My trembling right hand cramped as I held the pastry bag. I ignored the pain and tried to steady the shake with my equally quivering left hand. I squeezed the buttercream out of the flower tip nozzle and it splurted out onto my workstation in a squishy petal-less blob.
My cake decorating teacher had stopped circling to my corner of the room. She had just given up on me. Good thing too, because I would have dominated the class time with my incompetence.
When I saw this class listed online, visions of beauteous buttercream roses danced in my head.
I would be the master. The class would stop in awe of my skills and gather round as I swirled frosting into a bouquet of flowers more breathtaking than any florist could arrange. The teacher would ask for my autograph. The school would have my pastry bag bronzed.
The reality was that I was at least 15 years older than everyone in the class, my nervous hands shook more than Katherine Hepburn’s, and I had no instinctual talent for any of the things taught. My fate became clear to me early on in the first of the four day class, and though it was a hard pill to swallow, I gulped it down quickly.
But here’s the other thing I learned… people don’t like to talk about failing. I confided in friends and family, trying to ease my woes in the comfort of confession, but everyone froze solid. They would tell me I probably wasn’t that bad at it and then change the subject quickly. It wasn’t until one friend said it was refreshing to hear someone in New York, where everyone is the best at everything, finally say they were bad at something, that I started to think. What an incredible burden we put on ourselves to not only not fail but to then not talk about failing. All of the best things I do I really bumbled for a while. That’s not news, it’s olds. That’s life, that’s how we learn. We all know that. But in this cutthroat competitive world where we savagely rip each other to shreds for the tiniest shortcomings, no one is ever allowed to admit that they suck at stuff.
I promise, if I had wanted to talk about someone else sucking at cake design, everyone would have jumped on board. I didn’t want to criticize anyone actually- even me. I just wanted to admit the truth and see if my fear of failure changed as a result.
I wonder if you can ever truly master the things you don’t do well at if you never embrace your ability to fail. I want to celebrate my failures. I want to scream them from the highest mountaintops. I want to give myself permission to screw it all up so that when I eventually figure it all out I have an actual point of reference to compare it to.
Maybe that’s why I have this blog.
A few days after class ended, I was catering a Mexican fiesta dinner party. I was rolling out my infamous flour tortillas (see “My Tortillas Are Like Snowflakes”) and realized how easily they came together. I’ve been making them off and on for over a year now and they are finally something that is effortless (or at least effortless-ish) and beautiful. My body knows how to make them so that my uber-critical brain can take five. It was nice to see and feel this change after my week of defeat.
I will practice my buttercream flowers with the desire to be the person that I am, making buttercream flowers, not the BEST flower maker ever.
Just me, making failure, delicious.
Here is the buttercream recipe from class. It’s a pretty traditional buttercream so I’m not worried that I’m sharing any secrets from Cake Decorating 1. I made it at home a few days after class and found that it really is the best buttercream around. It’s not too sweet and stands up nicely to time and temp (that means that, even though it can become too soft and therefore difficult to work with if your kitchen is a bit hot, just pop it in the fridge for a bit and it stiffens again).
This is not the traditional recommended buttercream for piping roses because it uses all butter instead of a combination of butter and shortening. The sugar amount isn’t as high so it doesn’t become solid when dry, but I think it’s so much more delicious than most decorator’s icing, so I use it anyway. Also, I like to use a combination of vanilla and almond extracts but you can use anything from orange extract to framboise or rum to lemon juice, depending on the cake you’re frosting. The high fat content means it doesn’t accept color as much as other frostings but I used a little bit of raspberry syrup and made a lovely pastel color.
Swiss Merengue Buttercream Frosting
(enough to frost one cake)
- ¾ cups egg whites (using approximately 5 egg whites)
- 1 ½ cups granulated sugar
- 1 ½ pounds unsalted butter, room temperature
- 1 tablespoon almond extract
- 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
- Heat a couple of inches of water in a pot to a simmer over medium heat.
- Whisk egg whites and sugar together over simmering water until egg white mixture is hot to the touch and hits 140 degrees on a candy thermometer.
- Pour hot whites into bowl and use wire whip until doubled in volume on medium high speed. The mixture should not move around in the bowl.
- Cut butter into 2 inch pieces.
- Change the whip attachment to the paddle on the mixer and add half the butter. Pulse the mixer a few times, off/ on, off/ on to make sure the butter drops to the bottom of the bowl as it blends. Pulse a few more times. Add the remainder of butter and pulse again off/ on, off/ on. Turn the mixer onto the lowest speed and start to blend continuously, raising the speed one point every 10 seconds.
- Continue to beat until the mixture begins to look fluffy and light. Stop to scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl every once in a while to make sure there are no chunks of butter in the mix.
- Reduce the speed to low and add the flavor. Beat for 30 seconds and then raise the speed to medium and blend for an additional 60 seconds.
- Use immediately or place in lidded containers in fridge until ready for use. Can also be frozen for up to three months. Defrost completely for several hours and rewhip before using.