Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Trouble with Cake

This post really has nothing to do with books or anything related to publishing, so you can skip it if you want. Really.
But if you are the teeniest bit curious about something unrelated to books, keep reading. I can't promise it'll be as entertaining as Shirley's book reviews (I love reading those; actually, I just love reading anything Shirley writes), but you might find it at least mildly interesting. Or perhaps depressing.

Have you ever had to fork out 200+ dollars for a wedding cake? Did you ever think to yourself "I am NOT paying X amount for a stupid piece of frosting!" or "Those cakes are incredibly overpriced" or "That cake cannot possibly be worth $50 let alone $500" or anything else along those lines?
Repent. Apologize. And pry open your wallet.
I always thought it'd be fun to be a cake decorator. You bake a cake, smooth some frosting on it, put on some pretty flowers, and--ten hours later, tops--wallah! You have a wedding cake.
Now we'll push Play on the real scenario: Three months in advance you start frantically making decorations: rolling beads, molding leaves, painstakingly painting roses together. This goes on until about three weeks before the wedding, at which point you bake enough cake that you have to buy another freezer to hold it all. You spend a couple of days making batter, greasing pans, wrapping cake in foil to freeze, eating nasty old freezer-burnt food to make room in the freezer that you do have because you can't afford another one, and doing endless dishes.
And then the real work starts.
You start in on the batches of buttercream icing. By the end of day one, your kitchen is covered in powdered sugar. By day two, the house is covered in Crisco. By day three, the house is encased in a sticky white mess and you have five huge bowls of buttercream icing--icing so heavy that it has cracked your table in half and that you have to hire a team of movers to transport the icing from your broken table to your new table.
The fourth day your expensive Bosch explodes because it just can't handle making royal icing. You bury your Bosch remains in the back yard, and throw the royal icing at the wall where it sticks, hardens, and remains for time and all eternity.
The fifth day you enter the world of marshmallow fondant. Basically this means that you lose track of time and you add marshmallow goo to everything else already covering the house. The marshmallow fondant stage goes on for what seems like years, but eventually you knead the last batch and turn to face The Cake.
The Cake should have been defrosting for about two hours, and therefore should be cool but not cold, springy and easy to cut. At least that's what you think until you start cutting into it. Either it's frozen in the middle or it crumbles into dust as soon as you get out the cake leveler. If it is frozen, you plow ahead. If it crumbles, you pull out the styrofoam cake blocks and hope the bride doesn't plan to serve cake at her wedding.
Now you start the frosting process. This takes about four hours for every full-sized layer you have, and that's if everything goes smoothly. You painstakingly build your cake, making icing dams and filling the middle with fudge or whatever, and then you carefully spread buttercream over every inch--twice--to ensure crumb control. Once the icing is perfectly smooth and even across the tops, sides, corners, etc (something I'm convinced is actually impossible and we only believe thanks to some great photoshop jobs), you get out your fondant, grease every surface in sight, and roll the fondant out. Then you very, very carefully dump it (or throw it) on the cake (fondant is HEAVY!) and frantically try to smooth down the sides and corners. If all goes well, you end up with a slightly lumpy marginally lopsided cake that is 90% frosting. If something doesn't go well... Then you have a scenario that includes, at best, hours of kneading or scraping sticky buttercream off of half-dry fondant, and at worst that includes a large garbage can.
And just when you thought you were done, the worst is yet to come. Because you don't build a cake and then cover it with icing; you ice a cake and then build it layer by layer. So now that you've got your cake layer covered, you have to get it on the rest of the cake. That's right: you have to pick it up and put it on the rest of the cake. (Have you ever seen a cake disintegrate mid-air?) So imagine a four-layer square cake (which looks something like the Tower of Babel). The first layer isn't too bad, but every layer after that you have to pick up the cake AFTER IT'S DONE and put it (dead center) on top of the cake you've already placed. This is even harder than it sounds for 3 reasons:
1. The Cake is too tall for you to see the top without climbing a ladder, and trying to climb a ladder yet alone get balance to place the cake is not easy.
2. Cake is heavy. Don't believe me? Have you ever tried to heft a wedding cake? Or even a batch of fondant? There's a reason that they wheel cakes around on carts.
3. Cake is sticky. So you've got the cake, you're perched on a ladder looking down on The Cake, and when you go to place the sticks to everything. Your fingers. The spatula. The pan you have it resting upon. Whatever. Not fun.
So after you get the cake placed, you re-smooth the cake as best you can. You usually yell a lot a the cake for being so difficult before giving up on the super-smooth look. Then you hope you have enough decorations to cover the parts you ruined.
Now you're finally on the home stretch: The Cake is built, your kitchen is a mess, and you only have about 20 hours of placing decorations on The Cake left. But this is not 20 solid hours, since cake carpal tunnel will strike after about only an hour of squeezing the decorator bag. So really you've got to throw in time for a lot of breaks and possibly a few surgeries.
Then you're done! Granted, you have a few weeks of cleanup ahead of you, but no biggie. As long as the kids don't pick off the decorations, the cat doesn't shred the fondant, and no earthquakes strike the house, you only have one hurdle left: transportation.
This is why most cake decorators have minivans. It's not to haul kids around. It's to haul cake. You hire another moving team to come take your cake (which now weights approximately 1000 pounds) to the car. You have your handy no-slide mat set up for the cake. You have your "Cake on Board" sign in the window and your emergency lights flashing. Going a top speed of 15 miles an hour (the cake is so heavy you can't go any faster) you haul the cake and the moving team over to the wedding, where they take the cake in, you collect a measly 200 or so dollars, and then you leave the cake to be chopped into little pieces by the bride and groom.
So the bottom line is this: never underestimate the value of a Cake. Even a tiny one probably took a good 20 hours to decorate. Wedding cakes can literally take hundreds of hours. So the next time you go to buy a fancy cake, give your decorator a nice tip and tell her how beautiful the cake is--it'll go a long way toward keeping her from going home and having a nervous breakdown.


Janet Burningham said...

Wow! I had no idea it took that long and was that extensive. Good for you!
(By the way, we miss you!)

Kammi Rencher said...

Aw. :) I miss working at CFI, too. I'll have to post pictures of The Tower of Babel when I get it has been quite a project and I felt the need to rant.

Aubrey said...

I knew there was a reason I decided to become a writer instead of a pastry chef. :) You're lucky you didn't have a full-blown nervous breakdown!

JoAnn Arnold said...

your story reminds me of why I hate to decorate cakes. I had to laugh as I read the steps and the disasters. It reminded me of what I'm going through to get my blog set up.

Hey, I understand you are living just a step away from me. We'll have to get together for lunch.

Kammi Rencher said...

I did survive the cake, but just barely. I thought I'd lose it for a few days there, but in the end it turned out beautiful. When I track down pictures I'll have to post one.

And yep, I'm in St. George now, so stop by and say hi sometime. :)