As I looked through this cookbook, I divided the recipes in a similar way. The safety cakes are the ones on the quick-and-easy list. The match cakes are a little more complex and time-consuming, but within my range. The stretch cakes, though....that's another story. As I browsed the book, I saw some cakes that I knew I just couldn't make. My Harvard cakes. This pumpkin cake was one of them--not for the cake itself, which is easy--but for the icing and the decorations. Those were clearly beyond me. And yet, I finished it. It took two tries for the burnt sugar creme anglaise, and the frosting job has kind of a sixth-grade look about it, but still. I did it.
The buttercream was amazingly good, and such complexities of flavor! My first try on the creme anglaise was a disaster. Ironically, the reason for the disaster was that I was trying to make sure I'd get it right. A burnt sugar creme anglaise is the first step in making this buttercream, and I decided I'd get a new instant-read candy thermometer, so there would be no doubt about the temperature of the sugar.
Here's a picture of my pan with the sugar turning just about the right color of deep amber. But the thermometer was reading only about 200 instead of the 370 degrees it was supposed to reach. So I let it cook, and cook some more.
Any moron can see that this is beyond deep amber, but my thermometer was still nowhere close to 370. Finally I gave up and poured in the hot milk. Indeed, it did "bubble up furiously," as the directions promised. But it smelled a lot like burned sugar. I don't mean burnt sugar, as in a nice burnt sugar cake. I mean burned sugar, as in charred. I persevered, and got a disgusting dark brown mess that I couldn't even strain because it was too thick.
I was still deluding myself that possibly this was what it was supposed to look like until I tasted it. It was gross. I dumped it out and started over. I looked at the my brand-new instant-read thermometer directions (some might recommend doing this before using it) and saw that its temperature sensor was three inches above the tip of the thermometer, which might work splendidly if you were making a big pot of fudge, but didn't work at all for a tiny quantity of creme anglaise. And, while I'm being cranky, I'll point out that the creme anglaise recipe says it makes two cups, which is completely impossible when it contains only 3 egg yolks, a half-cup of milk, and a quarter-cup of sugar. But it worked just fine on the second try.
I think this is more or less what it's supposed to look like.
After my second try, I decided I'd had enough for the day and put it in the refrigerator until Pumpkin Cake, Day 2.
Bright and early on Day 2, I made the cake. Completely uneventful and easy.
Because I was in such a good mood, I worked extra hard on skinning those dang walnuts.
Here's what the cakes looked like coming out of the oven in the pumpkin-shaped pan:
And this is what they look like after being unmolded from the pans:
When I saw how cute they looked, I was glad I'd used the pan.
Back to the frosting--the next step is the Italian meringue, which I'd already made so the thrill was gone. Jim said the boiling sugar/water combo looked like a thousand little fish eyes. I wished he hadn't said that.
My hand mixer died a few weeks ago, and I have trouble beating a small amount of meringue (this one uses only one egg white), so I had to run to Target for a new one. I couldn't remember which one was recently recommended by Cook's Illustrated, so I bought a KitchenAid. It works just fine.
You can't tell from the picture, but I'm pouring about a quarter-cup of reduced orange juice into the frosting. The instructions say you can either use frozen orange concentrate or reduce your own by microwaving freshly squeezed orange juice until it's thick and syrupy.
Now it was time for the decorating: the moment I'd been dreading. I called my daughter Sarah and whined to her about how I was going to mess it up and she, of the more artistic nature, should come and help me. She was busy, so I took a deep breath and started in on it.
Enough orange food coloring to tint the frosting light orange and a smaller amount a darker, deeper orange.
Slicing off the top of the cakes and putting a little buttercream between the layers.
Jim ate most of the scraps from the top-slicing-off exercise, and proclaimed them excellent.
I taste the burnt orange meringue buttercream and also proclaim it excellent.
It does not, however, go smoothly onto the cake. Observe my icing skills, all you people who think I'm being too hard on myself when I say I'm not a polished cake baker.
This is the best I can do. My pumpkin is not nice and smooth like the picture in the book. My pumpkin looks like it has warts. On the other hand, my cocoa-colored marzipan stem is more successful than I thought it would be. (If you don't think it's successful, there's no need to be brutally honest).
The marzipan tendril--not as successful, but it's a recognizable tendril. Maybe a squirrel sat on it. Not everything in nature is perfect, you know.
I had a leaf-shaped cookie cutter, so I wasn't left to my own devices in shaping the leaves, for which I was grateful. One leaf is green, the other is starting to turn colors.
I was really getting into stamping out the leaves. And the brown tendril looked better than my earlier green ones.
By the time I'd done the cocoa tendril, I was getting tired of the whole marzipan thing, and I was hungry. Fortunately, as my cake was by no means perfect, it didn't bother me too much to cut into it.
This cake was so good. As is true with so many of Rose's cakes, the flavors and textures blend perfectly and you want to savor each bite because there are so many levels. Here, the buttercream is intensely and authentically orange because of the homemade orange concentrate and fresh orange rind, and the undertone of burnt sugar is a perfect counterpart to the tartness of the orange. It's rich (well, of course, it's buttercream), but the meringue makes it so light you forget you're eating two sticks of butter. The cake is just about perfect. You expect a pumpkin cake to be dense, but this one manages to be light as well.
But, while I'm pleased that I did the whole pumpkin shebang because it was a real challenge to me, I don't think I'd go that route again. It would be so much easier in a bundt pan or a couple of loaf pans, and is so rich in flavors that I'm not sure it even requires a frosting. I think an orange glaze might also be a good idea and much easier. This cake is so good that it deserves to be made more than a special-occasion, pull-out-all-the-stops kind of cake. We're going to be making a pumpkin cheesecake for Thanksgiving, but this would also be a fantastic Thanksgiving dessert--or a dessert that you make just because you feel like having pumpkin cake.
is a big cupcake fan. We'll have to see whether she converts all the recipes to cupcakes. That could be a challenge.
Sarah: "A perfect autumnal cake. It's really good, and the spices are perfect. The nuts add a lot to the texture."
Jim: "I love the pumpkin flavor and the frosting is not too sweet."
Karen: "It's a nice, light frosting. The cake is great. It's moist, but light too--the pumpkin could make it heavy, but it didn't. It's everything you'd want in a pumpkin cake."
Rochelle: "The best cake you've baked."
* * * * *
We have three new bakers this week. Welcome Jeanne, who hails from a small town in Mississippi that was nearly flattened by Katrina, and who lives in Louisiana now.
Also new is Shoshana, who will adapt the recipes to be non-dairy. Her blog should be a helpful resource for people who need to make those kinds of recipe adaptations.
Finally, as you might guess from the name of her blog, Positively cupcakes
I'd like to get people's input on whether we should think about limiting the number of bakers. I'd hate to say no to people who are willing to make the commitment to do this, but there is an advantage to being small enough so we can check each other's blogs and learn from one another. Please let me know your thoughts.