I have two confessions to make...
1. I didn't trust anyone to make my birthday cake this year.
2. I also didn't trust myself to make a cake from scratch either.
Yes, it's true. I can't make cakes from scratch, at least not a delicious moist, cake with a light, fluffy crumb. Sadly, every time I attempt a cake from scratch it turns out dense and dry. I follow cake recipes with surgical precision, and I take care not to over bake them, but still I'm disappointed. And, when you're celebrating another year of your life lived, well, you don't just want to leave the cake making to chance.
So really the only reasonable solution was to make a boxed cake, but to trick it out so no one will pay any attention to the fact that without Betty Crocker I'd be a culinary flop.
It also just so happened that I had recently watched an inspiring episode of The French Chef with Julia Child. The episode was entitled "Gateau in a Cage." The concept of a caged cake was at once strange and dramatic, in other words, perfect for my birthday. A caged cake is a cake encased in a domed netting of caramelized sugar. The sugar is crunchy like toffee, but has a richer caramel flavor.
It looks like this:
You all know how much I heart Julia Child. But I especially love her when she gives inspirational speeches regarding spun sugar. In this episode, while she's waiting for the sugar, corn syrup, and water mixture to come to the boil and caramelize, she says, "People are scared of recipes that have spun sugar. They think OH! I couldn't do that. This is one of those awful American syndromes of fear of failure. If you're going to have a sense of fear of failure, you're just never going to learn how to cook. because cooking is--well lots of it is--one failure after another, and that's how you finally learn. For instance, you have got to develop an "I-don't-care-what-happens" attitude." She continues on with her little lecture, waving her fist in the air for added emphasis, "A souffle can fall, omelets can go all over the stove, but I shall learn. I shall OVERCOME. That sort of women's liberation."
How could I not believe I could conquer spun sugar after that?
It starts out simple, really, with 1 cup of sugar, 1/4 cup corn syrup, and 1/3 cup water. These boil together on high heat for about 5 minutes, or until the faintest touches of caramel color begins to show. Then it's taken off the heat and allowed to cool. The syrup mixture gets darker and darker as it cools. (The first batch I made was overdone and had a slightly scorched taste, so I made another...)
The mixture cools until it thickens enough to drizzle well. Then, using a spoon, I drizzled the mixture over a buttered mold, which in this case, was a Pyrex casserole dish a cake pan.
Then, the cages cool slightly before they're removed from the molds.
If you aren't incredibly careful, they will shatter and make a big mess like this one:
Then, I made a third batch of caramelized sugar...
In the end though, I had a beautifully encased German Chocolate Cake filled with homemade coconut pecan frosting and topped with dark chocolate ganache.
When serving time came, I got to crack the cage. If you listen carefully you can hear my friend, Scott say, "I didn't even realize those covers were edible until you broke them."
I'm a year older and a year wiser. Wiser knowing that cooking, sometimes, is several failures after another. Which means, I think I'm finally smart enough to try making cakes from scratch again. And maybe by next birthday, I'll have cake baking from scratch mastered. Maybe.