Doing laps in the LA Fishbowl

Baking With Disaster

I almost entered into a baker’s hell this weekend; you know, that particular lower circle where you’re asked to make a birthday cake for a 40th birthday party and you spend hours on a new recipe and then find that it’s becoming an utter catastrophe and you might have to start over from scratch and then you discover your cake shrinking just as your find out that almost double the amount of people are coming and you just might have to impale yourself on your offset spatula? That hell. Don’t worry, it won’t be a horror story; there will be a feel-good ending to this post. Eventually.

Why did I choose a recipe I had never done before? I violated one of the basic rules of baking for others: NEVER MAKE A NEW RECIPE FOR A SPECIAL EVENT (actually, this is one rule I break regularly; you’d think I would have learned). I decided on a Marquis au Chocolat, which is a chilled chocolate mousse cake, because the birthday gal was a lover of chocolate AND a Francophile, what could be more perfect? And, no baking! Here, this is what a Marquis looks like:

Yeah, well, what kind of parchment paper
makes that lovely cross-hatch design,
huh? HUH?

Notice the precise, clean lines; the delicate touch required for this simple-looking dessert. Precise & Delicate: two words which have no point of reference in the James Sie world of baking. Haphazard & Sledgehammer-like— that’s more my style.

Still, I forge ahead, oblivious to my own limitations. I use a recipe from “Pure Chocolate” by Fran Bigelow— a cookbook I’ve used many times, but with varied results. I mean, I love all the gorgeous recipes in there and want to make them all, but I think it’s one of those cookbooks that pre-supposes a finesse that comes from years of trial and error. Because, as my sister Allison pointed out, baking is a lot like woodshop. It takes a lot of dowels of wood on a lathe before you can come up with a perfect candlestick holder. You shouldn’t expect to be able to figure out all the nuances on your first go. Yet here I am, melting my chocolate and separating eggs. Hubris, thy name is Marquis Au Chocolat! 

Once you make the mousse, after all the whipping and folding, whipping and folding (and an unfortunate over-processing of egg yolks and chocolate which threatens to granulate and break but which I manage to save with some hot whipping cream) you pour it into a loaf pan which has been lined with two sheets of parchment paper that have an overhang which you will use to lift out the cake after it’s been chilled. Unfortunately, I’ve got parchment on a roll, which is hard to cut precisely, and a sloped glass loaf pan. “Eh, it’ll be fine,” I think, trying to fit the curling paper into the pan, “It’s just chilling in there, what could go wrong?”

Here’s what could go wrong:

What have you done to my baby??

The next morning I take out the cake, and, oh, it’s a poor, poor thing. The wrinkles and folds in the parchment paper has created a brick of sadness. It’s not an elegant birthday cake, it’s a birthday TURD. Allison puts it more colorfully, if not more kindly: “It’s like a literal Yuletide log, like after a big Yuletide feast.” Yes, thanks for that, Ali. Oh, the cake looks like it should be floating in formaldehyde. Cutting the edges away is not an option; there are some deep gashes and it’s too little as it is. I stare at it in horror, much like Mia Farrow does at the end of Rosemary’s baby. What can I do with my runty chocolate abomination? 

I’m paralyzed. I could make another cake. I HAVE to make another cake. I’m Julianne Moore and I’m going to throw the cake in the trash and go to some hotel and take pills while water washes my bed away and Philip Glass will JUST NOT STOP with those violins. Surprisingly, it’s Doug who comes to my rescue and talks me back from the edge. He quietly takes the knife from my hand, wets it in warm water and starts gently, slowly, smoothing the sides of the cake. Where the hell did he learn to do that?  Being mousse, it’s quite malleable. Soon, he’s ironed out most of the egregious slashes and has even mortared up some of the dents. It looks much better:

Still, what to do to make it, well, presentable? There’s no frosting to hide behind. A Marquis’ strength lay in its simplicity and elegance. I have a boatload of options in my head, but no clear path. After about fifteen minutes of babbling (“I could do cocoa powder, or chocolate shavings, what do you think about topping it with a cloud of whipped cream? Raspberries?”) Doug is clearly at his limit for culinary empathy. You can tell by the glazed look in his eyes. Luckily, there’s another ally. I hop into my X-wing and dart over to the Dagobah System to seek advice from a Jedi Master; or, less floridly, I send a message via Facebook to my friend Dawn Bach. 

“Help me, Obi-Dawn Kenobi,
you’re my only hope.”

I know Dawn as an actress and a musician, but I’ve discovered, via Facebook photos, that she’s a wonder at fondant and cake design. Don’t know is she sells them or gives them away or stuffs them in an attic with her embalmed mother but if precision and elegance is what I need, she’s the Master. 

Luckily, she seems to be as happily obsessive about baking as I. After about twenty messages back and forth, she comes up with the idea of toasted almonds strewn at the base and some raspberries for color. Strewn…? THAT’S my style! I can strew! And then I think of my sister’s scatological log comment, and  it clicks…

It was my “make it work” moment. I got very concentrated, and careful. I went with a more rustic woodland theme. Some shaved chocolate, some toasted almonds, and voila:

Doug made me lose the grape leaves:
“All Top Chefs need to learn to edit.”

I guess it takes a village to make a cake. And it reminds me of another essential baking rule: YOU CAN ALWAYS COVER UP YOUR MISTAKES. Especially if you’re being rustic.

When I got there it turned out to be more like seventeen people, up from 10-12. I didn’t know if this pound cake-size cake would stretch that far, but, by god, it did! A small half-slice, a dollop of hazelnut whipped cream dotted with chocolate pieces and raspberries and a half-Pirouline lain in between; it was more than enough. There were even a few slices left! Most important, everyone loved the taste, which, in the end, is what really matters. 

“And to think I was going to throw you away!
Now Mommy loves you!”

I averted catastrophe, but if you’d like to see those who did not, check out Cake Wrecks, a VERY entertaining site. And if you want to be truly creeped out by a cake (I mean American-Horror-Story-kind-of-creeped-out) check out this icky baby and especially this one (don’t say I didn’t warn you!).

Now, I just need to make about 19 more of these puppies, and I’ll be able to get it right!

December 12th, 2011 - Still Life Las Vegas


4 responses to “Baking With Disaster”

  1. Anonymous says:

    The cake was pure heaven!!!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Nothing better than a red velvet baby. YUM!

  3. Anonymous says:

    the go-to all-occasion cake in Newport News in the 70s:

  4. Anonymous says:

    You are hilarious! Thanks, I needed some holiday cheer!

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