I am 26 years old, and I am officially in that phase of adult-ing where it seems like almost all of my friends are getting married, having babies, or some combination of the two. My sister Hannah got engaged to her girlfriend on our family beach vacation this Summer. Then about a month later one of my best friends, Kristen, got engaged to her boyfriend Silas. Shortly after I got a text message from Kristen informing me of her engagement (which of course included the essential ring pics), she sent me this:
To be honest I felt a little nervous but mostly excited. I think my exact response was a “sparkle heart” emoji. If I am really being honest, I had been secretly harboring a desire to make their wedding cake for quite some time. This is a couple that truly appreciates desserts. They have always supported me in my excessive baking habits. I remember one time Chad and I came over to grill out for dinner and I brought ingredients to make a blueberry pie. Once it had cooled and I was serving slices, Silas picked his slice up in his hand. I watched him visually surveying it, analyzing it, before taking a bite. After he had tasted it, he turned to Kristen and said something like, “This is good pie. This is the kind of friend we need to keep around.” KRISTEN AND SILAS ON THEIR WEDDING DAY. (PHOTO CREDIT: Natalie Schuh, 2016)
In my family, on the Rohrbacher side, there is a grand tradition of a certain much-lauded coffee buttercream filled chiffon cake with mocha icing, known as a “Swanee Cake”. I do not know the backstory or the origin of this cake but I have a photo copy of my grandmother Alice’s handwritten recipe. She calls it “Swanee Cake” and so that is what we all call it, and it is as simple as that. In my immediate family it is the most requested, most luxurious, mostly-butter birthday cake that anyone asks for. One year when I was little, I asked for a white chocolate ganache raspberry cake (like the one they had at Cafe Esspresso) for my birthday. My grandmother Alice just so happened to be visiting from Oregon, and when she heard that I had asked for a white chocolate cake for my birthday, she looked at me and said, “Well that is the stupidest thing I have ever heard. White chocolate. Why would anyone want a white chocolate cake?!” I was in the 3rd grade. Needless to say, our family is very serious about dessert preferences, but as far as I know everyone agrees that Swanee Cake is simply fantastic.
Kristen and I have been friends for over 10 year now, and in that time she has sampled her fair share of Rohrbacher dessert recipes. So much as to say that I knew before she asked me that she was going to request a Swanee Cake. The recipe is relatively simple in theory. A vanilla chiffon cake baked in a tube pan, layered with rich coffee buttercream filling, and iced with a luxurious combination of cocoa and coffee flavored mocha frosting for the exterior. For a cake to feed 200 people, thought, I was going to have to forgo the tube pan, and figure out how to make a 3 tiered version. This is the kind of challenge that I live to take on.
First I had to calculate the relative volume of the different sized baking pans in relation to the recipe. In order to do that, though, I had to look up the formula to calculate the volume of a cylinder. Then I had to look up how to use pi, which means that I have now officially spent more time doing math for this cake than I did in my entire college career. Once I had figured out how many batches of chiffon cake I needed to make I had to calculate how much filling per tier I would need, and how many batches of filling that would require. I made a test run base layer cake a few weeks before the wedding so that I could get familiar with the process and calculate exactly how much total icing I would need for the exterior surface area as well.
I liked how in the original Tartine book by Chad Roberston and Elizabeth Prueitt they recommend using 3″ sided spring form pans instead of the usual cake pan or tube pan for chiffon cake applications. Chiffon cakes get their loft mainly from whipped egg whites, and it is essential to the structure that as the batter rises it can cling onto the sides of the pan as it grows. The higher the sides of the pan, the loftier the cake by this reasoning, so cheesecake pans (a.k.a. spring form pans) are perfect. At first finding the exactly right sized pans was a struggle. The local cake decor shop was selling the 10″ for a much-higher-than-online price, but I bought them anyway. Then I started having a panic attack about how/when I could get the other sizes if I ended up having to order them online. I did some research, and I decided to give a local restaurant supply company called Lit Jr. a try. It ended up saving me a lot of grief. They had the exact 8″ and 6″ pans I needed, and the price on them was close to half of what I had payed for the same brand at the cake decorating store! Once I gathered all of the ingredients and proper baking equipment, and the wedding was approaching, I made sure to request off of work for the 3 days prior to the event. Once the wedding week arrived, I decided to bake the cakes a day ahead, and then to the filling and assembly the day before the wedding. I used the Tartine chiffon recipe (just like I did in my very first real blog post), but my Grandmother’s handwritten recipe is a transcription of an old Betty Crocker’s chiffon cake recipe. All chiffon cakes are basically the same in their ingredients and assembly, but the amount of batter for the Tartine recipe is specifically written for a 10″ spring form pan, so I went with that one because it was the one I used to base all of my calculations on.
My Dad allowed me to use his kitchen for this project, since he has 2 full sized ovens and about 10 times more counter space (or more) than I do. On the assembly day, my sister Hannah just so happened to stop by to do some laundry because the dryer at her house was broken. Conveniently she arrived right as I was finishing all of my prep work. I enlisted her help to level the cooled cakes while she waited on her clothes to dry and I made the filling and icing. You could say it was a full Rohrbacher-family effort on this one.
My sister Hannah went to Memphis College of Art, and graduated in 2015 as a sculpture major. She actually graduated as the valedictorian, so I was fairly confident that she could handle the task of helping me level and slice the cakes. What I didn’t realize was that she would completely change the game. I am slightly embarrassed to say how many hours I spent watching YouTube tutorials, reading cake posts on Reddit, and reading blogs full of tips and advice about making wedding cake. No where did I see ANYTHING this brilliant. I baked two cakes of each size, so I told Hannah to split each in half (which would make each tier four layers of cake total). Hannah thought about it for a second and then said (and I am paraphrasing), “I am going to put toothpicks into each cake to mark the top and bottom pieces so you will know exactly where to position them so they will fit perfectly when you fill the layers.” Simply genius.
So then I made the coffee flavored buttercream filling, and started filling the layers. In total for this cake, I bought 10 Lbs of butter. 8 lbs of European butter, and 2 lbs of regular store brand American butter. It was a lot of butter, that’s for sure.
Once I had filled my cakes I had to make my first batch of French meringue buttercream icing to do a “crumb coat”. I decided to use a meringue buttercream for the exterior instead of the classic mocha frosting found covering the standard Swanee Cake because I knew I could pipe it more easily and it would hold up nicely for transportation and delivery on the wedding day. French meringue buttercream also happens to be extremely luxurious in texture and absolutely delicious, especially when you use high quality butter (but it is not overly-sweet in flavor, which makes it my personal preference). I used this base recipe with the addition of the classic Swanee Cake icing flavors: dark cocoa powder and coffee.
Using a tiny bit of water and vanilla extract I made a slurry with the instant coffee powder to add into the mix after the butter cream was nicely whipped up. I added the cocoa powder dry, 2 Tbsp at a time, until it tasted like mocha and it turned a nice light brown cream color.
The image above is a giant vat of French Meringue Icing. I made sure Simon took a picture of it because it was just so ridiculous how much icing three batches ended up being, volume-wise. Let’s just say, I made more than enough.
I started with the 10″ base layer. Each tier ended up being about 6″ tall. This process definitely got easier with practice.
One tier down, two to go.
And like I said, the process got easier with practice.
I left the crumb-coated cakes in the fridge for a few hours and took a dinner break before heading back to stack the tiers that night and to pipe the exterior. To stack the cakes, I stabilized each layer with 4 strategically placed and cut smoothie-straws. I had pre-preemptively cut a small “X” with a razor into the center of each of the cardboard cake boards that I used under each tier, so when I stacked them and drove my perfectly measured and sharpened 18″ long, 1/2″ diameter dowel down through the center it easily pierced through each layer without dragging or compressing the cake to any ill effects. Once the cakes were stacked and stabilized on the final base board, I filled a few piping bags (all set with 1M Wilton piping tips) with my French meringue buttercream, and got to work piping rosettes. Luckily I had remembered to bring my wooden lazy-susan from home to set the cake on top of, and slowly spin, as I piped. The lazy-susan made the piping job so much more simplified, it’s hard for me to imagine having to do it without one. I started piping rosettes from the bottom up. My father came home right as I was finishing the top tier. I was so tired, and I was so covered in icing, but as soon as I finished it I spun it around and checked it out and I considered wiping it all down and starting over again. I told my father my idea and he immediately stopped me before I could do any damage. I decided to leave it as it was, and I am glad that I did.
Simon was busy so I don’t have any nice photos of a piping montage, but I do have this one low quality photo from my Instagram:
After finishing the piping, I had to carry the cake down a flight of stairs to my Dad’s basement refrigerator. My father is quite possibly even more of a control-freak than I am, and when he saw me slowly stepping my way down the very steep staircase, he luckily intervened once again and carried it the rest of the way.
Like I said before, this really was a family affair.
I packed the cake into an appropriately sized heavy duty cardboard box, taped it up, and had a beer. It felt amazing for the first part of this cake venture to be finished, but I was also already stressing about the next day’s transportation, delivery, and extra decoration. Luckily the cake make it in tact, and Simon met me at the venue to take set-up shots on the morning of the wedding day.
I made a bunch of wrapped wire and florist taped succulents to decorate the cake. The bright green color, and succulents themselves, were part of the wedding decor theme so I decided to run with it.
(I just can’t help myself, I always start talking when Simon is shooting and we end up with a bunch of seriously-derpy-face shots like this.)
I was just so pleased that it all worked out, and that the succulents stayed in place, and they they looked so damn cute. I was so happy to be able to provide such a satisfactory aesthetic (not to mention delicious) focal point for my friend’s wedding. Kristen is also a MCA grad (she is an abstract oil painter) and I know she had been dreaming about this wedding since she was little, so I basically had to pull out all the stops. Luckily all of my mathematical formulas, and excessive icing preparation, diligent research, YouTube binge-watching, and trial-running paid off.
I am just so glad that Kristen and Silas trusted me with the responsibility of making the cake for their wedding, and that I was able to come through for them. I love them both so much, and I absolutely loved making their wedding cake. I have grown as a baker, and learned so much from this experience. Namely, that I will l absolutely never entertain the notion of making another “pro bono” wedding cake ever again.
All Photos (except where indicated) by Simon Hua, 2016