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11:47 AM: What is the pastry chef talking about? I don’t get a single word!

Brides as well as grooms--well everybody--can get lost in the language of pastry cooking.

Let’s start with what we call cake. You may hear the word, “sponge.” When we say, “cake,” pastry chefs and thinking, “sponge.” Try to make one at home and you’ll quickly understand that getting a sponge cake to rise and be light and even without bubbles is no simple matter. The basic sponge cake is a white cake. It tastes good but doesn’t have a lot of flavor itself.

Chocolate emergency! What about chocolate? Don’t worry. A sponge can be a chocolate sponge.

A torte on the other hand, is a dense cake that does not use leavening agents like baking powder or baking soda. This is not to be confused with a tarte which is pastry filled with something, like fruit or cream.

A single layer of a layered cake takes several layers itself. Frequently three. That means baking three sponges of one size. For another layer of a smaller size, three sponges of that size and so on. They can be round, square, or any shape you can think of but they’re usually bakes in rounds or squares then cut into the shape you want.

Then come fillings. Here’s where a lot of flavor for the cake comes in. Fillings can be fruit-based, something like jam or preserves. They can be cream-based, and nearly any flavor can be added to the cream.  They can be creamy and whipped as in a mousse, like a chocolate or a raspberry mousse. Ganache is a sweet, rich chocolate, more dense than mousse but less dense than fudge. It is used as icing or filling.
Probably the most common filling is buttercream. As its name says, it has butter and cream, and it also has sugar, eggs, and even shortening sometimes. And flavorings which can be an extract, a puree, chocolate, or a liqueur.   Buttercream can hold the layers together, add flavor to the cake, as well as be used to decorate the outside of the cake. All of those roses and curly decorations are piped with buttercream. Piped means to put the buttercream in a piping bag with a tip through which the icing is extruded by hand. Buttercream is an all-purpose wonder in the pastry chef’s kitchen. Did you ever see Julia Child repair a cake that broke coming out of the pan with buttercream? She did it and said, “See, no one will ever know, and there you are, a be-ooo-tiful cake.”  If there is one drawback to using buttercream for holding a cake together, it’s its slipperiness.  If the cake is placed near sun or heat, buttercream will melt and you make witness a cake starting to slip apart, even worse, slip off the table entirely. It melts because of the butter in it.

So what is that stuff on wedding cakes that looks smooth and slightly shiny? It’s fondant. What in the world is fondant? It’s usually white or cream colored, but any food color can be added. It can be bright turquoise.   The ingredients of fondant are similar to marshmallows. Sugar, gelatin, glycerine. It’s really difficult to make and most pastry chefs order it by the tub rather than make it. It’s expensive! It gets rolled out like a pie crust and very carefully laid onto the cake, then shaped down the sides and trimmed. It can crack very easily and sometimes it can take multiple attempts to get it on without cracking.  It’s appealing looking stuff but actually doesn’t taste that great. After all of the expense of it, it’s often peeled off and left on the plate.

A short mention of a few other cake decorations.
  • Pulled sugar is a technique in which boiled sugar and water is manipulated and pulled into shapes like flowers and bows.
  • Royal icing is made of egg whites and confectionary sugar. It’s soft as first, then it hardens. It’s often used as, “glue” to hold another decoration to the cake.
  • Gum paste is made of sugar, cornstarch, and gelatin and is used to mold realistic looking fruits and flowers. It’s edible but not as tasty as marzipan.
  • Marzipan is a paste made of ground almonds, sugar, and egg whites, used to mold edible flowers or fruit to decorate the cake. Marzipan can also be rolled in sheets, like fondant, and used as icing. It’s very rich.


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