Shades of love: Layer cake provides drama on Valentine's Day
This is a cake for those who care enough to fuss.
Even better, it's a cake for those who want the object of their fussing to think that countless hours, hand cramps and a certain head-over-heels giddiness went into making such a Valentine's Day dessert. The truth -- shhhh -- is that it's not so difficult.
Ross Sveback of Afton, Minn., created this cake, which he calls Shades of Love. Turning a simple layer cake into a showstopper is a natural outcome of his blog, "Elevating the Everyday" at www.RossSveback.com. He describes himself as a lifestyle expert and this cake clearly lends some style to a Valentine's meal, but also to any spring gathering where you want to make a splash.
Still, as with so many "aspirational" recipes, we wondered: Is this possible to make without the aid of a patisserie degree or fancy equipment? No question, it helps to know your way around the kitchen, and you do need an electric stand mixer. But the "wow" factor is based in a careful use of food coloring and the ability to squeeze frosting through a plastic bag. In other words, you can do this.
Before breaking an egg, though, read the recipe several times and map out a timeline. Here's why: The first step of the frosting needs to chill in the refrigerator overnight. Butter and cream cheese should be at room temperature. The cake layers are most easily frosted if they're chilled. The cake also benefits from a few hours in the refrigerator or a cool garage or porch before serving. So don't start the cake on Feb. 14.
Sveback's cake was inspired by the shaded or ombre (or gradation) colors from fashion trends. His frosting, however, comes straight from Grandma. It's a bit unusual, starting with mixing a simple syrup into beaten eggs and whites, chilling this until it separates, then discarding the foam. Sveback says his grandmother said this step, and using shortening, are the keys to a particularly silken buttercream.
Grandma knew what she was talking about. The frosting is creamy enough to be piped easily using only the proper tip and a plastic sandwich bag, which isn't always the case with stiffer mixtures.
Sveback, of course, uses a pastry bag, but we've explored several ways in which the home baker with basic kitchen supplies can replicate this look (see Tips).
Bottom line: This cake is well within reach of home bakers who want to dazzle their darlings on Valentine's Day. Just be prepared for those darlings to reach back.
Makes about 7 cups.
Note: You will need a candy thermometer for this frosting. Vanilla bean paste is a liquid available in larger grocery stores and specialty shops; it has tiny vanilla seeds which will be visible in the cake and frosting. Vanilla extract can be substituted. If using frosting with a 6-inch cake, you will have leftover frosting. From Ross Sveback, www.rosssveback.com.
2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup water
2 whole eggs plus 2 egg whites
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 cup (1- 1/2 sticks) shortening, such as Crisco
1- 1/2 tsp. vanilla bean paste or vanilla extract (see Note)
1 (8-oz.) package cream cheese, room temperature
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 pound (3-3/4 cup) powdered sugar
1- 1/2 tsp. vanilla bean paste (see Note)
Step 1: Stir together granulated sugar and 1/2 cup water in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil and cook until a candy thermometer reaches the softball stage (235 to 240 degrees). Remove from heat and set aside.
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, beat whole eggs with egg whites on medium speed until frothy. Slowly dribble in the hot syrup. Once all the syrup is added, beat for 10 minutes. (You might want to set a timer.) Pour the syrup into a clear container or bowl and let chill in the refrigerator at least four hours, or overnight.
The next day, you'll see that the syrup has separated. Using a spoon, skim off and discard the foamy layer. (You don't need to get all of it, just most of it.)
Step 2: Place butter and shortening in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a whisk attachment. Beat on high speed, stopping several times to scrape the bowl and beater, until the mixture is light in color with a whipped texture. Reduce speed to low and add the vanilla bean paste. Slowly pour in the syrup. When all the syrup is added, increase speed to medium and beat until well-mixed and fluffy. Scrape mixture into a bowl and set aside.
Step 3: Using the mixing bowl, place cream cheese and butter in it. Using a paddle attachment, beat on medium speed until well-combined. Reduce speed and slowly add powdered sugar, 1 cup at a time, then increase speed and beat until there are no visible lumps. Add the vanilla bean paste and mix thoroughly.
Scrape the mixture from Step 2 into the mixing bowl and mix on medium speed until thoroughly combined.
The frosting should be at room temperature to frost the cake, but may be made ahead and refrigerated or frozen. Let thaw at room temperature for several hours before using.
To color the frosting, see the directions for the cake (below).
SHADES OF LOVE CAKE
Serves 8 decadently, 12 to 16 reasonably.
Note: You can use either liquid or gel red food coloring. The recipe calls for 6-inch round cake pans, but 8-inch pans work, too; the layers will be thinner. If you don't have four pans, bake two layers at a time (or even singly.) The cake and frosting also looks lovely in shades of yellow, for spring celebrations. From Ross Sveback, www.rosssveback.com.
2 cups cake flour
1- 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 tsp. vanilla bean paste or vanilla extract (see Note with frosting)
Red food coloring (see Note)
About 5 to 5 1/2 cups Buttercream Frosting (see recipe)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and move oven rack to center. Prepare cake pans with baking spray or shortening, then dust with flour. Trace a pan's outline on parchment paper and cut four rounds that fit inside the pans. (See Note about baking with fewer than 4 pans.)
In a small bowl, whisk together the cake flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.
In bowl of a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream together the butter and granulated sugar on medium speed until fluffy, about 5 minutes. Reduce speed and add eggs, one at a time, then add the buttermilk. Add vanilla bean paste and beat until well-combined.
Add flour mixture and beat until all looks creamy.
To color the layers: Measure 1 cup of batter each into three bowls, leaving 1 cup of batter in the mixing bowl.
In the first bowl, add a very small amount -- only a drop -- of red food coloring and stir until no streaks remain. In the second bowl, add a bit more food coloring to make the second layer slightly darker, and mix well. Repeat with the third bowl, adding enough food coloring to make it darker than the last. The colors for all 3 layers should be distinctively different shades. Keep tweaking until you like the look. The layer in the mixing bowl should stay it's natural color.
Scrape batter into pans and smooth with a spatula.
Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Invert cakes onto a wire rack and peel off parchment paper.
When cool, wrap each layer in plastic wrap and refrigerate to chill completely, about an hour.
To assemble layers: The best-looking cakes start with a "crumb layer" of frosting -- a thin layer that seals any crumbs so they won't appear on the finished cake.
On a cake plate, dab a bit of frosting to anchor the bottom cake layer, the one most deeply colored. Spread with 1/3 cup of white frosting. Top with the layer in the next shade and spread with 1/3 cup of frosting. Top with the last colored layer and spread with 1/3 cup of frosting. Top with the last layer -- the uncolored one. Using about 1 cup of frosting, spread a thin coating over the top and sides of the cake. Place cake in the refrigerator while preparing the colored frosting.
To color the frosting: Measure 3/4 cup of frosting into each of three small bowls, and 1- 1/2 cups into a larger bowl. Add a very small amount of red food coloring to the bowl with the 1- 1/2 cups for frosting and mix well. Add gradually more color to each of the remaining bowls, mixing until you have 4 distinctive shades of pink. Don't be shy; the deepest colored frosting should be a little dramatic.
The frosting rosettes need a Wilton 1M frosting tip. You can use a pastry bag to pipe the frosting, or you can use 4 plastic sandwich bags. Cut off a1/4-inch tip off one corner, then place the frosting tip in the hole, pressing it halfway through. To fill with frosting, place the bag in a glass, folding the edge over the rim, then fill.
With a ruler and toothpick, mark the layers of the cake into 4 even sections to help you place the rosettes. Starting with the most deeply colored frosting, pipe rosettes around the bottom of the cake using a tight circular, spiral motion. Clean the tip and fill a second bag with the next shade. Pipe another row of rosettes as tightly as possible to the first row, filling any gaps with a dot of frosting. Repeat with the remaining frosting, piping the last, palest shade in 2 batches, around the cake and over the top. Chill for several hours before serving.
NOT A PASTRY CHEF? NOT A PROBLEM
It's possible to get professional results with less-than-professional equipment -- or at least come close enough. Here are some tips we learned in trying to replicate Ross Sveback's Shades of Love cake at home.
Sveback used Americolor gel food coloring for his shades in increments of Soft Pink and Electric Pink for the cake tones, and Holiday Red and Tulip Red for the frosting. We used only a red food coloring, Wilton "No Taste" Red icing color, in varying amounts to create four shades of pink.
Instead of using and cleaning a pastry bag between each frosting color, we used plastic sandwich bags. Just make sure the tip fits snugly into the hole you snipped in the corner.
Sveback likes the look of a tall 6-inch cake (it took us back to days of Easy-Bake ovens), but should you not want to buy new ones, the more common 8-inch pans will work, too.
The frosting recipe makes about 7 cups, which is more than the 5 to 5- 1/2 cups you'll need for the cake. If you are baking 8-inch layers, you'll want the extra frosting. Otherwise, freeze it to use on cupcakes or a sheet cake -- or even put it between graham crackers to create a snack for the kids. Our recipe here is actually half of Sveback's recipe, who says if you're going to spend the time making frosting, you may as well make a lot.
Using an offset spatula, which bends where it meets the handle, makes frosting easier.
Sveback says the cake holds well up to a week if kept chilled and the cut surface wrapped. If you have a large enough bowl (we used the one from our salad spinner), invert it over the cake to cover it.