Have you ever heard the expression, “You can either be right, or you can be happy”? I always find myself in a similar conundrum when it comes to baking. I can either bake something pretty (looks good) or yummy (tastes good). I don’t think I’ve quite mastered doing both at the same time yet.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think anything I’ve made has been inedible and my husband and his family rave about the stuff I’ve made that I think were misses, but if something doesn’t make me want more immediately despite what my stomach says… then it needs work. Because I am anything if not a perfectionist. And whenever I make something that makes me have such a craving, I think it’s great, but not necessarily pretty. I mean it isn’t ugly (is it possible for cookies to be ugly?) but I am terrible at frosting things. I see pictures online of fabulous cupcakes, first without frosting and I think, “My rounded edges are not that perfect,” and then I see them with frosting, and despite having the proper equipment (pastry bags and tips etc.), my frosting never looks like that. And I doubt it ever will.
Of course, between the two I always go for yummy over pretty. Because it’s not like I’m baking things for decoration, I’m baking things to be consumed by others. And I’m fairly certain most people want to eat something that tastes good over something that looks good. But I still try to work on a little “pretty” while I bake striving for the yummy.
When I started my baking journey (I baked for the first time in 2011, no joke) I never thought about how whatever I was baking looked – I was more concerned with blowing something up or burning the house down! But after we moved to Colorado (and I had to adjust everything I knew about baking, thanks to the high elevations) I started to get comfortable with my baking. I think cupcakes are my favorite thing to make and I make them from scratch, the frosting too. Three favorites in this house are my: pumpkin ginger cupcakes with ginger cream cheese frosting (a fall staple, I handed out over eighty to doctors and neighbors a few weeks ago – it’s my Happy Fall gift); chocolate chili cupcakes with chili cream cheese frosting (perfect for Cinco de Mayo); Dark Chocolate Cupcakes with Raspberry filling and dark chocolate raspberry buttercream filling (this is mine, the other two I like, but are more my husband’s favorites).
After I nailed these recipes, which took about a year after I first came up with them, I wanted to do something that didn’t just taste “wow” but looked “wow” too. And my quest for being… er I mean baking, pretty was born.
My first truly ambitious attempt was making a cake for the fourth of July in 2013. My husband’s (Roy) family was visiting and I wanted to make something fun and truly special. I thought, what would be special and commemorate the holiday, and of course I went to “flag cake”. But I have already discussed my lack of frosting skills, and really is a flag done in icing really that unique? I wanted to do something memorable. That’s when I decided to make the inside of the cake be the flag. Down to the blue square and the white stars. I had no idea how I was going to and started to research.
I was going to make everything from scratch (and I did with the exception of the icing I used on top – not frosting, the icing) and the blue parts of the cake were blueberry and the red parts of the cake were strawberry (both made from fresh fruit, no coloring added) and the white parts were vanilla – naturally. I bought a bunch of special cake pans (Wilton’s gets way too much money from me) and set out to make it work. Well there was a dry run or two the day of… that’s what I’ll call it when really it was more of an “Oopsie!” or two. Constructing the cake was something else… I think I still get shivers remembering.
In the end I accomplished what I wanted to (thanks to my kitchen helper, Roy!) and the cake was a success. But it just didn’t do it for me. It achieved that wow look, aside from being too tall (an overnight on my part, to get the stripes of the flag right) it tasted way too sweet for me. And I have a SERIOUS sweet tooth! Roy said he loved it, but I seriously question this since he isn’t usually a fan of super sweet things, and his parents loved it. I honestly am not sure how anyone could like something that sweet and I would have thought they were just being nice, but they had thirds and wanted more haha, so they either really liked it, or really wanted to sell themselves liking it, at the expense of their stomachs. The vanilla parts of the cake were fine, as was the frosting (also vanilla, a buttercream) but I didn’t factor in how sweet the strawberry and blueberry cakes would be, since I used real fruit. That was my mistake as far as taste (in my opinion). But it was good practice and fun, even though at times it was trying and it wasn’t my favorite in the end, it wasn’t terrible.
I didn’t try to do anything “pretty” again until Christmas that same year. Roy bought me a Wilton castle set used to make… you guessed it – a cake castle! I was excited and intimidated, but I figured it would be fun to try. That was when my husband said, “We have to do this for Christmas!” His parents, grandmother and sister were flying out to spend the holidays with us and Roy’s brother and sister-in-law and their kids. I was still excited about the idea and readily agreed, though I’ll admit doing it for someone put the pressure on in a serious kind of way.
This time we did do dry runs – two before we actually started making the cake for the holidays. I had already figured out the recipes and layers, though we used stuff out of the box for our dry runs, so I was nervous about how it would actually taste. For the bottom, much larger layer, I made a snickerdoodle cake with brown sugar buttercream frosting. And for the second, slightly smaller layer I did gingerbread with caramel buttercream frosting. I also used a little fondant (not much, I don’t like the stuff) and icing on the towers and such to make everything look less artificial. The frostings were done in red and green, and when everything was done I sprinkled green sprinkles on the red cake and red sprinkles on the green. Then I wrote everyone’s name on a tower with red and green icing (everyone, including the kids had their own tower) and put a “W” on the door (both my and Roy’s last names begin with W) and it was finished!
It stayed together on its own except for the very top tower that I held up long enough to get a picture (it only lasted about twenty minutes on its own). Everyone was impressed, and noticed their names on the towers and it was definitely wow, but again I was let down by the taste. Both frostings were awesome, but again the cakes did not turn out as I expected. I had been worried the gingerbread cake wouldn’t be sweet enough, which is why it was the smaller tier, but it was just right. The Snickerdoodle, which I was sure I would love, was too sweet for me, just like the Independence Day cake. People seemed to enjoy it though, and we didn’t have that much leftovers, which for the cake’s size was impressive.
I haven’t really tried anything impressive since then. I mean I did do these strawberry cupcakes which were innovative and layered, but those were fun and easy (though a little time consuming, but still). And I don’t think they looked pretty, it was just something different. They tasted great though! 😉
Since my two big attempts at baking pretty, or baking something cool and wow, I have stuck to baking things that just taste wow. And some of them are complicated and take a whole day, but it looks just like a regular cake, like the last birthday cake I made my husband. But it’s worth it because it tastes great. And I think that is more memorable than something that looks cool. At least I hope it is.
Because the truth is, I can bake something tasty, but I’m not sure I can bake something that is both pretty and tasty. And as much as I want to be (bake) pretty, I’m going to go with tasty every time.
How about you? Can you cake both pretty and tasty? If so please tell me your secrets! 😉
Well, I’m going back to plan some holiday desserts for people. Happy baking everyone! 🙂
Another Flop Project
For New Year’s Eve 2013, I attempted to make these morning latte cupcakes. They looked just like these pictures, but I didn’t think they tasted all that good.
The “Almost Pretty” Success Stories
Strawberry-Vanilla Three-Layer Cupcakes
I made these to celebrate Roy’s coworker adopting a baby girl. Made a batch of strawberry and vanilla cupcakes and then cut them up making sandwiches cemented with strawberry vanilla buttercream. Everything from scratch – I loved these. And while they may not have been beautiful and were definitely a little messy they tasted great! (See Photos Above.)
My Cinco de Mayo Cupcakes
I make these to celebrate Cinco de Mayo every year (and a few more times, since they’re my husband’s favorite). Also from scratch, I use cayenne pepper and Ancho chilies along with a few other secret ingredients to give it a real kick, but not so much of one that those who can’t do spicy food can’t enjoy them. (See Photos Above.)
Chocolate Espresso Layer Cake!
I made this last year for my husband’s birthday… well the surprise party I planned for him two days before his birthday. This cake was possibly the most difficult thing I have baked that turned out great. Well not the cake, but the frosting – super advanced (those baking forums were not kidding).
The secret to getting a strong espresso flavor that was more espresso than chocolate involved a few special ingredients, but the credit mostly goes to Espresso Flavored Vodka in the frosting and cake itself.