As I sit here and settle in to the couch, preparing to tune in to the BBC’s Great British Bake Off, I wonder if perhaps I’ve been inspired by the weeks of its bucolic, mouth-watering competition. I’ve never been a baker, never been one for the precision and patience that the pastry arts require. It’s a temperament thing, but I think I might just finally be growing up because last week I took such joy in the fiddling and exacting nature of the desserts I produced (see the cookies I made here). It was sort of like the epiphany you have when you finally tie your shoes right for the first time as a child – the process of taking your time and perfecting a skill can be worthwhile in itself…and after that it’s easy!
A client of mine had a small town hall wedding here in London last week and asked if I might be able to make a little cake for the lunch she and her guests were sharing after the ceremony. At first I protested, urging her to look elsewhere because my baking skills were not up to the task, not wanting to mar the bride and groom’s special day. Finesse is the end-all in a wedding cake, I think, and while the result might taste good, I was very uncertain about the decorating portion of the project. I decided to take the challenge and set about making the perfect miniature wedding cake.
By and large I could take or leave the wedding cakes I’ve eaten at various receptions over the years. Flavorless or artificial tasting cakes, far too much icing or that terrible fondant stuff, crumbly sugar flowers. After browsing the internet briefly, I remembered my precious Miette cookbook (“recipes from san francisco’s most charming pastry shop” is the subtitle). Although I’ve made their chocolate sables and cupcakes, I’ve never attempted one of their delightfully precious little cakes. Their cakes always looked daunting to me, with lots of processes, techniques and page after page of detailed instructions. The words just blurred on the page and I decided these cakes were beyond me.
Back when I moved to San Francisco in 2001, Miette was just a stall at the city’s Farmers’ Market on Saturday mornings. Just about every week I’d ogle their gorgeous, ladylike, classic cakes, but never once bought one. Instead, I munched on their delicate madelines and salty sables as I wandered through the bounty of Northern California’s harvest. The two ladies who manned the stall baked all of their goods over the bridge in Oakland and I spoke to them at length about their mission: to take classic American style cakes and apply French techniques to them, all the while using only the best (and if possible, organic) ingredients. Not to sound like an old foagey, but these were the days before the refurbished Ferry Building had even reopened to house the weekly Farmers’ Market, permanent shops and restaurants. Miette moved in to one of the permanent shops and not too long thereafter opened the sweetest old fashioned candy shop in Hayes Valley – I wanted to move in with them.
Thumbing through Miette’s gorgeous cookbook I was instantly transported back to those sunny mornings by the Bay in San Francisco. I can still taste their chocolate sables, smell the oily sea water, and hear the seagulls crying overhead. And so I decided to take the plunge and make their Lemon Debutante Cake for my client’s wedding day. As I planned my attack it occurred to me that perhaps instead of growing up, what’s really happening is I now know myself better. My attention span is not terribly long, so often, when working with pastry recipes, my mind wanders and the result is haphazard. This time I spent a little time each day making one or two of the elements that were required for the final cake to come together: hot milk cake, lemon syrup, lemon curd, buttercream. I also made certain I had the equipment required: revolving cake stand, straight palate knife, various piping tips. In the end it all came together with ease.
Although I’ve shared links for some of the elements above, I’m not going to go into the entire process here. That’s not really the point of this post (and I’m sure you can find the how-to somewhere else). My point is that it was wonderfully gratifying to pull off this cake and have it look beautiful in the end.. plus the wedding party raved about the taste. Back when I lived in San Francisco I ran a half marathon, trained for months (I had to work off all those cookies somehow!). When I’d finished the race, people kept saying to me, don’t you feel you’ve accomplished so much? Nope. Not at all! All I could think about was all those wasted Sundays spent running for miles and miles. Making this cake was a much, much more satisfying project, partly because I got to share the result with others. The joy was in the process, the various proceedures, learning new skills, seeing them evolve right in front of your eyes. This is why I love cooking, this is what makes me happy, and hope just maybe I’ve encouraged you to step outside your comfort zone and try a new skill in the kitchen too.