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Baking and decorating a cake can be a challenge, and when the end result doesn’t taste as good as it looks, a big disappointment! Author and professional baker Gesine Bullock-Prado has perfected a method for creating eye-catching spectacular cakes that measure up. Just remember BaDASS:
Â· Bake ahead
Â· Smooth coat
Â· Spruce it up
Her step-by-step instruction for baking, piping, and making decorations make each bit manageable, whether it’s baking layers ahead of time and freezing, or taking the time to crank out a slew of gorgeous frosting flowers that hold beautifully in the freezer until you need them. No step is skipped or left unexplained. The layers are as easy as box mixes, and the smoothing and decorating instructions work the first time (not a thousand passes later). From custom shapes to complement a party theme to ultra-gorgeous towering layer cakes for special occasions, it’s all within reach.
When I was a kid visiting my aunt’s house in Maryland in the ’80s, I battled with my big sister over possession of the single greatest tome ever written in all of these great United States: Cake Decorating! If I could get my grubby little hands on it first, I spent every minute engrossed in that puny book, a pamphlet, really, dedicated to piping spastic ruffles and neon flowers on lumpy box cakes. Cake Decorating! promised that with only a few specialty tips and a relatively steady hand, you, too, could make delightfully decorated treats. It was exactly the kind of book that my own baking snob mother would never allow in her kitchen, a book that celebrated wicked things like excessive sugar!
Preservative-packed boxed cake mixes! Artificial dyes! Cakes in the shape of stuffed toys!
Looking at it again, so many years later (I found myself a well-loved copy on eBay), I’m astounded not only by how damn ghastly the cakes inside looked (it was pre-Instagram, after all), but that it never occurred to me how odd it was that the book didn’t contain a single real recipe. Instead, listed in the tools section, the author(s) recommended which flavor of box mix and canned frosting worked best with each style of cake. From scraggly, demon-possessed-looking teddy bears whose eyes have been applied in a haphazard manner, to square blocks of cake piped with jittery numbers to approximations of recalled children’s toys, to cakes with waxy white icing tinted in an array of colors never to be found in nature, I did not see a single decorating idea or finished cake in the book that didn’t look to be a permanent resident of the Island of the Misfit Cakes. Although not a single confection in that book is remotely appetizing, the magic, the promise of learning to make a cake truly spectacular still beckons to me from within those pages.
Since I grew up to become the pastry chef and baking instructor that I was clearly genetically engineered to be (what ten-year-old spends five hours meticulously reading over a twenty-page book dedicated to piping squiggly lines and lopsided flowers?), I’ve been looking for the modern version of that little book, one that combined some of the whimsy and clever ideas (make grass and animal fur with the same piping tip!) of Cake Decorating! with the added culinary backbone, skills, and elegant recipes you might find in a Julia Child tome or a professional pastry text. I always came up empty-handed.
I wrote the book I was yearning for with my students in mind every step of the way. In my little baking school, Sugar Glider Kitchen, I bring together all kinds of bakers, from rank beginners who can’t tell a yolk from a white to experienced chefs who need a refresher on croissant. No matter the skill level, every baker that walks through my door wants to walk out with something beautiful in his or her hands because baking is as much a visual experience as it is a treat for the taste buds. Cake carries this burden to the extreme. It’s gotta be gorgeous, otherwise you can’t Instagram it. And if you don’t Instagram it, it doesn’t really exist. But joking aside, we eat with our eyes first and a beautiful cake relays important information: (1) that the baker gives a damn; (2) the baker knows what he or she is doing; and (3) if it’s half as tasty as it is pretty, it’s going to be the best cake ever.
So, when a student asked in a class whether I was writing another book and I answered, “Yup. It’s going to focus on creating and decorating beautiful cakes,” all the members of the class looked up in unison, their butter and flour-encrusted hands motionless, hovering over their unfinished quick puff.
“Did you say cakes? And decorating? A whole book?” someone asked from the back of the classroom.
“Well, that’s the plan,” I said. There was a silence and then an explosion of glee.
“Yes! Yes yes yes!” I’m not exaggerating. That was the response. Along with a few “Thank God”s.
Turns out that while I’ve been teaching my students insanely complicated pastry techniques that I insist they need in their repertoire, I’ve also been listening to them and what they really want to get out of their baking life. Sometimes they do want a big challenge, a multistep extravaganza. Most of the time, however, they want to keep their baking projects simple and manageable. Here’s the rub, though. They also want their baked goods to be super scrumptious and to look gorgeous. In chatting with my students, they’ve expressed time and again that they want fewer and less complicated steps, but they still want the “wow” factor. And if there are a few steps involved, they want them simple and fail-safe—they want to know what they can make ahead, what can be kept frozen, and when they can skip a step without ruining everything. These are my Cake Decorating! soul brothers and sisters. It’s for them, for you, for all of us, that I’ve written this book.
Meet the B.A.D.A.S.S. Method
What I’m best known for, what my students travel across the country to learn, are the baking techniques and decorating tips and tricks that straddle the worlds of fine pastry art and down-home baking. Specifically, I’m asked to teach bakers the skills to make cakes look professional and elegant, that taste amazing, but that don’t require days on end to finish. Here’s the thing, I developed these fast and efficient approaches for me. It’s actually a selfish motivation because I’ve made and I make a lot of cakes and I want every single one of them to look gorgeous and tasty… but I want gorgeous without too much fuss.
I’ve also created a method to get great results every time. Some steps might seem like overkill at first, but once you get into the routine of it and see the results, the steps will move quickly, and you’ll come to realize that things like prepping pans and getting ingredients to room temperature are as important to the recipe as measuring out the flour correctly. So, I’d like to introduce you to the B.A.D.A.S.S. method of making cakes: Bake Ahead, Dam and Assemble, Smooth Coat, and Spruce Up. This is information you can take into your general cake life, and I know you live a very full cake-filled existence, so these techniques you can use on every cake, not just the cakes in this book. Each step ensures success:
First, bake delicious, even layers that you can make ahead and freeze. If you opened my freezer right now, you’d spy eight 6-inch rounds of chocolate cake, four 8-inch rounds of confetti cake, and two 10-inch squares of WASC (White Almond Sour Cream Cake) waiting for me in the freezer. Some are there because I’m getting ahead of a big baking project. Some I ended up not needing and forgot were there and I get really excited when I stumble upon them. But most of the layers are there because I wanted to get my bake on and I know that if I feed that urge by baking some perfect layers, they’ll never be wasted. A moment always arrives when there’s urgent need for a confetti cake and fast. I have never felt more like Wonder Woman than when a cake emergency arises and I turn to my freezer in triumph to reveal perfect layers, ready and waiting for my finishing touches.
Second, take the precaution of damming the filling with a ring of sturdy (and delicious) frosting so that every type of filling stays put, from liquidy curds that haven’t yet set, to whole pieces of fruit to delicate mousse.
Taking the time to create that dam with each succeeding layer is essential to the perfectly finished layer cake and when you’re assembling a cake from baked ahead layers, straight from the freezer, everything sets faster, from the frosting dam to the liquidy filling. Remember, the outside of your cake will not look great if your filling is busting out the sides. Piping a sturdy ring to keep all that deliciousness inside, where it belongs, is your insurance policy to a gorgeous finished cake.
Third, you must apply a smooth crumb coat to lock in any crumbs and to guarantee that the tops and sides of the cake are level.
All of this leads to my favorite part, the final smoothing of the cake. Sometimes you want to stop at the damming step and present a truly “naked” cake. Sometimes you want a crumb coat that gives your guests just a peek of the deliciousness that’s hidden inside. But my favorite cake takes one giant step up from the crumb with an additional smooth coat: another layer of frosting to encase your cake in impeccable frosting perfection. I start by piping an even layer of buttercream to the top of the cake, using the same pastry bag and tip I used to dam the cake. It’s an insurance policy for a level top. Then I take a hot (and dry) offset spatula and smooth the top.
I then pipe stripes around the sides of the cake.
They don’t have to be perfect. It’s more fun when they aren’t because the reveal when you smooth the sides is that much more dramatic. Using the smoothing technique with a dry and hot icing scraper, you get a flawlessly finished cake.
Other times you want the works, the full spruce: a cake with a perfect coat of icing, an impeccable layer of ganache or marzipan, and a spray of realistic sugar flowers.
Fantastical Cakes is divided into three sections (cake layers, fillings and frostings, and assembly) that will get you exactly where you want to be in your cake life from naked to fantastical. Feel free to mix and match!
A List of Tools and Ingredients
The right tools and ingredients will get the job done. That’s the maxim in carpentry, the tool part at least, and it holds true for baking as well. Some of those tools even cross the two spectrums. Home Depot faux bois (wood grain) tools, finishing trowels, and high butane torches bring me such glee when I consider the prospect of playing with them in the bakery. But you already have tools in your kitchen that will help you get started without having to run out and plop down a ton of cash. Tools you trust that you already use every day, and you probably can’t live without.
Oven and Oven Thermometer
I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, but the most necessary implement in your baking (and cooking) arsenal is probably not being truthful. I’ll just say it. Your oven is lying to you. Okay, fine. There are some ovens that are true, that hold temperature properly, but that’s a rare oven indeed. Some ovens are off by only a few degrees, barely enough to make much of a difference in a finished product. However, others can vary by 20°, even 50°. Some more. Now that’s a big problem.
If you have spent any time reading the comments section of major food magazines’ recipe sites (and who hasn’t?), you’ll find a single complaint that reappears over and over again: the timing on the recipe was wrong and therefore, the recipe was wrong. Hate to tell you this, but as the kids say, “The call is coming from inside your house.” Inside your oven, more specifically. It wasn’t the recipe that was at fault. It was the oven being used to make the recipe. Like I said, ovens are big fat liars. If your cakes crater, you’ve probably got an oven problem. If your custard pies take days to set, it’s an oven problem. If your croissants leak, there’s a darn good chance that it’s an oven problem. The big solution is to get a new oven. That’s pretty extreme. The easy solution is to get an oven thermometer. They cost a few bucks and they work. I had a student who designed a brand-new kitchen, fitting her dream workspace with the best appliances. She’d heard me harp about lying ovens for years now and despite the fact that the manufacturer of this otherwise very lovely oven said, in no uncertain terms, that its ovens were expertly calibrated and were true to temperature, my student chose to heed my repeated warnings. She put an oven thermometer inside. The knob read 350°F/180°C). The oven thermometer read 320°F/160°C. Knowledge is power, friends. You can make adjustments when you know what the problem is.
So, if your cake craters—rising properly, or so it seems, and then collapsing in the middle—you’ve got an oven that runs too hot. The cake batter sides get an extra-hot blast of heat, and rise and set too quickly, while the middle of the cake is still rising and has nothing to hold on to because the sides have already taken a vacation way down south. So, the middle goes boom. The solution is to get an oven thermometer, find out exactly how off your temperature is, and make the adjustment. It also helps to wrap your cake pans in my DIY cake strips to prevent collapse and create an even rise without a giant dome (see “Pan Prep,” here).
Yes, a decent kitchen scale comes before an electric mixer. Ideally, you’d have both. I think they’re equally important, but to stress how important I think scales are, I’ve put them higher on the chain of baking command. Scales give you accuracy and they make the process easier. Yes, easier. For instance, with a paste method cake where the dry ingredients are combined all at once, there’s nothing easier than just sticking your mixing bowl on a scale and weighing the ingredients straight into the bowl, one on top of the other. No extra dirty dishes. No question about accuracy.
To use most food scales, find the “Unit” button, which will help you toggle between ounces and grams. Make sure you’re on the unit you’re meant to be using. Next, look for the “Tare” or “Zero out” button. This allows you to start at zero and clear between additions. I choose a scale based on the range of weight it can measure as well. I look for accuracy at lower units, and whether it can read up to a few pounds. It’s no fun getting to the very last few critical ounces of an ingredient and having your scale yell, “Error!” I also look for scales that can be plugged in and can be used off battery power. Preferably, the battery called for will be a standard AA or AAA rather than the flat, round variety that’s a pain to find and costs a ton.
Stand Mixer/Hand Mixer
Creaming and foaming mixing methods are virtually impossible to achieve well, or at all, without an electric mixer. Hand mixers can get the job done. They take a while longer to mix properly, but they’ll get you there. A good stand mixer, however, is best. It is an investment. A good one is never cheap, but if you are a baker of any regularity, a mixer is essential.
This is pretty obvious, isn’t it? I like my cake pans made of lighter metals, not dark nonstick materials. The lighter the pan, the lighter the crust on your cake. Nine-inch/23 cm pans seem to be the most common size available and used, but if you only buy one set of cake pans, get two 8-inch/20.5 cm round pans. That one inch/2.5 cm is the difference between a shorter, squatter cake or a taller, more lithe cake.
Even think of covering a cake with a smooth coat of frosting and you’ll need a turntable to make it come out as it does in your daydream. You don’t need bells and whistles. Don’t splash out on motorized and tilting turntables; they are a waste of cash. Instead, look for a sturdy, well-balanced turntable that turns smoothly. Plastic turntables are nice and cheap, but tend to fall apart easily. Stay away from turntables whose base is far too small compared to the diameter of the top. This means it will be top-heavy with a cake on it and is a guaranteed tipping hazard. There’s nothing sadder than achieving a perfectly smooth finished coat, gently shifting the cake off the turntable so you can transfer it to the fridge, only for the whole thing to tip over, and your cake goes splat! Instead, look for cake turntables that have nice and wide stands that are larger than half the diameter of the top.
I have a baking school, so I’m up to my eyeballs in spatulas, but I recommend you have at least three small offset spatulas and one large offset spatula on hand.
The most common icing scraper is also known as a bench scraper. They work in a pinch for shorter cakes. However, if you like to build ’em high as I do, get yourself a larger icing scraper. You can buy taller icing scrapers (up to 12 inches/30.5 cm high) at any cake decorating store and many craft stores. The most common type has a flat metal “blade” and others are made from acrylic. In a pinch, you can use a finishing trowel from the hardware store, but use a new one, not one that’s been used for tiling, and wash it with soapy water before its first use. Food safety first. Always. For best results, use a scraper with a clean 90° angle so you can rest the shorter end on the cake stand and provide a level guide as you smooth the sides of the cake with the longer end.
Knives and Sharp Things
A small paring knife for running along the edge of a pan and cake is so handy in releasing cakes and a very thin and long serrated knife is perfect for “torting” layers (cutting them in half on the horizontal). I also keep an X-ACTO blade for cutting fondant, gum paste, and trimming paper templates.
There are times when you need to lift tender and fragile cakes, and a large offset spatula just won’t cut it. A large cake lifter is the only thing that can really save you and keep your layers intact.
Half sheet pans are crucial in baking. Many manufacturers make off-size and flimsy versions that don’t conform to most baking standards. The correct size of a half sheet pan is 18 x 13 inches/45.5 x 33 cm and will have a lip around the entire pan, which will fit in almost any oven.
Liquid Measure Cup
The most common liquid measure cup is the Pyrex glass measure. If you’ve got one, you’re golden. Be aware, however, that these cups are meant for liquid measures only. My favorite liquid measure cup is the plastic Perfect Beaker. It’s the perfect shape for reading the volume properly.
Dry Measure Cups
Any standard measuring cup will do in a pinch, but make sure that the handle of the cup does not impede you from knocking off the flour with a straight edge.
Thermometers, like ovens, can be liars. I’ve found the thermometer that makes it all better: the ThermoWorks flip thermometer. It’s guaranteed calibrated and accurate to a wonderfully small degree. But it’s damn expensive (if it helps with the pricing issue, it’s also a fabulous meat thermometer). Otherwise, cheaper clip-on thermometers work in a pinch, even if they are wildly inaccurate. Thankfully, you can put one in a pot of boiling water and check for accuracy. At sea level, boiling water is 212°F/100°C. If the thermometer reads 220°F/104.5°C at boiling, you need to subtract 8°F/4.5°C from the reading to get to the right temperature. Sometimes doing math can take too long and by the time you’ve subtracted, you’ve already overshot your desired number. If you’re mathematically zippy, you’ll be fine. Otherwise, it’s worth investing in a thermometer that actually works every time. You’ll end up saving money because you won’t be wasting ingredients.
There are a host of tools that make baking life easier.
Parchment paper and silicone mats to keep things from sticking
Rubber spatulas for gently mixing ingredients
Bowl scrapers to get every last drop of batter from the bowl
Whisks to distribute ingredients
Sieves to ensure your finest custards and curds are smooth as can be
Large metal bowls for setting atop simmering water to gently melt chocolate or whisk together a delicate curd
Scissors to snip off the tip of a disposable piping bag or trim a round of parchment for the bottom of a cake pan
Tweezers to pluck out errant eyebrow hairs that jump from your head into the batter
Piping bags for adding a band of icing to the perimeter of your cake layer to keep the filling inside and for piping lifelike flowers
Piping tips for making sure those flower petals are just right
Fondant smoothers for doing the obvious
Cardboard rounds to make a sturdy base for the bottom of your assembled cake
Flower nails to make piping those beautiful flowers simpler
If you make cake regularly, you tend to collect these bits and bobs over time.
Flour is the foundation of almost all baked goods. It forms the basis of “baker’s math.” I won’t bore you with the particulars, but it’s truly interesting stuff! The reason it’s considered the foundational element of baking is that flour is most often the largest measure of all the ingredients, with sugar coming in as the second-largest measure, and because it contains gluten, proteins that when combined with moisture form strong bonds that provide structure in baked goods. This is why it’s darn hard to find a decent gluten-free bread.
In the United States, we grade flour differently than in other countries where there are often just a few wheat flour options: plain flour and self-rising flours, for example. We get a whole host of options, which is fabulous but can also be very confusing. The first thing to keep in mind is that, in the United States, if a recipe doesn’t specify the type of flour you can usually assume that all-purpose is being called for. If “cake” flour is called for, assume it’s bleached cake flour.
Different types of flour have higher or lower percentages of gluten proteins. For example, King Arthur Flour brand bread flour clocks in at 12.7 percent protein content, its all-purpose contains 11.7 percent protein, and its unbleached cake flour contains 10 percent gluten protein. (The average bleached cake flour contains 8 to 9 percent gluten protein.)
When you add water to flour and agitate, you “activate” the gluten and the more you agitate the mixture, the more gluten is produced. So, when you read in a recipe not to “overmix” or “overwork” a batter or dough, you’re really being told not to produce too much gluten.
In some cases, when a mixing method calls for you to mix the flour, other dry ingredients, and fats together (also called the paste method) before adding moisture, you coat some of the gluten proteins with fat and essentially deactivate them. When you use a very low-protein flour, such as cake flour, in that scenario, you’ll often have to mix the batter for a few minutes after adding moisture (e.g., water, milk, or buttermilk) to produce enough gluten strength to give the batter structure when it bakes.
Be aware, however, that flours aren’t interchangeable and there will be a demonstrable change to the outcome of the cake. If a recipe calls for all-purpose flour and you only have bleached cake flour, the lower-protein-quotient cake flour will result in a cake that has an iffy structure and will likely fall apart very easily, and that will be gummy from all that gelatinized starch.
Another thing with flours is that they all aren’t created equally. I stick with King Arthur Flour because they are, for my money and experience, the most consistent flours on the market. King Arthur guarantees the gluten protein levels of each of its flours. Frequently, large manufacturers will not calibrate the protein percentages when they change from winter wheat to summer wheat, so the same bag of flour can have vastly different levels of protein in it, leading to wonky outcomes in your finished product. Often, if a student comes to me with a baking problem where the lead-up is, “I did it exactly the same way as I always do with exactly the same brand of ingredients and it didn’t turn out right,” I always ask what flour was used. Check the packaging of your flour to see if it offers the gluten percentages on the bag or box itself, or on the company’s website.
The second general flour rule is to measure it properly if you choose not to weigh the flour. (Weighing is always the best and most accurate measure.) If you are measuring by the cup, there is a very good chance that you’ve been doing it all wrong. The first step to a proper measure is to fluff the flour with a large spoon. Take a scoop of that fluffed flour and gently sprinkle the flour into your dry measure cup—making sure never to shake, shimmy, or stomp down the flour during the process. That also means that you should not knock the cup against the counter to pack in the flour or wiggle the cup to get that mound to straighten out. Simply sprinkle the flour into the cup, let it naturally mound, and then scrape off the excess with a straight edge—such as the back of a dinner knife. Tamping or wiggling will pack down the flour and give you a larger measure of flour than the recipe calls for.
In this book, I’ve included recipes that call for either unbleached or bleached cake flours, and for all-purpose flour. At first glance, it would seem that cake flour is cake flour and that swapping one out for the other isn’t a big deal. However, there is a textural difference between the two. Bleached cake flour goes through a bleaching process and during this process the gluten is denatured, making much of it unavailable to provide its traditional structural bonds. However, the starches in the flour are magnified.
1st column: all-purpose flour, bleached cake flour, fine sea salt
2nd column: granulated sugar, brown sugar, confectioners’ sugar, and maple sugar
- On Sale
- Nov 6, 2018
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Running Press