Goblins and ghosts are one thing at Hallowe’en, but a full-page glossy photo of Rose’s Great Pumpkin Cake is in quite a separate realm of terror. If you plan to make it, that is. Or, more specifically, if you’ve rashly promised to take that very cake to a Hallowe’en party in full knowledge of the fact that you have never before made either a caramel crème anglaise or an Italian meringue, and that these very tasks now lie between you and the burnt orange silk meringue buttercream that covers this cake so smoothly and so beautifully in that horrifyingly daunting photo on page 127 of Rose’s Heavenly Cakes.
Not only did I promise this cake to my friends and hosts for Hallowe’en this year, but I felt doubly bound to attempt this cake in gratitude to Rose for having very kindly lugged the pumpkin-shaped cake pan halfway across the world in her baggage for me earlier this year.
“I can’t wait to see the look on your children’s faces when they see this cake,” she told me. What she didn’t tell me was that I would be required to boil a supersaturated sugar solution not only once but twice during the process of making the cake’s burnt orange silk meringue buttercream.
Well, there wouldn’t be much for my children to look at unless I somehow managed to overcome my fear of boiling sugary syrups.
When broken apart and concentrated in a supersaturated solution, sugar molecules are unstable. They want to come back together again at any chance to return to their previous crystalline structure. An unclean pot, any jarring or stirring of the supersaturated solution at the wrong time, can send them back to their original crystalline pattern and dry state, crystallizing the mixture and ruining the whole candy batch. (From Baking 911)
I am in awe of anyone who can successfully make fudge and toffee in their home kitchen. When I phoned my Mum several months ago for a bit of motherly sympathy after yet another batch of my fudge crystallized and crumbled, she helpfully told me about the wonderfully shiny, brittle toffees and smooth, creamy fudges she remembers her Gran making for her when she was a little girl. Thanks, Mum! Grrrr.
Perhaps I have the wrong sort of sugar. My sugar has either overly-friendly or pathologically co-dependent molecules that stubbornly stick together regardless of the care I take to keep them apart. I must have sticky sugar. Yes, that’s it – I definitely have the wrong sort of sugar.
Or perhaps I have the wrong sort of weather …
It was procrastination rather than thoroughness that led me to read and re-read Rose’s instructions multiple times through on Saturday morning. The cake itself had baked beautifully the day before and I even tried to convince myself that it would look fine just sandwiched together with a bit of marmalade. After all, once it was covered in buttercream, you wouldn’t be able to see those lovely pumpkin grooves anymore.
In my heart of hearts though, I knew what I had to do. With trembling fingers, I carefully placed my super-sensitive sugar into the centre of a saucepan and poured the water around it. I drew an ‘X’ through the sugar and ensured that not even one single crystal dared to venture stickily towards the edges of the pan. I stirred as the sugar dissolved, I held my breath as the solution boiled … and I watched helplessly as the caramel crystallized.
Some kindly spirit must have had the worms’ best interests at heart because the whole thing wasn’t quite such a disaster the second time around and I was finally able to set aside my burnt sugar crème anglaise and turn to the Italian meringue.
This time, I managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by knocking the saucepan as my super-clear, supersaturated solution was boiling. Despite being so depressingly frustrating, it was actually quite a mesmerising sight watching the crystals starting to form so insidiously in one section of the pan, then rising and falling on the boiling crest of the sugary bubbles as they linked hands with increasingly more of their crusty friends.
How time flies when you’re boiling sugar. I had donned my apron that morning at 10.30 am. It had only taken me five hours to successfully get my burnt orange silk meringue buttercream ready for slapping on the cake!
As I painstakingly applied lines of darker orange to mark the segments of the pumpkin’s outer skin, M watched me thoughtfully.
“Is it supposed to look like a pumpkin, Mummy?” she eventually queried. I think she must have inherited her knack for saying the right thing at the right time from her Granny😉 .
I only had a short time left now before the witching hour, which was when I risked having my pumpkin turn back into a coach if it was still unfinished (magic can be a tricky thing at Hallowe’en). My twirling cocoa tendrils and garish, green marzipan leaves were still a little floppy, but I arranged them artlessly on top of the cake before jumping into my witch’s dress and cape. I grabbed hold of my broomstick, a couple of little witches and an even smaller warlock, and we all set off together down the street with the Great Pumpkin Cake in tow.
No Hallowe’en party would be complete without an unearthly danse macabre …
… and a suitably ghoulish feast.
And the Great Pumpkin cake?
It was delicious – moist, subtly spiced and perfectly complemented by the smoothest buttercream I have ever had the pleasure of rolling around my tongue. Every forkful was savoured with relish …
… right down to the last crumbs.
Although Melinda and I are self-confessed Fallen Angel Bakers, you can see further renditions of the Great Pumpkin Cake by members of the Heavenly Cake Bakers group this month as they work their way through all of the cakes in Rose’s book. My thanks go to Marie for steering the project – it was certainly encouraging to know that I wasn’t alone in my buttercream trepidation!
You might also like: