When you're nine days away from spending the day decorating cakes with Kelly Ripa on behalf of the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund (thanks to Foodbuzz and Electrolux), and you're a complete novice when it comes to pasty bags and decorating tips, you're very, very lucky to have a friend like Clemence Gossett. Clemence, who owns Gourmandise Desserts and is one of the most sought-after baking teachers in Los Angeles, agreed to give me a private tutorial in working with fondant, that smooth, beautiful icing that covers most fancy bakery cakes. Not only that, she was willing to give me this lesson at the crack of dawn, after our respective kids were off to school but before I had to go to work.
[Note: Because Clemence is a completely amazing teacher and packed so much into the hour and a half I was there, I'm going to cover this in two posts. Part one: preparations.]
When I got to Clemence's bungalow, the cakes were sitting in their baking pans, all ready to decorate. Clemence pointed out that it's crucial to make the cake a day ahead so it can cool thoroughly; if it's even the slightest bit warm in the center, it will ruin the decorations.
We started out by making a Swiss buttercream. Clemence whipped six eggs in the stand mixer with the whisk attachment until they were very frothy. At the same time, she combined a cup of sugar with a quarter-cup of water and boiled it to the soft-ball stage (large, lazy bubbles).
When the sugar syrup reached the right point, she added it to the eggs - slowly, or you end up with scrambled eggs! - and let the mixer keep running until the bowl was cool, about 10 minutes. She switched to the paddle attachment and added a vanilla bean (split but otherwise intact, because the action of the mixer takes out all the flavorful seeds; at the end, she took out the pods). Then she beat in a pound and a half of butter until the texture was just right, light and creamy. Clemence likes this frosting because it holds up well and isn't too sweet. We'd use the buttercream for the crumb coat, the layer that goes under the fondant.
We also made a whipped chocolate ganache to fill the cake. We heated a cup of cream and poured it over a pound of dark chocolate pieces, stirred until it was melted, and put it in the freezer to cool down for a few minutes. Then we put the bowl on Clemence's other stand mixer - gotta love a girl who's got two - and whipped it into a fluffy, mousse-like state. It tasted just like chocolate mousse.
Next, Clemence taught me how to even the top of the cake and then split it into layers. Essential: Get one of those rotating turntable cake stands. Put something under the cake so you can move it easily when you're done. Use a serrated knife. Hold the knife in your good hand and place your other hand flat on top of the cake to guide it.
Before you start, mark the cake with the knife along the places you plan to cut the layers. Then, using only the bottom third of the blade, gently cut into the outer ring of the cake, using tiny sawing motions and pushing the cake around with your guiding hand. Move the cake more than the knife. Keep going around, pushing in a little more as you go, until you're all the way through. Repeat until the top is level and your layers are done. We split two small cakes into three layers each.
After that, it was all about assembly and decoration. So tune in tomorrow for part two, where we fill the cake with ganache, put on a crumb coat with buttercream, color and roll out fondant, drape the cake, and decorate it with luster dust and fondant calla lilies.
Oh, and by the way, in case you were wondering, Clemence is amazing. Every cabinet and drawer in her kitchen is filled with baking equipment and supplies. She thought her pantry was too messy for this picture, but I think it's fantastic:
I wonder how happy my kids would be if they got cake every single day (as I imagine Clemence's kids do)?