Before I begin, here's a link to Julia's cake last year. Alex's cake is in that post as well, but I haven't done this year's cake yet – that'll be next month's production.
Anyway, up until a week or two ago, Julia wanted a cake very similar to last year's, only instead of the elephants wearing ballerina garb, she requested that they be gymnasts. So I played with that idea in my mind for a while…what color costumes the elephants would wear, and which pieces of equipment they'd be performing on…Julia is partial to the uneven bars herself (or "unbeeven bars" as she used to say it), so I'd have to include those…maybe the balance beam and trampolene as well. And the costumes kept appearing in red, white and blue in my mind, so that's where I was headed in that regard….
And then shortly after the class field trip to the Mystic Aquarium, Julia decided she wanted a Beluga whale cake. No gymnastic equipment, and no costumes. Things suddenly got a lot easier for me! Yay!
I filed the USA Elephants Gymnastic Team idea away in the filing cabinet of my mind and started imagining Beluga scenes. Lots of blue and white…amazingly, neither pink nor purple anywhere on or in the cake!
Okay, so several days before the party I got out my fondant, a sheet pan lined with a sheet of parchment, and these curved pieces of plastic that I'd bought years ago when I was doing a LOT more cakes and had started dabbling in gum paste flowers and other fun stuff. I had Julia bring me the two plastic toy Beluga whales she owns, and while she was at school that day I sat down to play.
Have I ever mentioned that a lonnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnng time ago when I was first doing cakes, I used to make my own fondant? Confectioners' sugar, glucose, glycerin, who knows what else. It was like making bread dough with barely any liquid – really hard to mix together. I don't think I had a stand mixer or food processor back then, either. I mixed everything by hand. I was in a lot better shape back then, too. Hmmm.
Anyway, I don't make my own fondant any more, and I don't miss it a bit. Some things – like bread, like cheese – I love to make from scratch, and I take a bit of pride in it. But fondant? Not so much. It's just not as impressive, anyway. Homemade bread? Yes, please! Homemade cheese? You MAKE cheese? Cool! Homemade fondant? What's fondant? It's basically clay made out of sugar. Oh, and it tastes (in my opinion) pretty horrible. It's just fun to play with.
But I digress.
I got out the plain white fondant and tore off a little piece to work with and sealed the rest in a bag. It dries out fairly quickly, so if you're not working with the whole piece, wrap it up.
I rolled the fondant into a ball, then rolled that into a sort of log, and then started manipulating one end into the tail, the other end into a face, and about a third of the way beyond the face, I made fins. I made a little blow hole and eyes…and that was really about it. If you've never made anything with fondant, Beluga whales are pretty easy.
I positioned the whales over and around the curved plastic pieces, so they'd dry in various stages of swimming/diving/playing.
Here are the pictures I took that afternoon:
Two days before the party, I baked the cakes. No, I didn't. I was going to, but then I didn't. I baked them the morning before, because I love the tension on Iron Chef and Iron Chef America, and I like to recreate that tension for myself whenever possible. Yes, I left MOST of the baking and cooking til the day before. And the morning of. And woah, what a rush!
Okay, the cake.
Julia requested lemon. Lemon cake. Lemon frostin/icing/filling. I used the Perfect Party Cake recipe from Dorie Greenspan's Baking: From My Home to Yours. The Tuesdays with Dorie group made this one almost a year ago. I hadn't participated that week, but I'm glad I made it for Julia because it's really a lovely cake. And I'm not much of a cake person, either. I like to decorate them, but I'd rather bake bread and I'd rather eat pie. BUT. This is a really, really nice cake. The recipe is on pages 250-252, or you can read it here. And click here to read a list of Perfect Party Cake tips from Dorie herself.
And as a bittersweet side note to the preceding paragraph, I've been participating with the Tuesdays with Dorie group for a over 2 years now, since April 8, 2008 and The Most Extraordinary French Lemon Cream Tart, but over the past half year or so it's been getting harder and harder for me to adhere to the requisite two-recipes-a-month membership condition. So a couple of weeks ago I bowed out of the group. I've got twinges of sadness about it, but that's better than the weekly guilt-fest I was feeling every Tuesday that I didn't participate. Change happens. I met a lot of great people in the group and baked a lot of really wonderful cookies and pies and breads and cakes and brownies.
But anyway, I made the Perfect Party Cake for Julia, so let's talk about that.
First, I doubled the recipe, to start. I whisked together my dry ingredients, I whisked together my buttermilk and egg whites, and I rubbed together my lemon zest and sugar.
I creamed together the butter and sugar/zest til light and fluffy, added the lemon extract, then added the dry and wet components, alternating dry/wet/dry/wet/dry until the whole thing was transformed into a gorgeous smooth batter.
The batter went into two pans, which I'd buttered, lined with parchment, and buttered again. Both pans were heart-shaped. One was my smallest – about a 6" pan – and the other was my largest from that set of four – maybe a 12"? They're Wilton pans, so whatever the largest one is in that 4-pan set.
Then, after those two were baked and out of the pans, I made a single batch of the cake batter and poured it into this pan-in-a-pan contraption.
All the cakes baked up nicely. After they'd cooled, it was time to make the buttercream. I just wanted to make sure the cakes were completly cooled first, so I went into the dining room to check on the last one…and I noticed something…
Need a closer look? Here.
And here, too.
Hmmmm….how do you suppose that happened?
Julia had asked me if she could have a taste of the cake after the first two came out, and I told her no because A) they were still totally hot, and B) I said so. And I needed ALL of the cake to BUILD the cake. If there were any trimmings, I told her she could have them.
Apparently SOMEbody didn't believe me about the trimmings.
I summoned her and asked her if she knew how those little bits of cake had gone missing.
Well, okay. No harm done.
Time to make buttercream.
This recipe is also included with the Perfect Party Cake recipe in the book, which is nice – one-stop-shopping, sort of. It's a cooked-meringue buttercream, which is really silky and smooth and lovely to work with.
First, you combine the sugar and egg whites and whip them in a bowl over simmering water until they are shiny thickening and all the sugar is melted.
Then, once all the butter is incorporated, you add the lemon juice and the vanilla, and this actually caused a bit of a problem – the buttercream didn't want to let the juice in. I tried using the paddle, the whisk, different speeds – all that happened was the buttercream itself stayed together like a big stubborn creamy blob and splashed around in the lemon juice. I ended up whisking it in by hand. It's yummy buttercream, by the way.
Time to assemble the cake. I took the large heart and sliced it down the center, but only halfway through the cake, depthwise. Then I sliced the cake in half (to make two layers) and removed the upper halves. I figured the upper layer would be easier to handle if I did that – no chance of it breaking.
I kept the heart with the heart cutout all in one piece – it was thinner than the bottom layer, so I didn't feel the need to make it into two layers.
Once the top layer of the heart was on, I covered the whole cake in the rest of the buttercream and put it in the fridge overnight.
The next morning, I finished the cake. I colored fondant in a few different shades of blues, using one for the small heart, another for the flat part of the larger heart, and another for the waves around the sides. There was no one shade of blue – I had about four that I used, to varying degrees.
I used a tube of blue glitter gel and some cooked meringue to outline and decorate, and I used drinking straws where needed to hold the whales in place.
And you know, I had SO much fun finishing this cake! It was just me in the kitchen working on the cake – Bill had the kids outside weeding the gardens before the party that afternoon – and I was in there placing a whale here, a whale there, and just giggling with delight.
Oh, and see this one? Diving out of the cake? The tale was in one or two of the shots above and below this one. There was one spot on the cake where the top layer and side "wave" layers of fondant didn't overlap enough, so I had a hole about the diameter of a nickel, roughly. I figured I'd have a whale coming out of there, but it seemed a shame to shove half the body all the way into the cake. So I cut the poor thing in half and had one coming out here and the tail end going in somewhere on the other side.
The front whale in the picture below was my favorite. She/he just seemed so joyful.
Blue glitter gel in the heart-shaped "pool" below. I was originally going to fill the cutout area with the gel, but I didn't think there'd be enough. So I just did these squiggles instead.
And that was Julia's cake. There's not much left.
Oh, and if you ever decide to do something like this yourself, my advice to you is make enough whales so every child can have one. They don't even have to all go on the cake, just make extras.
After I brought the cake outside at the party and we sang a sort of chopped up version of Happy Birthday to Julia, I was surrouned by small people who really, really, really wanted one of those whales. And I felt SO AWFUL saying no, sorry, no, no one's getting a whale because there aren't enough, no, I'm sorry, nope, no…on and on.
They seemed okay with just eating cake and ice cream.
And that's my cake story.