Lemon Cake & Stripy Piped Icing

I genuinely love baking, and enjoy few things more than the look on people’s faces when I get it right.  But usually when I provide baked goods it’s on a whim, so I’ve exceeded people’s expectations just by showing up with a loaded plate in my hands.  It all changes when I’m specifically asked to bake for someone, particularly for a birthday, and I start feeling the pressure…  I mean, heavens to Betsy, who wants a rubbish birthday cake?

I was flattered to be asked to bake a birthday cake for my discerning foodie friend, Simon.  Now, Simon is an extraordinary chef with incredible skills, an admirable palate and an adventurous attitude to food, and he’s also a terribly clever colourist who makes the programmes on your television look blinkin’ awesome.  (I have some very talented friends.)  I set out to make a delicious, meticulously baked cake that Simon, his gorgeous wife Jessie and three-year-old daughter Livia would all enjoy: a lemon cake, with a little classy something as a gentle nod to Simon’s love of colour.

I baked a gorgeously light three-layer lemon sponge and made some fluffy tangy lemon buttercream (combined with the paddle fitting, then fluffed with the whisk fitting).  I frosted it very plainly, then moved on to the coloured bit…  In the absence of disposable piping bags, I used a freezer bag, which I loaded with a star-shaped piping nozzle and rested inside a glass while I painted strips of colour down the inside, then dropped in a wodge of lemon buttercream:

I was marginally disappointed to discover that buttercream behaves differently from royal icing when it’s piped, so it didn’t quite come out the way I had expected but it had its charms:

The next job was the writing on the top.  I wasn’t too chuffed with my last writing efforts so I was determined to make a better job of it this time.  I made up some icing with lemon juice and a little pale yellow colouring, and poured it into a freezer bag with a small round nozzle.  One of my failings is spacing my writing evenly when I just go for it freehand, so it’s necessary for me to trace out my plans with a skewer before I start piping:

Text just in…  Taste-wise, it was “a triumph!”.  Coming from Simon, this is praise indeed.

My First Cake Commission (Devil’s Food Cake with Chocolate Fudge Frosting)

There are two main reasons for my love of baking.  The first is the precision required to effectively execute the scientific effect of the different raising agents, fats and frostings.  The second is the endless opportunities for placing guilty little smiles on the faces of friends, relatives and colleagues.  My colleagues get the lion’s share, as I test out newly discovered recipes or bring in leftovers (never knowingly under-catered…).  One of these lovely colleagues recently commissioned me to bake a cake for her friend’s surprise birthday party, which was an opportunity I couldn’t refuse!

The brief: a chocolate cake with fudge frosting, a “Happy Birthday” message in pink icing,
and a dusting of silver edible glitter.

After scouring dozens of recipes in all my books, magazines and online, I chose one called Devil’s Food Cake from The Great British Bake Off’s “How to Bake” book, substituting the recommended soured cream frosting for chocolate fudge frosting (triple the stated recipe for 12 cupcakes) on a different page of the book.

Having never used this recipe before, I reverted to my default setting and followed the recipe to the very letter, making no executive decisions to change the original.  I’m inclined to think that changing someone’s recipe the first time you use it is like seasoning your food before you’ve tasted it; it’s just not cricket.  I’m delighted to write that I think it’s an absolute stonker of a recipe.  The mixture was silky, light and luxurious, the bake filled my apartment with the most tantalisingly wonderful chocolate smells and the texture of the sponges when they came out was absolutely beautiful.  The only slight shame was that they were a little mountainous (well, mole-hill-ous), so I’d take care to create a dip in the centres next time, in a bid for a more even rise.

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I waited – not very patiently – for them to cool completely before slicing them in half horizontally and making the frosting.  This is where I came off the rails slightly, and mild panic started to set in.  The frosting recipe was just 70% cocoa solids chocolate, butter and golden syrup, which you melt in a bain-marie and then wait for it to cool to a useable thickness, stirring frequently.  I waited.  I stirred.  I stirred.  I waited.  I watched a bit of The Big Bang Theory (guilty pleasure).  I stirred.  I waited.  The bloomin’ stuff just didn’t seem inclined to thicken sufficiently and I was acutely aware that time was ticking on and I still had to brave the piping bag for the writing.  So I tentatively spooned a little on to the bottom layer, which sucked it up in no time.  This was not going to work.  So, after a brief consulting call to my mother confirmed my proposed strategy, I used a small whisk to mix in some sieved icing sugar until it was at a workable consistency and got busy putting my four layers together.

One of the most useful tips I’ve ever been offered was to apply a thin layer of frosting to the sides and briefly refrigerate before finishing the top and sides – this keeps pesky cake crumbs from infiltrating the pure frosting finish, and is particularly important for cakes using white frosting.  I worked fairly quickly and, thanks to the flawed bottom of the pizza plate I use for cakes, I was able to gently spin the plate on my worktop in order to get a nice swirl in the top.  I then popped the cake in the fridge again briefly, just to set the chocolate fudge frosting enough for it to support and not absorb the writing icing.

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(Complete with baking paper bib to protect the serving plate from frosting splashes.)

I fiddled for quite a while with the colour of the writing, and I still didn’t get the colour I wanted but it was past midnight at this point so I cut my losses and went for it.  This is the first time I’ve ever iced writing before and it’s every bit as hard as I had expected, but my cheat of gently tracing my text in with a skewer first helped steady my nerves a bit, as it reduced the extent to which I could screw it up.  So, with violently shaking hands, I squeezed my piping bag to within an inch of its life and got the text on the cake, with some degree of success but far from perfect.  Room for improvement.

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