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When I say “cake,” what is it that comes to mind?

Growing up my mother’s favorite cake, the one she considered special enough to make for birthdays, was Duncan Hines Butter Recipe Golden cake mix prepared as directed on the package, with Duncan Hines Fudge Frosting. It’s a classic combination and one I love today, although I prefer King Arthur’s recipe for Yellow Cake and a fudge frosting recipe I got from Epicurious years ago. Mine probably costs around ten dollars to make once you factor in the cost of the chocolate and it takes about 3 hours start to finish if you factor in the time for the cake to cool. My mother used to stock up on cake mix when it went on sale for 99 cents and use a coupon on the frosting. She probably spent a grand total of $3 on the ingredients and about 2 hours making the whole thing. Which cake do you think we ate more often?

As I learned to cook and experimented myself in the kitchen as a teenager, I learned to be picky about my desserts, especially cake. I love cake. I love the classics, yellow cake with chocolate frosting or chocolate cake with vanilla buttercream (Epicurious has a killer recipe for a devil’s food cake with brown sugar buttercream, tastier than it sounds!). As anyone who likes to bake can tell you, a really good yellow cake is hard to find. I like it to be a pleasing shade of sunflower yellow, which can only come from egg yolks, not butter, with a texture halfway between the Duncan Hines mix of my youth and a Southern poundcake so dense it breaks cleanly if you bend it. The best cake I ever made was with eggs I picked out of a chicken coop that morning. The yolks were a gorgeous shade of sunset orange and my cake melted in your mouth (if I do say so myself!). In my experience, good chocolate fudge frosting simply cannot be had using cocoa powder. It needs good quality chocolate (don’t we all?) for not only depth of flavor but also for a fudgy texture.  Despite my best effort, my mother and sister maintain their fondness for squishy cake mix cakes and my sister actually prefers the taste of frosting made with shortening and powdered sugar, I think because it tastes like nothing but sugar and she likes that. While I call mine a sweet tooth because I have trouble ever turning down dessert, my sister truly likes the taste of pure sugar: she’ll take a hunk of sugar cookie dough over a cookie any day and picks up those gummy strawberries from the drugstore whenever embarking on a road trip. So at least in my family, I am alone in my preference for $9 chocolate bars and $6 a pound European butter and often get heartily ribbed by my family for my “pretentiousness.”

At Sugarland, our cold cakes provide an endless source of confusion. People expect Duncan Hines, the Wonder Bread of the cake world, at once squishy and fluffy and tasting predominately of sugar. The comments we get the most often on our cakes all hinges on the fact that they are made with butter, as such must be refrigerated according to health codes, and as such, yes, turn hard in the refrigerator. As I can attest, however, after carrying many a cupcake home lovingly cradled in our single cupcake containers, they return to their luscious freshly baked glory after a good twenty minutes in the land of the living. That’s all it takes to revel in the ridiculous smoothness of Italian buttercream against the moist richness of the cake itself. But I digress. I told you, I love cake.

People either love the texture and taste of the cake, telling us that, “it tastes like my grandmother used to make,” or, “I haven’t eaten a cake like this in years!”, or they hate it, calling it rock-like or something similar referring to the texture.

I invite you, the next time you have the privilege of eating a cake made from scratch and made with love, pay attention to what you’re eating. Keep tasting it 5, 10, 15 second after you put it in your mouth. Pause after swallowing and let the taste linger. Now don’t do this with a cake mix cake or you’ll notice the chemical aftertaste and greasy mouthfeel of the frosting made with shortening. Those cakes are meant to be scarfed so you don’t notice how bad you feel until after you’ve eaten the whole thing. Next time you enjoy a really good cake, however, remember it and get back to me. I’d like to hear about it.

So tell me, Sugarfans, what about you? What do you think of when you think of cake?

The Makings of a Wedding Cake, part 2: Filling and Decorating!!

Last week I left you with freshly baked cake and a counter full of dirty dishes. This week we’ll pick up with the fun part: filling, frosting, and decorating the scrumptious cakes!

Whenever I watch a cake decorating show on cable I am always amazed by how sturdy the cakes they work with appear–they barely crumble or move when split and arranged into tiers. While this obviously makes it easier for the decorator to achieve straight lines on their cake and provides a firm foundation for decorations, the problem is that good building material doesn’t exactly translate to delicious cake and vice versa. Because we are not willing to sacrifice the moist deliciousness of our cake in order to have a better material to work with, our decorators face  special challenge in filling and decorating our tiers.

Here we have the beginnings of a scrumptious tier filled with our fresh raspberry filling and creme brulee buttercream. That ring of buttercream around the bottom tier will keep the gooey fruit filling from seeping out and marring the outside surface of the finished tier.

Next we will fill and frost the cakes and use a special smoothing tool to make sure the tiers are perfectly level.

At this point it’s time for the cakes to spend some time in the fridge to firm up and give our decorators a firm surface to work on.

Our cake decorating arsenal

Stacked cake with simple piping

Piping a basic shell border around a bottom tier

Using a stencil to outline a piping pattern. After the stencil is applied to the soft buttercream, it gives an easy pattern for the decorator to follow to produce pretty swirls on the side.

For more of our finished products, check out our website, updated regularly with the latest creations from our kitchen!

Questions? Comments? Ideas for a new post? Leave a comment in the comment section or email me at emily@sugarlandchapelhill.com, I’d love to hear from you!

Until next week….

A Peek into the Sugarland Kitchen: How to make a cake, Part 1

Sugarland plays an odd combination of Santa and the fairy godmother for brides and their wedding cakes. Once a month we open up our store for a tasting, brides come with their list of wishes, maybe a few pictures, maybe a piece of ribbon, and one month later, this shows up on their reception table:

Kind of magical, no? Our pastry chefs make it their business to make chocolate covered fantasies a reality for brides, birthday boys and girls, Sugarfans, and everyone in between! Today you get a glimpse into the place where all the magic happens, the Sugarland kitchens. Turns out there’s just too much to be told about the process of making a wedding cake to cover it all in one post, so today we’ll just be talking about the cake making process.

Our cakes are made with nothing but the basics: flour, butter, sugar, eggs, milk or cream, and various flavorings. While this may sound pretty standard, you’d be surprised at what a lot of bakeries serve to their customers: cakes made from cake mix with oil and eggs, frosting made with cheap, shelf-stable (and full of trans fats!) shortening, and artificial flavorings and food colorings. At this point a lot of Americans are simply used to the squishy, fluffy cakes and slightly greasy, super sweet frosting this method produces. Perhaps you were lucky enough to have a grandmother or father or crazy aunt who baked cakes from scratch, in which case you’ll no doubt be a little more used to the honest buttery goodness of our cakes.

Our bakers’ arsenal:

This looks like your kitchen, right? yeah, mine neither. *sigh*.

We use a traditional method which will be familiar to those of you who bake: cream butter and sugar together (the most important step!), slowly add eggs, add milk and flour alternately.

Creamed butter ready for mixin’. The very first step of cake baking is also the most important. The temperature of the butter matters, as room temperature butter will allow for more air to be incorporated than will cold butter. These air bubbles help the cake rise in addition to whatever leavening agents are used in the cake batter and make a huge difference in the texture of the finished cake. I have always found in my cake baking at home that farm-fresh eggs yield a much more delicious cake than $1.69 a dozen grocery store eggs. If you can’t get eggs at your local farmer’s market, spring for the organic cage-free eggs at the grocery store the next time, it really does make a huge difference in your finished product. The eggs we use at the bakery are locally sourced from Roxboro, and even our flour and dairy are locally sourced. Besides being able to support our local farmers and economy, the highest quality ingredients we can find make a huge difference in our cakes and they will for yours at home.

I love to bake in my off time, but whipping up a pound cake or a batch of brownies is an entirely different animal than making a batch of European-style buttercream in our 20-quart Hobart. Most consumers today are used to American bakery frosting, the stuff you’ll see slathered on every single cake you get from a grocery store. The reason for this is simple: it’s made with shortening, which is cheap and very stable, so you can leave it out on your counter for the duration of your five-year-old’s birthday party and it will look exactly the same as it did in the grocery store case that morning. The inordinate amount of powdered sugar in bakery frostings accounts for the tooth-achingly sweet taste and gritty texture you get when you bite into a blue rose (corner piece fans unite!).  Many of us were raised on these cakes and as such have a soft spot in our hearts for them, myself included. But once you’ve tasted the billowy glory that is European buttercream, it really is hard to go back. (Well, maybe every once in awhile as a guilty pleasure/breakup/PMS/midnight snack kind of thing. Is that just me? Never mind.)

It all starts with boiling-hot sugar syrup, 248 degrees to be exact.  This gets poured (slowly!) into beaten egg whites  before pounds upon pounds (well, at least in our recipe!) of room temperature butter is incorporate one small piece at a time until you end up with something that looks like this: Heaven in a bowl, my friends. This stuff tastes of butter, not sugar, and is just the right level of sweetness. And the texture? Nothing at all like grocery store cakes. It just kind of disappears on your tongue, which is simply remedied by taking multiple successive bites of your cupcake and/or swipes of the mixing bowl.

Cakes all baked and ready for frostin’

All in a day’s work, my friends. God bless our dishwashers!

Next week we’ll cover the other half of the equation: filling, frosting, and decorating. See you then, and in the meantime, get bakin’! Or, you know, just come visit us. We’ve got you covered.

Lattes to love

One of the biggest perks of working at a bakery, besides an endless supply of flour and sugar lovingly coddled by pockets of butterfat and caressed with a splash (or several) of cream (when it comes to our baked goods, I really do feel the need to wax poetic), is access to our espresso machine. Perhaps you’ve noticed it behind the counter.

Like many Italian imports, it’s beautiful.

It’s just plain pretty sitting there on the counter in that quintessential shade of Sugarland blue. There’s a lot of substance underlying the machine’s style, however, from the machine itself to the coffee that goes in it. Both our espresso blend and our drip coffee are custom roasted for us by local coffee roasters Counter Culture Coffee and are specially formulated to complement desserts, with notes of “raisin, lemongrass, and toasted nuts,” according to the package. Our espresso blend reads “sweet and mild, with notes of caramel, hazelnut, and rich dark chocolate.” Pretty yummy even without a cupcake alongside it. This black coffee drinker likes my espresso Americano-style, especially if I’m drinking it alongside a sweet treat. A bite of rich creamy buttercream followed by a sip of bracingly strong coffee which perfectly straddles that line between acidity and smoothness? Heaven at 3 pm. Or sometimes 8 AM. I work at a bakery, remember??

This morning I had a personal mini triumph: I foamed my own milk. Now maybe this doesn’t sound like such an accomplishment to you, but it has taken me the better part of a month to produce that dense, luscious foam which I have always taken for granted gracing the tops of my cafe au laits or, more infrequently, my cappuccinos. No longer. Now whenever I am served a luscious latte I feel an unprecedented obligation to tip my barista and an appreciation of what must be a widely unappreciated art form. For those, like myself, who never worked as a barista, let me explain that that dense foam used to create those darling leafs and a luscious mouthfeel does not come without a little bit of know-how on the barista’s part. Hence the “semi” of a semi-automatic espresso machine. For this particular latte I employed the expertise of one of our veteran Sugarfans, Colleen, who’s been making lattes and scooping gelato since the day we opened. She makes a mean latte, friends.

One of the tricks is starting with a cold pitcher and cold milk with the tip of the steam wand inserted deep into the milk.

As the milk warms up (about a hundred degrees if you’re the precise type), you move the tip of the steam wand sloooowly to the top of the milk to create that foam.

Once you’ve got some foaming action going on you want to get the wand back down in the pitcher to keep from introducing too much air into the milk and producing comically large bubbles, as I usually do, which disappear with a few sips and don’t have nearly the mouthfeel of the good stuff.

Now I will be the first to admit that I still don’t know what I’m talking about, but this is my basic understanding of the process. For fellow newbies like myself, I did a bit of research and found this article to be very helpful. I’m sure you baristas and fellow coffee geeks out there can teach me a thing or two in the comments part of the post and please do! I don’t like not knowing how to make one of my favorite treats. Makes me feel helpless. Also, if I learn how to make my own it gives me an excuse to save up for my own Italian beauty of an espresso machine. One day.

Coming along…

Oh yeah.   That’s the stuff.

Come to momma.

(This shot is a few sips in. I got excited and got tired of taking pictures. A girl needs her coffee, you know?)

So there you have it. Who knew? There’s more art to those lattes than meets the eye. Something to think about the next time you get your fix. Me? I’m totally craving a latte now. Think it’s time for my fix, how about you?