Sunday, February 25, 2007

Cakes Galore!

Wow - I'm so backed up that I have three whole weeks to cover! To catch you up a bit - this semester I'm taking Cake Decorating at Grossmont College - our local community college here in the East County. It has a fantastic (and very popular) culinary program that is entirely tuition free. (That's right - free!) All we are required to buy are uniforms, equipment, textbooks and parking permits. We also pay nominal lab fees. It isn't exactly cheap when you put it all together, but it beats the alternative options and the scheduling is fairly flexible with lots of evening classes. The pastry instructor is Chef James Foran - who is also the pastry chef at Market. He used to work at Arterra along with Carl Schroeder. His style is modern but classic at the same time, and he really knows his stuff.
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Last semester, in basic baking and pastry, he taught us several different techniques - biscuits, puff pastry, bread, etc. This semester though is all about cakes. The first three weeks have been fairly basic - as far as fancy cakes go. We did a Chocolate Mocha Torte (made with vanilla cake), a Citrus Mousseline Torte (pictured above) and a Chocolate Mousse Torte. I won't reprint all of the recipes here - but I did make two of the cakes at home for "practice" - so I thought I'd share a few pictures and some things I learned along the way.
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In making the sponge cake and buttercream in class we learned a couple of basic lessons. One, when you are folding flour into your batter, be quick about it so as not to deflate your batter. I also think it's helpful to transfer the mixture into a shallow bowl. It's hard to fold in those really deep mixer bowls. We wound up with a big clump of flour at the bottom, and the end result was that our cakes were flat as a pancake and dry as a bone. The recipe we had was supposed to make enough cake for three decorated cakes - with each 9 inch cake separated into three layers, but ours were so flat we could only make two. (These pictures are of the cake I made later at home - without the mocha syrup.)
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Our buttercream also didn't work quite right in class - either because the sugar syrup we poured into the egg whites wasn't quite hot enough, or the egg whites and sugar syrup were still too warm when the butter was added. We chilled (even froze) and re-beat it, but it was still too soft. When I made it at home, it worked out fine, but it a bit too sweet for my taste. I prefer my chocolate darker.

The chiffon cake had the most components, with a cookie bottom topped with raspberry jam, the cake, a curd and cream "mousseline", a simple syrup for soaking the cake layers, and the meringue topping. The cake itself turned out wonderful in class - and was almost as good at home. I have to reduce these recipes down to 1/3 of the original when I make them - and sometimes I think something gets lost in translation. The lemon curd was fairly easy, and the blood orange curd was almost as simple.
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I added a chocolate ganache layer to the center of my cake, and I put a drop of lemon oil in my meringue to give it a little flavor boost, which worked really well. It came out a little too soft though - I cooked the sugar syrup to the temperature suggested in the textbook instead of what we used in class and I think it wasn't quite enough. It still tasted good though!
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I haven't recreated the Chocolate Mousse Cake - partly because I wasn't all that crazy about the cake and mousse recipes that we used in the class. The mousse was a ganache lightened with whipping cream, and the cake was a classic devils food - much like the one I posted here. It was glazed with a soft ganache, coated with chopped almonds on the sides - and decorated with praline and chocolate curls that we made. The praline was my favorite part - I will definitely make that again.
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This picture shows Chef Foran demonstrating the proper way to glaze the cake with ganache. He covered it with a thin even coating of the whipped ganache, then froze it for half an hour to firm up - before setting it on a rack and pouring the liquid ganache over the cake to cover. He then coated the sides with almonds...
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pressing them into the sides. He suggested letting the ganache set up for a bit before doing this - but he had to work quickly since we were all watching!

After that we were free to decorate with our shards of praline and chocolate curls. We also crushed some of the praline and sprinkled it into the layers of mousse in the cake.
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Though I didn't make this chocolate cake - I did make another one this week. On Saturday, we had a dinner at Ortega's in Hillcrest to say goodbye to our dear friend Tracy, who is leaving us to move back East for a job in D.C. I know she's a fan of chocolate desserts, so I experimented a little with a nearly flourless chocolate cake from Lindsey Remolif Shere - the pastry chef who founded the Downtown Bakery and Creamery in Healdsburg, and before that worked at Chez Panisse.
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Since we were doing Mexican, I gave the cake a little kick with some cinnamon, orange and chiles - specifically a touch of cayenne and chipotle. It was pretty good, but I think it might have been better had I used the cinnamon and EITHER the orange or chile - the three flavors together were a bit much. My cake was actually completely flourless because I left it out by accident (damn that tiny cookbook typeface!) but it actually came out fine. Next time I'll try it with the flour, and without the additional flavors. I suspect it will taste much like a very delicious and moist brownie.

I will leave you with the recipes for two of my favorite components from these recipes - the blood orange curd and the almond praline - Bon Appetit!
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Blood Orange Curd
Blood oranges are available at Trader Joes for 1.99 per bag.

7 egg yolks
3 oz sugar (about 1/3 of a cup)
1/2 cup blood orange juice
2 Tablespoons lemon juice
2 drops of orange oil or 1/2 tsp finely chopped orange zest
4.5 oz butter, cut up (1 stick plus 1 Tbsp.)
A drop of red food coloring (optional - but it will look a lot better!)

Prepare a double boiler and start the water simmering while you crack your eggs/prep your mise en place.

Place the sugar in the top of your double boiler (I use a shallow metal bowl) and pour in the juice. Add the egg yolks and whisk immediately. Set over the double boiler and allow to cook - stirring only occasionally, until thickened to a custardy consistency. Allow to cool for a few minutes and stir in butter. Cover with plastic wrap - placing it directly on the surface - and refrigerate.

To make the filling for the cake, as pictured above - fold in whipped cream to the desired consistency - I used about 1/3 whipped cream to 2/3 curd.

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Almond Praline

1 1/4 cup toasted slivered almonds

1 cup sugar
1 1/2 oz corn syrup
1/4 cup water

2 oz butter
1 tsp salt

Prepare a work station with a smooth cool heatproof surface - like a granite countertop or granite cutting board, two silpats and a rolling pin. Fill a small cup with water, and put it next to the stove with a pastry brush.

Combine the sugar, corn syrup and water and cook, undisturbed in a heavy saucepan until it is a nice toasty caramel color. Wash any sugar crystals down the sides of the pan with the water and the pastry brush. The length of time you cook it will determine how sweet the finished product will be - the trick is to get it to just to the spot where it has good flavor, but isn't too bitter. We took ours fairly dark, as you can see from the photo above - but we liked it that way. (We took it as a compliment when Chef Foran said it was like something Michael Recchiuti would make!) If the sugar starts to brown unevenly, just swirl it around in the pan.

You can actually taste it through the various stages by keeping a cup of ice water and a spoon handy - dip the spoon in the sugar - then dunk it in the ice water to cool before tasting. Make sure your spoon is completely dry and clean each time you dunk it in.

When the sugar is cooked - carefully add the butter, it will foam up a little bit. Swirl that around until it is melted, and stir in the almonds.

Lay one of the silpats on the work surface, and carefully pour the contents of the pan onto the silpat. Top with the other silpat and working quickly, roll it out between the silpats - spreading it as thinly and evenly as possible. It's ok if some of it squirts out the sides, but it's best if it stays in between. Be very careful because it's hot - if it gets on the rolling pin it can burn you.

You can then peel off the silpat and break it into pieces as soon as it cools. This is great coated with chocolate and topped with more chopped nuts - like toffee.


  1. Alice, I made the Citrus Mousseline this weekend and split the recipe to make two cakes. It took me all day but things mostly turned out ok. My meringue was grainy which I think means I may have overbeat it. I'm not sure. Otherwise, I used only lemon as a flavoring, substituting orange juice for meyer lemon juice. The same with the curd. I think it was one of the best cakes I have ever made - minus the grainy meringue.

  2. Jen?? Gary?? Tracy??? is that you??? :o)

  3. Wow. That looks like fun. I'm impressed that you're trying them again at home. I've been on a baking kick since the baby was born but I recently realized I must stop soon so I will have to just drool at the beautiful cakes you are making. Have fun!