed.  Too afraid to pour off any more lest I lose the flavor, I plopped the sodden fruit bits back into the pot and boiled a bit longer.  Then, when things still weren’t thickening and I was despairing for time (morning was already almost gone), I made a daring, despairing, hand-wringing choice of desperation and poured two packets of gelatin powder into some water, sloshed it about to combine, and tipped it into my steaming, bubbling, red gold concoction.  Alchemy, do your magic!  I bubbled the whole thing on the stove for a minute or two longer, then turned off the heat, held my breath, squeezed my eyes almost shut, and poured the whole thing into a glass bowl which I topped with plastic wrap and shoved into the freezer.  Now it just needed to chill, and we’d be back in business.  I’d be done by mid-afternoon with plenty of time to tidy up before the rehearsal dinner (I should add that during all the hand-wringing and the despair and the certainty that accepting J&H’s desire to have me bake for their wedding was a mistake, N. was very supportive.  He helped me monitor the pot while I showered and cleaned the bathroom in preparation for out of town guests staying with us while they attended the wedding.  He’s a dream).

My sense of timing, ever prescient, was of course wrong again.

It was 6-8 cups of boiling hot near-liquid.  Cooling takes time!  Cooling takes, as it turns out, a lot of time.

No matter.  In the meantime, I hollowed out the cupcakes to receive the (hopefully eventually) cool filling, and trimmed and halved each pale gold circle of cake so there would be four approximately even layers to each one.  Unable to stand it any longer, I took the butter and mascarpone cheese out of the refrigerator to soften.

What I made, when I made it, was not my best batch of buttercream.  Remember the one from June that I made at my mom’s house?  Remember the sharp edges and beautiful, smooth consistency?  This one was a step backward.  It was clumpy.  It was grainy.  It was so, so sweet.  If I were a professional baker, I would have thrown out the whole thing and started again.  But I’m not.  I’m a home-trained amateur, and though I took into account everything I’d taught myself over the past six months and continued to beat and beat and add more lime juice and beat, at a certain point I had to frost something.  No worries, I thought, it’s just the crumb coat.  Just do the crumb coat, and it’ll be fine.  It was.  It worked exactly like a crumb coat should.  After piping a generous circle of frosting around the top edge of each layer and spooning in a nice puddle of filling, I stacked the cakes as evenly as I could.  I scraped on the crumb coat, catching moist, delicate, champagne-flavored bits, and as I finished each cake I returned them carefully to the fridge so this first all-important layer of icing could harden. 

In the meantime, I filled and frosted the cupcakes with careful swirls.  Contrary to my most recent performance, these did not come out in sharp rosettes.  In fact, a few of them threatened to plump into blobs.  But I administered a careful sprinkling of blue sugar anyway, and shoved them, too, into the fridge to think about what they’d done.

A new batch of buttercream was now required.  And I was out of mascarpone cheese.  As always, this was more of a challenge than I’d anticipated.  It was nearing 4pm, the rehearsal dinner was in less than 3 hours, and I wasn’t done yet.  Okay, just go and buy some more mascarpone.  The grocery store two blocks from us didn’t have any.  The grocery store on the south side of town did, but it was a different brand, a higher price, and a looser consistency.  And cold.  Deep breath.  Beat its brains out.  This batch was, admittedly, a bit better than the first, but still not the smooth creamy perfection I’d achieved in June.  But it was what I had.  I would deal.  It was just frosting.  I could conquer it.

When I finished the first cake – the 8” one, I think – I called N. in to have a look.  “Be honest,” I said to him, “does this look decent?”  We agreed that while it wasn’t great, it was probably passable.  I pressed on to the 9”.  When this one was done, I felt my stomach sinking.  Yes, I had carefully covered the crumb coat, and yes, I had dipped my spatula in hot water and let it glide carefully and quickly over the surface when I was finished to smooth things out, but I could see tiny chunks of butter in the mixture.  I could see where the icing wasn’t absolutely smooth.  There were dents and cracks and, inevitably, the indentation of my knuckle from a moment of carelessness.  I filled that one in.  By the time the 6” cake was done, I was almost ready to cry.  It looked the best of the three (practice is important, people), but I was tired and disappointed with myself and worried that the bride and groom would second-guess their choice.  Still, all that could be done was to carefully deposit them back into the fridge, try in vain to scrub the blue dye from the blue sprinkles off my hands, and go to the rehearsal dinner.  The detail work, which I’d never had time to practice, would have to wait until morning…

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