The Buttercream Project: Wedding day, part two

Saturday morning – Wedding day! – was beautiful and bright and promising.  Our now-from-Seattle friends had arrived the night before, we’d all slept, the cakes had chilled, and now after a brief wedding day breakfast with the bride and groom’s families and out of town guests, I’d be on to decorating.  When I settled in to the buttercream production this time, I had an epiphany.  At Mom’s house, I had used an electric hand mixer instead of a stand mixer, and the buttercream had been fluffy and smooth and glorious.  What if, instead of using the paddle attachment on my stand mixer, I used the whisk?

This was, finally, the right thing to do.  I wish fervently I had thought of it the first day.  The frosting came together faster, and whipped up a bit smoother.  It was, I perhaps imagined, brighter ivory than the previous batches, and there were no chunks of butter to cause me piping distress.  If only, if only, the day before… but that is immaterial (and perhaps inaccurate too, since there were other factors, other differences, like the temperature of the butter, the temperature of the cheese, the amount of time spent whipping, the quantity of lime juice, etc) .

I piped.  I piped and I piped.  And things started to look better.  A lot better.  Most of the worst imperfections were hidden under the ivory and then delicate blue swirls and scrolls I snaked onto the cakes.  They actually started to look nice.  This might not be a disaster after all.  When I added a ring of round, pearl-like blobs to the bottom border of each, I started to feel happy with my project.

With the cakes done, all that remained were 92 miniature cupcakes.  All.  Right.  I had half a bowl of perfectly blue frosting.  Against my own better judgment (hey, it had worked out okay the day before with the gelatin in the filling), instead of starting over with a brand new batch, I decided to add more butter and more powdered sugar to the bowl, and try to tint it to match what I had already done as I went.  It worked.  I wanted a slightly thicker consistency of frosting for the flowers I planned to pipe so this mixture had to be more butter than mascarpone.  That worked out well, really, because I was out of mascarpone again anyway.

With time ticking, I filled up another piping bag with one of the new rose petal tips H. had bought me and went to work, remembering what I’d learned months ago about which way to swivel the cupcake as I frosted.  It took me a handful to get into a groove, remembering when to apply pressure and when to release, but once I got going I was making beautiful little horseshoe movements that resulted in sugary flower petals!  To perfect the color (not baby blue, but not dark blue either), I’d mixed a tiny bit of black gel dye in with the blue.  This resulted in a lovely periwinkle with just a hint of gray, matching almost exactly the blue on the couple’s save-the-date cards.  The exact blue of the wedding.  Boom.

N. would probably like me to add here that as I finished each handful of minis, he deliberately drizzled on a small quantity of silver-gray sprinkles.  My dear friend M., who arrived in mid-afternoon to coo over the product and do my hair for the event, would probably also like me to add that she took over sprinkling duties for the last dozen or so.  In fact, it was M. and S. who saw me through the last sheet tray of minis as, hand aching from the constant pressure and odd angle, I suddenly realized I was going to finish.

The winery where the wedding took place was a half hour drive from town on winding and sometimes roughly surfaced roads.  Though we positioned the cakes and cupcakes carefully in the back of our Subaru, I still got a little white-knuckled every time N. drove around the bend.  What if, after all that work, we got going a little too fast and one of the cakes slid into the side of the car?  What if, despite the air conditioning running at full blast, it was too hot in the car and the frosting started to slump off?  What if we did get there safely, but I dropped a cake on the way from the parking lot into the building?  I had packed flats as well as a bag of white frosting and a bag of blue in case of an emergency, but I’m not sure I was emotionally prepared to fix any problems that might happen on the way.  Not in a busy winery with the bride and groom’s families darting around setting things up.

Fortunately I didn’t have to.  Three or four of the minis fell over during our ride, but because I’d stuck them in the freezer for a few minutes while I got dressed, their frosting remained hard enough that it didn’t crumple much.

Setup was easy and disaster free.  Some of the wedding party helped carry the precious cargo in from the car, and when every last cupcake was situated on the table, I have to say it looked pretty fantastic.  I made a wedding cake.  And people liked it.

Final thoughts on this massive saga: I will not be going into the wedding cake business.  I would happily make another cake or three for friends who requested it, but I think I’d want to go to at least one cake decorating class first.  I will also not use American buttercream again, except for petal work like I did on the minis.  It’s just too sweet.  I loved the taste of the cakes I made, and the filling was a wonderful, bright tartness (the color contrast was great too), but the buttercream was just achingly sweet, even with the addition of lime juice to the mix.  For my sophomore performance, if I ever have such an opportunity, I would try an Italian or Swiss buttercream instead, relying on cooked egg whites for structure rather than powdered sugar.  As a thank you, J. and H. let me keep all the baking and decorating equipment they bought for the project (thanks again, you two!), so I’m set for all kinds of future practice.

I have to say, though, despite all my moaning and complaining and anxiety, I was really happy with how the cakes looked, and delighted with the reactions I received.  The bride and groom took home the leftovers and ate them the next day, and the one after that.  They were still good.  N. and I ate the trimmings and cupcake guts smothered in leftover filling, and they were delicious.  It was, regardless of the exhaustion and concern during the journey, a monumental success.  I can only thank J. and H. for letting me be such a big part of their day, and wish them all the joy in the world – joy like clouds of powdered sugar, perhaps – for the rest of their lives together.  N. and I love you both.

The Buttercream Project part 5

It’s funny, the things we feel we have to do to catch up with life.  Thursday was a big day: I successfully defended my dissertation, the last step on the way toward becoming a PhD in English literature.  So I guess I’m a doctor now, of a sort.  And now that the defense is over, and summer is (supposedly) on its way, I’m trying to find footing in the landslide of other responsibilities I’ve let slide: getting back in touch with friends, grading student work, cleaning up an office I’ll have to vacate in a month or so, and remembering (much to my dismay) an unwritten conference paper I have to present at the end of July.  And yet, rather than doing any of those things, the most important obligation I feel I must fulfill is this one: sharing how my most recent efforts on the cupcake front – now almost a month old – came out. 

The answer is spectacular.  I think, barring any further requests or complaints from the bride and groom, I have hit on THE mixture we’ll be using for the wedding.  And of course, as always, I’ve learned some things too.

Last time I made a floaty, creamy filling that coated the tongue and whispered with sweetness.  This time, I wanted something tart – almost aggressive – to to cut through the sometimes overwhelming clouds of frosting.  I combined 1 bag each frozen raspberries and frozen peach chunks, 1-2 cups champagne, and about ¼ cup of sugar in a small pot, and simmered them together for 20-30 minutes.  I was hoping for a thickened, jam-like compote, but I think there was too much champagne for that, and the mixture stayed fairly loose.  The flavor was great, though – with such a small quantity of sugar, the tartness of the fruit and champagne made the mixture bright and assertive.

When the cupcakes were baked, and both they and this ruby mixture were completely cool, I cut the middles out of the full sized cupcakes and deposited a teaspoon or two of filling into each.  To my relief, despite being thin, the juice of the filling did not bleed through and stain the exterior of the cakes.  Bright red splotches on otherwise pristine ivory-white wedding cupcakes would be disastrous.

When I mixed up the frosting this time, my butter and mascarpone cheese were not as terrifically soft as they were in my last attempt.  Therefore, they creamed together without the fearful separation I wrote about previously.  The edges and ripples of the swirls were still not as rigid and fluted as they are on bakery cakes, but they were still okay.  And when I went to frost the mini cupcakes, I finally figured out what was going on.

I ran low on frosting as I approached the minis, and because I was now out of mascarpone cheese I plopped a half-softened half-stick of butter into my mixer and let it rip.  Immediately, even though I hadn’t upped the ratio of sugar in the mix, this frosting was different.  The flowers, which I’ll say more about in a minute, actually had fluted edges, and the frosting required more pressure to liberate from my piping bag.  Mascarpone cheese, even when it’s cold, is already softer than butter.  It is never going to result in the same consistency as pure buttercream because it is such a soft cheese.  So while it is fine for simple swirls or covering a cake, it is not great for detail work that requires sharp edges or fine points.

As you can see, these are the best flowers I’ve made so far, thanks mostly to the higher ratio of butter to mascarpone in the frosting.  I still wondered why mine did not seem to ripple out of the petal tip I was using the same way they do in the instructional video I’m using, until I remembered – what an epiphany – that I’m left handed.  If you turn a cupcake to the left while you hold the piping bag in your right hand, you probably need to turn the cupcake to the right if you’re going to hold the piping bag in your left hand.  I realized this minutes too late to apply it this time around, but now I know.  That way the icing will emerge from the piping bag in the same pattern as it would for a right handed person. 

Survey said these were the best version I’d attempted yet by leaps and bounds.  The filling was perfect because it provided the right counterpoint to the achingly sweet frosting and the delicately sugary cake.  The flowers looked like flowers, and the blue sugar I found for the full size cupcakes is a deep enough blue to look sophisticated and adult (previous, lighter versions would bit better on sweets for a baby shower than on wedding cupcakes).

Next month, the challenge is piping.  I’ve purchased some beautiful ivory and gray cupcake wrappers that we’ll be using for the wedding, and I’d like to be able to imitate – if not copy – the leafy designs on them as the piped décor on one of the full sized cakes.  This will give me at least one more trial run with buttercream before the big day, and allow me to prove my theory about the mini cupcake flowers.  It will also, assuming Oregon’s weather gets its act together and remembers it’s Memorial Day weekend, give me a chance to see how the frosting behaves in warmer temperatures.

Fingers metaphorically crossed (it’s too hard to type otherwise)!