A Cautionary Tale, or, The Cake That Almost Wasn’t. When I set out on this journey, eight months ago now, to attempt every challenge in The Great British Bake Off, I promised to show you, my faithful readers, both my successes and my failures.
While I wouldn’t call this, my final bake in the first season (The Beginnings on Netflix, Series 3 in the U.K.), a complete failure, so many things went wrong in the process, mostly because I didn’t think things through properly. Wanting to make it a truly showstopping showstopper, I probably tried to do too much. In the end, it turned out okay, but if I had it to do over again, I would have dialed my expectations way back.
So rather than bore you with a step-by-step tutorial, I’ll describe what I did wrong and how I would do it differently, so you can (hopefully) learn from my mistakes.
The challenge seems simple enough: Bake a chiffon cake. But you know that Paul and Mary are looking for the lightest, fluffiest, most flavorful chiffon cake of all time. Not only that, it should be displayed in spectacular fashion, as befits the final challenge in the final episode of the 2012 GBBO series. And it should follow a theme of the baker’s choosing.
You may recall that Brendan made a Family Reunion cake, an almond-coated raspberry chiffon with fresh raspberries and raspberry cream cheese frosting, surrounded by a ginger biscuit “family.” James created five different cakes with four different fillings and toppings, the fifth cake uniting them all, while John’s Heaven and Hell cake consisted of a dark chocolate and orange base layer cake topped with lemon and coconut meringue “cakelets.”
My plan was to create a yin-yang cake, contrasting the traditional flavors of a black forest gâteau (dark chocolate and cherries) with a lighter version featuring amaretto and almond flavors: a black-and-white forest gâteau. This would entail making two chiffon cakes, one chocolate and one white (or rather, light yellow because of the egg yolks in the batter); cutting them into the familiar yin-yang pattern; layering them with a whipped cream–cherry filling; and then coating each half with ganache, one in white chocolate and one in dark.
Biting Off More Than I Could Chew. My first mistake was in not scaling down the recipes to make two smaller cakes rather than making two full-size cakes. I planned to bake them in a 10-inch springform pan, but I didn’t realize until I poured the chocolate batter into the pan that it practically filled the whole thing, leaving little room for the cake to rise!
Here’s where I made my second mistake. Rather than do the sensible thing, which would have been to scoop some of the batter out of the pan to give it room to rise, I thought I had a brilliant idea of tying a collar of parchment paper around the pan so if the cake rose above the rim it could keep rising instead of slopping all over the oven.
It worked … sort of. The cake did rise above the pan, and the paper did keep it from spilling over. But mostly it mounded up in the middle, which was fine, but when I took it out of the oven and realized I was supposed to let it cool upside down, I had no idea how I was going to do that! I couldn’t rest the edge of the pan on the cans I had pulled out of the pantry, because the edge of the cake went right to the outside edge of the pan. I decided to turn it upside down in a large bowl, which worked pretty well until the cake came away from the pan completely and simply slumped down into the bowl! Nothing more to do but let it cool right-side up on a rack, like any other cake.
The second time around, when I made the almond-flavored cake, I only used about three-fourths of the batter, which worked much better. But again, when I turned it upside down to cool (this time resting the edge of the pan on three cans), it fell out of the pan and plopped onto the table. Once again, there was nothing else I could do but flip it over and let it cool right-side up.
So aside from a couple of slightly fallen, oversized cakes, nothing had gone too badly yet. When they were completely cooled, I popped them in the freezer while I made my frosting and filling.
The filling was a simple combination of mascarpone and heavy cream whipped together with a little powdered sugar and a tablespoon of kirsch for flavoring.
I also used a jar of Fabbri amarena cherries, which I had drained (reserving the syrup) and soaked in amaretto overnight. I then drained the cherries again, combining the amaretto with the reserved syrup and another tablespoon of kirsch in a saucepan on the stove to simmer until reduced to a thin sauce. (However, in my third mistake, I let it simmer so long that it basically turned into a very firm jelly! I was able to rectify this by adding more liquid, putting it in the microwave for a few seconds and stirring it until it returned to a less thick, slightly more liquid state.) I set that aside to cool, halved the cherries and set them aside until I was ready to assemble the cake.
(Have I Mentioned That I Almost Failed Chemistry?) The icing I had planned to make was a white chocolate–mascarpone frosting, but it pretty quickly morphed into a near disaster. The recipe said to melt the white chocolate and set it aside to cool while whipping the cream and mascarpone together, then fold in the melted white chocolate. As soon as I did that, the chocolate seized up and separated from the cold cream in little, solid chunks. (Having researched this problem after the fact, it seems that it was either because my white chocolate was old, or it was the cheap stuff, or both — fourth mistake!)
I made several attempts to rescue the frosting, first by remelting it in a double boiler, chilling it in the fridge and whipping it again (didn’t work), then just remelting it and whipping it while it was still warm. At that point, it wasn’t separating, but it wasn’t getting any thicker either, so I threw in some powdered sugar and beat it until it reached a normal frosting consistency.
Now it was time to assemble the cakes. But first I had to cut them into the yin-yang shape. I printed a pattern from the internet that I enlarged to the size of my cake pan. After leveling the top of each cake to give each a flat surface, I cut the pattern in half and placed half of it on top of the chocolate cake and the other half on top of the almond cake and cut each one down the middle, following the curved line of the pattern.
Spreading the whipped cream filling on one chocolate half and one almond half, I then sprinkled each with cherries and drizzled them with the cherry sauce. Then I placed the other chocolate half on top of the almond half, and vice versa, so I had one half of the yin-yang with chocolate on the bottom and almond on top and the other half with almond on the bottom and chocolate on top.
I used my “rescued” frosting as a crumb coat, covering each half of the cake with a thin layer to give them smooth sides for glazing with ganache. Then I stuck both cake halves back in the freezer while I made the ganache.
Continuing the theme of black and white, yin and yang, I made a dark chocolate ganache and a white chocolate ganache, using instructions from SugarGeekShow.com. I find her explanations very helpful, and she also has a very informative tutorial about ganache on her YouTube channel. Basically, she explains why a dark chocolate ganache should have a 1:1 ratio of chocolate to cream, while a white chocolate ganache needs a 3:1 ratio (and this time, I used the good stuff!).
Dammit Jim, I’m a Baker, Not a Cake Decorator. Once I had made the two different ganaches and glazed both halves of my cake, I had to put the two halves together. Fifth mistake! I had no idea how to physically bring the two halves together onto the same plate! With the help of my husband, and after doing some mental gymnastics, I was eventually able to slide the dark chocolate–coated cake onto the plate with the white chocolate–coated cake, but there was a huge gap in the middle. Both cakes were leaning outward, and I couldn’t figure out how to get them to come together.
Quickly grabbing some bamboo skewers left over from a summer barbecue, I slid them through the top layers of the cake from one side to the other in several strategic places. They seemed to hold temporarily, at least, so I stuck the whole thing in the fridge and shut the door, not daring to look at it again till the next morning.
I had one more idea that I hoped would salvage the look of the cake. I had originally envisioned shards of chocolate rising from the center of the cake, sort of like an explosion of light and dark as the two sides meet. Later, I set that idea aside and thought I’d make a chocolate collar for the cake instead. Now, however, I decided to go back to my original plan, hoping the shards could literally close the gap and bring my white and dark chocolate cakes together into a unified design.
After melting some more chocolate, following the easy tempering method as demonstrated by America’s Test Kitchen, I spread it onto wax paper using a pastry brush to create sweeping, uneven chocolate shards. I also scored them while they were still soft so they would break easily after they set. I also dipped two maraschino cherries into the chocolates, leaving a round pool of chocolate around each one to create the small contrasting circles inside the yin-yang symbol.
The Dark Before the Dawn (or, the light at the end of the tunnel could be a train). Going to bed that night I felt frustrated, discouraged and certain that my cake was an utter failure. The next day, when I finally got up the nerve to pull the cake out of the fridge, I was slightly encouraged. The skewers had held the two sides together, and the gap wasn’t quite as wide as I remembered it from the night before. I carefully placed the dark and white chocolate shards into the gap and fastened some on the sides with extra ganache where the two cakes met, covering up most of the flaws.
I was pleasantly surprised. The cake actually looked a lot like it had in my mind’s eye when I first imagined it. But as with every bake, the final test is in the tasting. Would my flavors come through? Would the combination of cherries, kirsch, amaretto and chocolate go well together? Turns out, they did! We invited a couple of friends over to share it with us, but it was so big I sent the leftovers to work with my husband the next day. They devoured it by lunchtime!
But I came away from this bake a little humbled. There are a lot of challenges in baking. Some can be solved by better planning. Some are just a matter of trial and error. Either way, you dust the flour off your apron, wipe the egg from your face and move on to the next bake.