I have always wanted to make a grand cake, in the show stopping Great British Bake Off style. And my Dad’s 70th birthday last weekend seemed like the perfect occasion to give it a go. The thing is, while I’m a tolerable baker I’m not particularly artsy (toddler drawing stick men comes to mind) and therefore not very good at decorating. I’ve tried before, oh, how I have tried. Every time I try I think – this is it, this is the cake where I suddenly ‘get it’. It’s never the cake. I once saw a teapot cake online and thought ‘I could make that’. Easy, right? Big mistake. Not only did I have none of the correct tins, I also had very little experience in making a cake in any shape other that the pre-designed round ones. It ended up a normal round shape with extra pieces of cake sticking out at all angles and held on with cocktail sticks. Oh yes, and with bright blue icing with crumbs sticking on it to add to your mental picture. Luckily, the one photo taken with my grainy phone camera (this was pre-iphone) has been lost to the history books. It tasted good, though.
So when I saw pictures of rainbow cakes on Pinterest, I had to reign myself in. Hold up Becky, I told myself sternly, you know how this usually ends. But the idea persisted and I found a recipe online that looked manageable and was step-by-step (this one here). Instead of making do with what I had, I very carefully read which tools I needed and specially ordered them in. I got a Sugarflair rainbow icing kit, which are highly concentrated gel pastes, from Ebay for about £12. Pricey, but a little goes a long way and I’ll definitely get price per use out of them. I also bought a cake leveller from Dunelm and an offset spatula for the icing.
I got to Mum and Dad’s on Thursday and set about to making the sponge that evening. The sponge was relatively simple to make and I had use of my Mum’s ancient but still amazing Kenwood mixer. I blasted Taylor Swift (Taylor Swift is the ultimate baking music. Don’t believe me? Try it yourself and then you’ll see!) and danced and sang about as I cracked eggs and mixed sugar. I divided the mixture as evenly as possibly into six bowls and used about 1/6-of a teaspoon - or the very end of the handle – to add my colouring gel. The gel needs quite a bit of vigorous stirring to fully integrate the colour but once it’s done it looks very effective. The gel also goes everywhere, all over my hands and the spoon, so I had to wash my hands and the spoon after each go to make sure it didn’t stain or cross-contaminate the colours.
I originally was going to bake in a bigger tin so the cake was wider rather than taller but there wasn’t enough of each mixture for that. In fact, there was barely enough mixture for my very smallest tin. It only covered just covered the tin and was no more a centimetre high. I baked them two at a time, for around 12 minutes each. Because the mixture was so thin, it didn’t need much longer or it would have burned. I only had two tins to I had to turn them out quickly, fan them to cool and then line the tins again before adding the next colours. It was a bit of a hassle, but who has six tins the same?
The cakes turned out just a little uneven though generally not too bad, but looked rather flat. This was a good thing, I realised, because if they had risen like a normal sponge the cake would be far too high and topple over! The recipe deliberately made the sponges dense so they would layer more easily. Once they were cool, I wrapped them in cling film and popped them in the freezer. There they lay in their frosty prison until Friday evening when I transferred them to the fridge to thaw.
On Saturday, the real work began.
I was a bit afraid that if I used the cake leveller that I’d break the sponge so I got my more experienced older sister to do it instead. I made a simple buttercream icing and layered the first three levels (purple, blue and green). I then put that bit in the fridge to chill and harden for around 30 minutes. I then did the same for the next three layers and the top. I also did a crumb coat, which is a thin base layer on all sides of the cake that is meant to sweep up all the crumbs and make the cake smooth for the real icing. Like a base coat for a wall or your nails.
The now rather high cake went into the fridge for an hour. Before you think how simple and lovely this all sounds, let me stop you right there. There was yelling. There was sniping. There was accidentally putting the layers on in the wrong order and then having to peel, re-ice and try again. All the while a million other things going on in the kitchen in preparation for that evening’s barbecue. It was not a relaxing process.
Because I can’t seem to ever make life simple for myself I decided not to cover the cake in buttercream but instead with Swiss meringue icing. Had I ever made it before? No. Did I decide this very stressful day was the perfect time to try it out? Yes, because I’m an idiot.
One baking blog calls the Swiss meringue the fool proof meringue. Lies! If it’s not fool proof it’s definitely Becky proof. The process involves whisking egg whites and granulated sugar over simmering water (making sure the bowl is metal not glass and that it doesn’t touch the water) until it reaches around 60 degrees Celsius. I didn’t have a food thermometer so I had to use the method where you rub your fingers together in the mixture and if you don’t feel grain, then take it off the heat. By my account it should have been done so I took it off the heat and kept whisking until it formed peaks. Easy peasy, right? Or so I thought. As soon as I put the meringue on the cake it began running down the sides, not keeping the nice stiff texture like the recipe assure me it would. I whisked some more but the same happened. I started to freak out – it looked terrible. My sister told me to add some icing sugar which I did but it made the icing sweeter than intended! I mean, it tasted very good but what good is taste when it’s not staying on the cake? I kept adding more sugar until the icing vaguely held its shape and then I shoved it into the fridge, hoping desperately it would not run.
It did set, luckily, but the icing wasn’t smooth and beautiful like I’d hoped. In vain, I used some jagged edged smoothers to give it a bit more oomph but it didn’t work. Defeated, I threw on some confetti sprinkles and hoped that at least it would taste ok. When it was time to put out the desserts at the barbecue I was a little nervous but also quite proud of my tower cake. I cut a slice out of it to show the colours and – woomph. There it was, not quite a show stopper but fairly impressive. The inside, while it wasn’t perfect, did look rather striking. I nudged it to the front so everyone would get the full effect.
People told me it tasted good. I don’t know if they were just being nice, though. I think it tasted quite nice but because of the buttercream and outer icing, and because one slice was so big it was so very sweet. Like, I can't eat any more or I might be sick sweet. Next time I'll make a less sweet icing, I think. Or maybe just a smaller cake!