I don’t know, guys. I think this one is a little much. I’m not totally mad at the result, but you know how sometimes you have an idea that leads to an idea, and then the whole thing kind of spirals out of control? I think that was this cake in a nutshell. I don’t usually go very deep into the way I come up with my flavor combinations and cake designs, but I thought it might be interesting in this case to explain a little bit of the process. Sometimes it’s pretty straight forward, and sometimes it’s a crazy amalgamation of inspiration.
In this case, it all started with an impulse purchase. An ad popped up in my Instagram feed for an online store called Good & Butter. At the time, they were offering free two-day shipping on any purchase, so I started having a look around and found some fancy shmancy, Chestnut, Pear and Tonka Bean jam by a French company called Confiture Parisienne. The price was a bit more than I would normally spend, but the flavor combination sounded delightful, and I’m sucker for packaging, so I couldn’t resist the white enamel jars.
I knew I wanted to put it in a cake, but, because of the cost of the jam, I really wanted it to stand out, so I needed to make sure the other components didn’t overwhelm it. After doing some thinking, I decided on a recipe for a Pear and Walnut Cake from Liv for Cake, but minus the walnuts. To balance the sweetness of the jam, I wanted to try a recipe for a Crème Fraîche buttercream from The Kitchen McCabe. I was concerned that the crème fraîche buttercream would probably not pipe well, and may be a bit soft, so I figured the design of the cake would need to be simple. The obvious choice based on the flavor seemed to be those colored candied pear slices that we’ve seen all over the IG for the past year or so, but I didn’t want to just recreate what had already been done, so I felt like I needed to come up with something a little bit more.
During the days I spent brainstorming, I listened to the meringue episode of the Flour Hour podcast and started thinking that I could try covering the outside of the cake in meringues; either swirls or kisses or a combination. But then I spotted some meringues Amanda Faber had posted on Instagram that she had piped with a cake icer. It created such an interesting shape, I couldn’t get it out of my head. I hadn’t really decided how I wanted to use them, but I knew I wanted to use them.
Around this time, I bought myself the latest issue of Bake from Scratch magazine. It was their French issue (which had a whole section on crème fraîche by the way) and a recipe for Mont Blanc cake squares by Frank Barron. The recipe is for a vanilla cake, filled with a chestnut spread, frosted with a chestnut buttercream, and topped with French meringue. It seemed like an amazing coincidence, with both the meringue and the chestnut, so I decided to use the crème fraîche buttercream in between the layers of my cake, and to frost the outside with chestnut buttercream. I liked the idea of competing textures and neutral colors, and that led me to my ultimate design: a random combination of meringues and buttercream ruffles. And for a little extra, I planned to make the candied pear slices, but bedazzle them with fancy sprinkles.
Okay, that was a long story, and I’m not sure how many of you actually made it through, but now on to the actual making. The pear cake is quite dense, but baked up well and tasted delightful. The crème fraîche buttercream, however, was problematic. The first step is to beat the butter, crème fraîche, and vanilla together until “combined and smooth.” Well, as soon as I started beating them together, it curdled. I kind of thought it was over at that point, but I decided it couldn’t hurt to keep going, so I beat it some more. And then it completely separated. Still not wanting to start over (and not having enough crème fraîche to do so anyway), I just started slowly adding the powdered sugar, and somehow, it came together and looked like a normal buttercream. It was a little on the sweet side, but had an interesting flavor.
I used the crème fraîche buttercream to fill and also create a dam between each layer, to keep the jam from seeping out. After stacking the cake layers and beginning to crumb coat the cake, however, the crème fraîche buttercream started to go soft. I’m not even sure how to explain it, but the texture was somehow thick and sticky, but also soft. The dams I had piped started to give. I kept trying to crumb coat it, but the buttercream would only go on thick. If I tried to spread it out, or scrape it down, the cake just started to tear. I finally shoved some plastic straws in it for support and threw it in the refrigerator, hoping it would firm up and I could try to salvage it. After it appeared it wasn’t going to fall apart completely, I took it back out and started carefully scraping it down with a bench scraper, heating it up under hot water and then drying it off with a towel. Doing that helped me get a much thinner layer, and I was able to straighten out the cake.
I left it in the refrigerator to firm up overnight, and moved on to my pear slices. I followed the method outlined here, tinting my sugar water pink and mint green to give my pears a little color, but I didn’t start working on them until after 8:00 pm. Big mistake. Big, big mistake. It took me about an hour to make my syrups and boil my pear slices, and the pears then need to be dehydrated in the oven for 3-6 hours. I didn’t even get mine in the oven until after 9:00 pm. I stayed up until 1:00 am, because you need to flip the slices every hour. I finally gave up and went to bed, setting a timer so I could get up and flip them. They still weren’t done. It was 3:00 am at this point, mind you, because of Daylight Savings. I set my timer again, and went back to sleep. I woke up two hours later, realized I hadn’t actually set the timer, and ran downstairs to check on the pears. Luckily, they were not burnt. They had hardened at that point, which worked better for me, because they would stand up on the cake, but if you want them to be flexible, you’d want to be more careful here.
The next day I woke up feeling more than a little crappy. I checked in on my cake and noticed it was bulging, but not too much, and I figured it would be covered by the rest of the icing, so I decided to forge ahead. I chose my two best pear slices, one of each color, and painted the edges and stems with Edible Art Paint in Honey Gold. Then I used an edible glue I made from tylose powder following this recipe to glue my sprinkles onto my pear slices in a random pattern. The sprinkles I used were the Vintage Rose Gold Sprinkle Mix from Sprinkle Pop. I left them to dry for a few hours. This glue worked super well for this and dries clear, so it’s nearly invisible.
My chestnut buttercream came together a lot more easily than the crème fraîche buttercream. The recipe in the magazine called for roasted peeled chestnuts that you then puree with water, but I found a chestnut puree at a local grocery store that only contained chestnuts and water, so I bought that instead and saved myself a step. I used a large petal tip to pipe the ruffles. This was my first time piping ruffles and it was super easy and super fun. You hold the fatter end of the tip against the side of the cake, then move it up and down slightly as you turn your turntable. I did three rows around, starting at the bottom before I started placing my meringues.
I used this recipe from The Cake Blog for my meringues and piped them using a Wilton cake icer. I piped them by holding the serrated side of the tip up, but then dragging it upside down and forward, before turning it back on itself, then pushing forward and back again, on top of the first section. I know I’m probably doing a terrible job of explaining this, but basically you’re folding the meringue over itself in two folds. I think the meringues from Amanda Faber that inspired me may have had three folds, but I could be wrong.
Once I had three rows of ruffles, I started adding meringues, placing them on the ruffles, but spread out in a random pattern, leaving some of the ruffles exposed. The meringues stuck up over the top edge of the ruffles, so for one row of ruffles I only piped between meringues. Once that was done, I piped one complete row above that. Then I grabbed some more meringues and started adding them in a random pattern again, but trying to balance them out a bit. I continued this process working up the sides of the cake. At the uppermost edge, I did one more solid row of ruffles, then moved to the top. I fully piped the top in ruffles, starting at the outer edge and piping concentric circles working my way in until I reached the center.
At this point, I stepped back and took a look at the cake from all angles, trying to see where it felt like it needed additional meringues. I added a few more, going in at an angle under a ruffle, and pushing up slightly, so the top of the meringue would be concealed like the others were. Somewhere during this process, I started to realize that the meringues were way too big for the ruffles, like wildly out of proportion. Obviously, there wasn’t much I could do at that point, I just had to kind of go with it. I decided adding some of the sprinkles from the pears to the ruffles would help tie everything together, so I used some tweezers to precisely place them in groupings all over the buttercream. Then I stuck my two pear slices into the center of the cake, and placed my last meringue behind them, sticking up a little like a fan.
The end result was definitely over the top, maybe a little shabby chic, maybe a little vintage-y, but fun. Sometimes you just have to go where the wind takes you, and hope for the best. Are you a less is more type, or a the more the better type? Let me know in the comments!