The Joker (featuring Hazelnut Cloud Cake with German Buttercream Frosting)
When I was a little girl, I despised cake frosting. Every October, as my birthday approached, my mother would trek all over New York to find a cake that wasn’t spackled with cloyingly sweet “butter” cream that was probably more shortening than butter.
Somewhere in the back of a closet, there is a shoebox full of sepia-toned pictures of me, birthday princess, forcing a smile through my annual disappointment, a plate of only-one-bite-taken cake in my hands.
Frosting is basically sugar and butter. How could something with such delicious possibilities wind up tasting like a pharmaceutical putty thats aftertaste would haunt my tongue for days? I can still taste that dissatisfaction, that wrong sweetness- so close to pleasure but so, so far.
About a month ago, I was hired to cater a birthday party with 16 guests. This was the biggest multi-course, table-service meal I’d catered since the pandemic began and my passion went to battle with my anxieties. The client was a self-proclaimed foodie and loved my extensive menu choices from which she designed her own.
The dinner would begin with a few appetizers while guests enjoyed the client’s gorgeous backyard. When she gave me her zip code, I expected her house to be the same mini-manse that I cater in all the time, with identical wood cabinetry, marble countertops, shiny stainless-steel appliances. We’ll just call them clone homes. They’re beautiful and expensive, just not my style. They are all the same.
But not this house. This was more of a sprawling farm-style home with acres of land and a massive, well-tended vegetable/ herb garden. The guests were led through the open living room/ kitchen into the courtyard where magnolias, honeysuckles, and hydrangeas were bursting at their stems. My masked waitstaff passed wild mushroom parcels with leeks, thyme, and aged gruyere; endive spears with blue cheese and candied pecans drizzled with a balsamic reduction; and grilled shrimp with a spicy paprika red pepper dip.
I was in the kitchen chopping romaine heads for the Caesar salad that would be waiting on the table when the guests entered the dining room. My staff had lined the 16 salad bowls on the counter so that I could easily plate the lettuce and croutons once they were dressed and then grate some fresh parmesan on top. Panting nervously into my mask, I wasn’t thinking about salad. I was thinking about the broken buttercream in the client’s fridge.
I misrepresent myself (to myself even) as having very little ambition. The success that I desire is wanting to continue to perform well at a job that I’m in love with. I don’t need to be the best, the richest, the most famous anything. But these days that means you’re ambitiousless. Clients frequently ask me, “So do you someday hope to own your own restaurant?” Or “Maybe someday you could have a cooking show on tv! Or a line of your own cookware!” I don’t ever respond with, “Why can’t I just be happy doing this job?” because it sounds like I’m stuck no matter how true it is. It’s hard to convince people you’re living your dream when you’re splattered in sauces, dusted with flour, and so tired you can barely stand.
My overdrive to succeed only truly rears its head when I start thumbing through cookbooks and websites for recipes. That is the moment when my ego whispers in my ear, “You could make this better than anyone has ever made it EVER!!”
When I worked with this client on her husband’s birthday menu, I was overtaken by her excitement. People trust me with such important nights in their lives and when I get to know them, the pressure mounts for me even more. I want to give them a night of food and service they’ll never forget.
She chose my hazelnut cloud cake as the birthday cake which is a gently nutty, extremely light cake that I usually make with a simple buttercream frosting and drizzle of chocolate sauce. But suddenly my social media feed was full of German buttercream recipes touting, “best frosting ever” “this recipe changed my life” “I’ll never go back to regular buttercream!” and I couldn’t deny the temptation.
German buttercream frosting is pastry-cream based. That means that you make a sweet eggy, milky custard hours before you make the frosting. Then you whip a lot of butter into submission, adding the sweet cooled custard one spoonful at a time to produce a delightfully rich, sweet, butter orgasm. I mean, frosting. Sorry, I lost myself there for a second.
Following one of the recipes I’d found closely, I watched as the paddle of the Kitchen Aid melded the butter with the custard beautifully, magically, perfectly, and then suddenly – blammo – broken buttercream. This happens when the butter is too cold. Or too hot. Buttercream is the emulsion of (butter) fat and (sugar) solids which blend perfectly around 72 degrees. At the wrong temperature fats and solids become unstable and don’t form a bond. It looks like curdled milk. Not smooth and shiny, but chunky and wet. I’ve managed to revive a broken frosting by warming or cooling the buttercream down. I tried both those techniques that morning but the frosting remained broken. Why hadn’t I tested this recipe before my gig? I was too ambitious, too cheap, and too sure of myself. My last resort was to pray to the catering gods that some culinary miracle would occur in the hours between prep and dessert. A lot of food issues sort themselves out over time. Walking away is often the best solution.
One of my servers walked around the empty table filling glasses with ice and water, the other server placed salads at each setting. Dinner was announced as I started to line up dinner plates in the same manner as the salad bowls, pulled the potatoes from the oven, and reduced the sauce for the entrée. The happy guests devoured their salads and then blissfully inhaled my porcini-crusted filet of beef with a red wine reduction, crispy roasted smashed potatoes, and herbed asparagus.
“I need to work on dessert in a more private space,” I whispered to my staff as they managed the dining tables from afar. I snuck the two layers of birthday cake, a whisk, a metal bowl, and the broken frosting onto the patio where there was a table no one could see. I began to whip. Still broken. Whip faster, harder, Alison! My arm was cramping, sweat running down my spine. It wasn’t working. I placed the bottom layer of pastry on the cake board and slathered it with frosting. They won’t notice the break between the layers, I thought. I carefully set the top layer on the frosted bottom layer and started to smooth it all with buttercream. It looked awful. I was as breathless as a marathon runner on the 25th mile.
I had baked a small cake in addition to the big one to cover the 16 person guest count. Soon the guests would be expecting the presentation of a big beautiful birthday cake along with singing and candles, the whole shebang. I quickly decided I would use the small cake for the presentation and that I would cut the big cake into serving pieces before the big moment so that no one would see this mess. Turning the corner into the kitchen with the two-layer cake in my hands, the top layer flew off as if I had frosted it with homemade KY jelly. The little girl in me wanted to throw that cake against the wall and have a full-out tantrum… but of course, I couldn’t. I managed to catch the top layer before it hit the floor and got it to the most secluded corner of the kitchen. Possessed now, I started cutting the cake into slices, setting them onto plates, piping rosettes of whipped cream, drizzling chocolate sauce over the layers, and dotting the plates with berries, huffing into my mask, beads of sweat becoming rivers at my hairline. 16 plates done as well as I could, I ran back onto the patio. I grabbed the bottom layer of the small cake and covered it very lightly with lubey frosting (I should say here that it was ugly but still delicious). Then I set to work adorning that little pastry round with pipettes of whipped cream, more berries, more sugar, more chocolate sauce. I was jamming a few white birthday candles into the slippery confection when one of my servers peeked his head in and said they were ready for the big moment.
I took a deep breath, stuffed my mask in my pocket, lit the candles, and started singing,
“Happy birthday to you…”
The birthday husband gave me a strange look for a millisecond, but everyone was singing and laughing, and soon so was he.
“Happy birthday to you!” I finished loudly, probably off-key but I was committed to this moment. I set the cake down for the candle blow-out. The group erupted with whoops and applause and I stepped back into the kitchen.
“You got this? I need a minute.” I said to my servers, pointing to the plates of cake ready to be placed in front of guests.
“Of course, chef, of course.”
I snuck into the bathroom where I could be alone. Feeling too dehydrated to cry, too shaky to forget, too weak to see anything but failure, I started to focus on how I would deal with the client when she complained about the cake. I could give her a big discount, basically comp the cakes. That’s the right thing to do. I’ll take a lot off the bill, I thought, so she’ll know how sorry I am. I’ll head her off at the pass, suggesting the discount before she even mentions the disaster. That’s what I’ll do, that’s the right thing.
I stood up and went to wash my hands. I looked up at the mirror to see the beautiful Russian Red Mac lipstick I’ve worn for years smeared all around my mouth.
“Oh my god…”
I realized that I had put my lucky lipstick on before arriving at the party site and then put my mask on (the client had gone out of her way to tell us masking wasn’t necessary, but we thought it was more responsible to wear them). Amid all the frosting chaos, I must have nervously smeared bright red lipstick beyond the heart shape of my mouth, making me look like the most maniacal, serial killing, happy birthday singing chef you’ve ever seen. I started to laugh at my Joker face and couldn’t stop as I rubbed the crimson stains off my cheeks, nose, and chin.
“Screw it. I’m only human.” And as I let myself off the hook, I felt the night shift.
I walked back out to find the cake plates empty.
“You have absolutely outdone yourself!” the client said. The group erupted again into applause – this time for me. “This meal was incredible!” “The best! “Outstanding!”
Had they seen my crazy lipstick-smeared face? Had they known about the broken buttercream and all my attempts to fix it? Did they have any idea that I was going to refund a huge portion of the cost because I thought I’d screwed the whole thing up?
Well, let’s just keep that to ourselves, ok?
I don’t know how I got away with it, but the client was thrilled. Sometimes you need a reminder to stop taking yourself so seriously.
My fascination with German buttercream frosting didn’t go away after that gig. I did some research and some testing and have created a German buttercream all my own. Many German buttercreams aren’t very sweet at all and some add granulated sugar into the pastry cream as well as powdered sugar into the butter. I’ve chosen to go all granulated sugar to make a very sweet pastry cream whose sweetness is tempered by the butter. It’s really good and cannot be used to fill cracks in your drywall. Enjoy!
Hazelnut Cloud Cake with Vanilla German Buttercream Frosting
- 3 eggs
- 1 cup sour cream
- 1 teaspoon almond extract (or hazelnut extract if you can find it)
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 1/3 cups sifted cake flour
- ½ cup finely ground hazelnuts
- 1 1/2 cups sugar
- ¾ teaspoon baking powder
- ¾ teaspoon baking soda
- ¾ teaspoon salt
- 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened but not melted
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 9-inch cake pans with parchment rounds and then grease and lightly dust them with flour.
- Mix the eggs, sour cream, almond extract, and vanilla extract in a small bowl.
- Mix the flour, nuts, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in the bowl of a mixer. Blend for a few seconds and then add the butter 3 tablespoons at a time and egg mixture by the thirds alternating between the two while mixing on medium speed. After a couple of minutes all the ingredients should be mixed together. The butter chunks might still be visible but should not be larger than ¼ inch. Another minute will take them down, but don’t blend too long because butter cakes that are overmixed can wind up dense.
- Pour batter into the two prepped cake pans and bake for 35-40 minutes, testing with a toothpick for doneness (if the cake is fully baked, the toothpick will come out clean after you poke the cake).
- Allow cake to cool before frosting.
German Buttercream Ingredients
- 1 ½ cups sugar
- 3 eggs
- 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
- ¼ cup cornstarch
- 1 ½ cup whole milk
- 4 sticks salted butter (preferably European style butter), taken out of the fridge 20 minutes before blending
- In a medium bowl, whip the sugar, eggs, vanilla, and cornstarch.
- In a medium-sized pot, bring the milk up to a simmer and then cut the heat. Slowly whip the milk by the tablespoon into the sugar/egg mixture. You do not want to scramble those eggs so go slow! When half the milk has been added to the sugar/ eggs, you can pout the milky/ sugar/ eggs back into the pot with the remaining milk. As more hot milk was added the possibility of the eggs cooking was diminished. This is called tempering.
- Turn the heat back on under the pot with the sugar/ egg/ milk mixture, stirring constantly. When it comes to a simmer, cook it for 2 minutes longer.
- Pour the pastry cream into a wide cool bowl and lay a piece of plastic wrap on top (this will help it not form a skin). Let it cool in the fridge for at least 2 hours.
- In a clean mixer bowl, beat the 4 sticks of butter for about 5 minutes. Slowly add the pastry cream by the tablespoon. If the pastry cream and the butter are approximately the same temperatures, they should blend easily and not break. I recommend sticking a clean digital thermometer into the butter and the pastry cream. You’re looking for 72 degrees so you can adjust with a timeout in the fridge or the counter to fix. I also recommend using a higher fat quantity butter, meaning a European style butter instead of your average American butter. There are times to be cheap, but when dealing with buttercream, treat yourself. It’s worth it.