Dec 28, 2009

Holiday Pinecone Cake

Every time I looked at this recipe, I thought, "There's no way I can do this." I signed up to bring a cake to our office Christmas party, and I kept telling myself that if it didn't turn it, I'd just buy something. By the time people got to dessert, half of them would be sloshed enough that they wouldn't even notice, or so I reassured myself. (You might think that the thought of a houseful of sloshed lawyers would not be a reassuring thought, and ordinarily, you'd be right).
I put the picture first to stop the suspense. I did turn out a pine cone cake--of sorts. I did take it to the party. I did get lots of compliments, even though everyone turned out to be more or less sober, even at dessert time. But there were a few times when I almost threw in the towel and headed to the nearest bakery.
Friday night was the fondant. The frickin' fondant, as Jim and I called it affectionately. And as I called it unaffectionately as I was working with it. Perhaps I should have tried some baby fondant before trying this big hunk o' fondant, because I had no clue what it was supposed to look like, smell like, taste like, or handle like.
But I got all the ingredients together and dug in.

When I measured out the powdered sugar, I realized I didn't have quite enough, and, since I didn't have the energy to go get more, I decided I'd just add another 21 grams of cocoa to make up for the missing 21 grams of powdered sugar. I think this was a mistake because I don't believe (now, with the wisdom of hindsight) that they're interchangeable. I would have been better off just being a little short of sugar. My real problem was not adding enough liquid.

The mixture was very dry, even after I kneaded it in the bowl, and it didn't get manageable when I started kneading it on the counter.I was dubious about the state of my fondant, but I carefully wrapped it up and went to bed.

My daughter Sarah came over on Sunday, after the cake was gone, and looked at the pictures. When she saw this one, she started laughing hysterically and saying very rude things.

Then she asked me if she'd hurt my feelings. "Why no, not at all," I told her. "It's very enjoyable for me to hear my frickin' fondant compared to...."
"I'm really, really sorry, Mom," she said. But she started laughing again.

Saturday morning, I was feeling much cheerier, although I was still facing the cake that gets rolled up in a dish towel. I've heard about this technique, of course, but, seeing as how I'm only an Advanced Beginner and not yet Competent, I'd never done it.
As it turns out, it's not hard to do.
Cocoa mixed in boiling water:

A little bit of flour, sifted:

Whole eggs plus egg yolks, beaten for five minutes:

And, finally, stiffly beaten egg yolks folded into the chocolate-egg mixture:

The mixture gets poured into a half-sheet pan, and baked for about seven minutes. Hardly enough time to leave the kitchen.

Seven minutes is almost enough time to make the chocolate-almond ganache, which, compared to the rest of the elements of the cake, is a cinch. Heat cream, add a pound of chocolate, and some toasted almonds. The recipe calls for 60% to 62% cacao. I used part 68% and part 52%, and it turned out to be perfect. This ganache is incredibly delicious, and can be transformed into truffles, or something truffle-like if you have some left over.

The next step gets tricky again. The sponge cake, which has been rolled up in a dish towel, quietly awaiting its turn, gets unrolled. Surprisingly, there were no mishaps in this process, although I kept forgetting to breathe while I was doing it. Then I spread ganache on the cake. This looks awkward because I'm doing it sideways. I don't know why.

Next tricky step: I forget whether this is #4 or #5. Cut off part of the side and transfer it to the bottom of the cake to more closely approximate the shape of a pinecone. I actually looked at a real pinecone at this stage, and realized that if I had to save my life by disguising myself as a pinecone, I would not be successful. My cake was not going to fool anyone. I decided that--if the cake ever got finished--I would fend off awkward questions by announcing, "This is a chocolate pinecone cake." Then I slathered more ganache all over the pinecone.

At this point, it looked like it had no possibility of turning into an edible, presentible dessert. The ganache was very soft, and gave every indication of turning into a sloppy mess. But I still had enough faith to put it out on the front porch, where it could, I hoped, harden enough that I could do something with it.
Unfortunately, the "something" I was planning to do involved wrapping it with the fondant that I'd been trying not to think about.
I think that Rose was a little worried about my state of mind, seeing as how I'd been using words like "dread" and "crazy" in connection with the fondant. She sent me an encouraging email telling me that working with the fondant would be like working with soft Italian leather. I had to tell her that my fondant was more like industrial grade leather.
At first, it cracked and crumbled when I tried to roll it out. With the combination of the messy ganache-covered cake and the cracking fondant, I was pretty sure this project was doomed. As advised, I stuck the fondant in the microwave for a few seconds. This had no effect. In desperation, I put my hands under the faucet, shook them off, and started kneading the fondant. I couldn't believe it, but the drops of water were gradually absorbed into the fondant to make it more or less workable--workable enough that I ended up with the right-sized rectangle.

Not only that, but when I checked on the cake, the ganache had hardened enough that I thought I could handle it. In a second, I moved from despair to hope.

I draped the fondant over the cake, which, truth be told, looked more like a bullet than a pinecone, but why would I bring a chocolate bullet to a holiday party? Besides, the rows of pine scales, or whatever they are, would make it look more pine-conish and less bullet-like. At least I hoped so.
But I read the directions and looked at the pictures, and couldn't figure out how to make the lumpish thing I was working on resemble the adorable pinecone in the picture. Jim was apparently getting worried about my state of mind too, because he volunteered to take over making the V-shaped cuts. After a few rows, he tried to get me to take the knife back. "This is tedious," he complained. "Too bad," I said unsympathetically. "You're stuck with it." Then I started to cheer him on. "Good work, Jim! You're doing a great job!" I could tell he was having fun.

I added some pine needles, which I'd dipped in beaten egg white and dusted with powdered sugar. Not my idea, of course--it's in the book. However, I rejected out of hand the notion of making cute little red marzipan berries, and used perfectly good plastic ones instead.

Finally, I took the advice of my neighbor, Barb, a professional cookbook author, who reminded me that powdered sugar hides a multitude of sins, and I dusted the whole shebang with powdered sugar. Thanks, Barb--great idea!

When I walked into the party carrying the pinecone cake, people were very impressed that I'd made it myself. (Well, there was one smartass who asked me why I'd brought a porcupine). I didn't need a tasting panel, because when dessert time came around, I heard people saying things like, "Oh my god, you have to try this chocolate cake."
The taste is the part that Rose omitted from her description of the cake. With all the instructions about how to put everything together, and how to roll the fondant, she neglected to mention that this cake is not only a show-stopper (even when made by a fondant tyro), but it is, in my opinion, an even better example of pure chocolate deliciousness than the Chocolate Oblivion. Even the fondant, which Woody described as tasting kind of like a dark chocolate Tootsie Roll, and which I thought was the weak link in the chocolate chain, gave a perfect bit of texture to the cake and ganache combination.
The next morning, when Jim was reading the Sunday comics, he burst out in laughter. I looked up, and he showed me this Arlo and Janis cartoon:

I know just how Janis feels.


faithy said...

Marie, your pinecone cake turned out looking really gorgeous! It's so beautiful! I'm so impressed that you made everything from scratch including the fondant! Way to go!! :)

Your post made me laugh out so loudly as usual. I thought the comic strip is so funny! I think i'm finally going to give this cake a miss...even though i absolutely adore & love anything chocolate.. I'm so burnt out baking from Xmas Eve to Boxing! I need a breathe...

Melinda said...

Marie, it looks fab! You are a clever clogs. It does not look like a porcupine at all. Beautiful!
You have conquered your 'croissants' of the Heavenly Cakes.
Honest, your cake is flash!

Saira said...

Wow! Beautiful job Marie!

Mendy said...


Looks great! Well done, Marie.

Hanaâ said...

Absolutely gorgeous, Marie. Kudos for your perseverance. Your post made me LOL ("industrial-grade leather", "porcupine" -- don't you just hate that!). With hubby still sleeping, I had to try and keep quiet though. Funny how Jim offered to help and ended up "stuck" with the job. That NEVER happens to my husband ;o)

doughadear said...

From the "frickin fondant" to the appropriate comic you had me in stitches. I’m so glad that in the end you were rewarded with a fabulous cake. It really is a show stopper!

gartblue said...

marie dear .. frickin fondant is definitely my mantra too now .. and as usual, you were hilarious! and it wasn't a porcupine!!

good job babe!

*takes hats off *

NancyB said...

Marie, it looks wonderful! The red and green add a great touch, and the sprinkling of powdered sugar finishes it. Really great job.

Nicola said...


Your frickin' fondant looks frickin' amazing. It totally looks like a pine cone, and I love the addition of the sprinkling of icing sugar. I will have to remember that little trick!

So impressed that you did the pine needles and the red berries look fab.

I think I read somewhere in one of Rose's books that cocoa sucks up way more moisture than flour etc. I am sure it wasn't just that cocoa (fondant) sucks.

I also love that Jim got stuck with the tedious job of cutting the petals in. *Such* a long, neverending job. Give that man a glass of wine/beer/rug for his knees! He did a fab job - but don't let him take all the credit!!!

Great work team.

Nicola said...

Oh, forgot to say that I love your daughter's comments re the fondant. I actually sprayed my cup of tea over the keyboard.

Who would have though that cake baking could be quite so funny.

Bungalow Barbara said...

Congratulations on the successful pinecone cake!

I'll be giving this a pass -- but will be finally getting around to posting about last week's gingerbread cake! And I'll definitely be back for next week!

Marie said...

I'm sorry you didn't bake this cake--I was looking forward to seeing how you handled the fondant, since you're an expert. Not that I don't understand the need to take a few days off from baking. By the way, all your cookies looked delicious!

Hmmm. Not sure about "flash." I think Jim and I get a star for perseverance, though. Please tell me you'll bake it someday!

Thanks. Jim got its best angle.

Thank you--you did a fine job too!

Marie said...

Jim should know better than to volunteer for anything by now, but he's a good sport.

I could hardly believe that it all came together in the end. In hindsight it was kind of fun to do. While I was actually doing it--not so much.

Thanks--I loved that you did yours in sultry Malaysia. (Well, maybe it's not sultry, but I'm pretty sure you're not looking outside and seeing snow on pine trees!).

Nancy B,
Thanks, I loved the way the powdered sugar set it off--I definitely got good advice on that.

I think you must be right about the cocoa sucking up moisture. If I were a scientist, I might even check it out, but I'll just believe you.
Believe me, Jim has already rewarded himself with several glasses of wine, not to mention some beer. I'll admit it's deserved.
(I hope your keyboard survived the tea spritzing!)

Sorry that you're missing out on the pinecone cake, but the whipped cream cake will be delightful!

Jenn said...

Well done Marie. Now I'm sorry I didn't make this cake. Like Faithy, I needed to eat light for now, so I made Rose's Apple Pie.

Rachelino said...

Marie- Your cake is gorgeous, especially with the pine needles. You get a gold star!
I have read a few pine cone posts now, and it looks like I am the only one who had a seamless experience with the fondant. It really was like working with soft Italian leather. It took some to get it from the industrial grade leather stage though.
and HAPPY NEW YEAR everyone!

faithy said...

Thanks Marie for your comments about my cookies. I was looking forward to baking this cake before even took close-up photos of pinecones in Japan so that i can 'copy' the real thing. (no pine trees w/ pine cones here in Singapore..we have fake plastic Christmas trees and we use the same fake one every!..cos the real pine trees are expensive..) But exhaustion got the better of me..

Rose Levy Beranbaum said...

marie--a great job and posting. advice to all re fondant: just as some recipe suggest for pie dough, when all is mixed, tear off a small amount which is easier to knead and check to see if more water is necessary. at first when adding water it becomes a sticky mess but as you continue to knead it starts to absorb evenly. latex gloves are a great help too.

when white fondant is used on wedding cakes it's more for the look. and in order for fondant to look good on the cake, i.e. smooth, it needs to be thicken than most anyone would want to eat. but as appearances go it is stunning and, i think worth the excess.

i brought one fondant-covered layer to my aunt's house years ago and she reported afterwards that she removed the excess fondant after we left and shaped it into little candies!

believe me: next week's cake will be "a piece of cake" compared to this one!

anitsirK said...

My post is late. Sorry for the rush job. I did the cake in plenty of time, but just hadn't managed to get it posted until now, and just barely did that.

Here it is.

Marie said...

You've got to love a person who considers apple pie to be "eating light"!

It looks like you're a natural with fondant--are you giving lessons?

Oh, now I'm really sorry that I didn't get to see your version of the pinecone cake--made to resemble authentic Japanese pinecones!

Good fondant advice. I also feel convinced that I could make a better fondant second (or third) time around, just because I'd have a better idea about what it's supposed to feel like.

Clever of you to make it into a log. I don't know why it never occurred to me that you could adapt it that way. Love the meringue mushrooms!

jini said...

dear janis, um marie - once again i am giggling uncontrollably here at the computer. sarah's comments must have been right on as of course i agreed with her. lol.
i am amazed at the way you attack a project and even tho you think you are muddling, the results are fantastic. you probably need to write your own book of trials in baking. (doesn't that sound lawyerly?)
i actually baked bread twice and with everyone cooking here we had a rather filling holiday. i am missing that sweet little coo as they wing their way west.

Jenn said...

Marie - thanks for what you said, it made me smile. I always think that any dessert that does not use a lot of heavy cream/a pound of butter = light. Might not be true or make senses but that's how my mind works somehow.

Marie said...

I don't just think I'm muddling, but you're right--it usually ends up turning out ok. In this case, the "turning out ok" had a lot to do with the ganache.
Are you really being totally objective about this baby? "Sweet little coo"? Are you sure she never cries?
Never mind, I'm just jealous.

evil cake lady said...

excellent job marie! your pinecone cake looks great! you surely have graduated from advanced to competent! congratulations and happy new year :)

Marie said...

Thanks for the vote of confidence-- but "competent" requires a mousseline and a fondant like soft Italian leather.
Those are my rules and I'm sticking to them.
By the way, I just realized I stole my "Next in the Oven" from your blog!

Goody said...

I can't decide if I'm relieved or disappointed that you didn't get an instant read temperature on the fondant.


Marie said...

Ha! I hope you would be relieved that I'm not totally round the bend.

evil cake lady said...

aw man! i thought surely you'd be graduating by now.
about being your blog inspiration: anytime, my friend. anytime.

Vicki said...

You always brighten my day.
And the comic was spot on!
This cake was a fabulous learning experience.

Shirley said...

It looks beautiful! I love the powdered-sugar trick also, and I use whipped cream to cover up flaws, too.

nikcreate said...

it looks amazing! It looks tough and from what I've read it is! Having you accomplished it and didn't give up is something you should be very proud of. I know I would have been if ever get the courage to give it a try.

Marie said...

You know what they say--what doesn't kill you makes you stronger!

Yes, I love whipped cream as a concealer, and it has the added advantage of tasting so good.

I actually am quite proud of myself. I would never have attempted this if it weren't for the Heavenly Bakers, and it's good to remember that you actually can do some things that you look at and say, "I could never do that." (Of course there are still some things--brain surgery comes to mind--that I probably can't do).