When we’re out for dinner or being treated at a particularly posh bakery, we seldom give thought to the work and precise technique that went into the sweet treat we’re munching. After savouring every morsel of its delectable sugary goodness, we emerge from our food coma only to utter the words: how did they do it?
Cooking desserts is a tough gig
And for good reason: cake decorating is finicky, pastries are incredibly technique sensitive, and everything often takes a lot of time to make. Not to mention all the creative energy that goes into conceiving new recipes, and the artistic flair in making them look amazing. After all, enjoying dessert is not only a feast for our stomachs, but also for our eyes.
If we’re going to treat ourselves to a delicious slice of cheesecake, you better believe that it looks as exquisite as we imagine it will taste. It’s a harsh butter cream and fondant world out there, but one that is almost always colourful and delicious.
But not to worry: there are plenty of ways us mere mortals can brush up on our baking skills and take on recipes made to look easy by masters. After all, they had to start somewhere too. We’ve put together a list of the seven most difficult cakes to challenge the budding baker and pastry artist. Can you cut it?
These coloured mites are the treat célèbre of the moment. Colourful, adorable and bite-sized, their soft meringue exterior crumbles almost too easily into their smooth, creamy filling once they’re safely in your mouth. Unfortunately, making them is hardly as simple.
The trickiest part is getting the meringue shell right. Each individual shell should be frail, crisp and smooth, so the baking process can be quite long and drawn out. To make them smooth and shiny, you’ll need a steady hand when piping out the mixture.
Getting the meringue mixture right is pretty technique sensitive, too. Some chefs say that the eggs you use will need to be at least two weeks old, whilst the egg whites themselves will need to sit out in room temperature for 24 hours before you can even think about whisking. Sugar also needs to be pure, powdered and fine. Remember that eggs are amongst the most important, yet temperamental ingredients you can bake with, so be gentle when whisking, folding and straining.
2. Baked Alaska
A sponge cake base, topped with ice-cream and then coated with meringue, all of which is baked? In theory it sounds like a good idea. First, you’ll need to make a sponge cake that you’ll need to leave out for a while so that it gets slightly dry or stale. Then, you’ll need some ice-cream in whatever shape you’d like to make (usually in the form of a log, so that once you slather meringue all over it, it forms a kind of dome) on top of said sponge, and stick both in the freezer for a while to ensure they’re really, really cold.
Then you need to coat your entire creation with meringue mixture, whisked to soft peaks, and bake it for around five minutes. Yes, you heard me correctly: you’ll need to bake ice-cream. For extra credit, try to flambé it.
3. Chocolate éclairs
Like most other French pastries, getting choux right can be tough. Choux pastry is high in water, which makes it light, crisp and airy when cooked correctly in the oven. Once exposed to dry heat, the water turns to steam, which causes the pastry to rise in volume. Making the mixture is simple enough: you’ll need to combine water and butter over heat before adding flour, then beat until the dough comes clearly away from the sides of the bowl. Then, you’ll need to add in beaten eggs, and mix until the dough forms a thick and shiny paste.
The trick here is getting the paste smooth: eggs are high in protein, and if beaten too quickly can curdle. We’d suggest using a wooden spoon to mix it all up, and being careful to use even, consistent strokes when you’re adding in new components. Once baked, gently slice each éclair in half and pipe in the custard filling.
If ever there was a word to strike fear into the hearts of amateurs and masterchefs alike, it is soufflé. Whether it’s your first of seventh soufflé, our hearts can’t help but skip a beat when waiting to see if they’ll collapse upon being taken out of the oven. Whilst soufflés come in different flavours, the basic gist of each is the same: make a base, fold in whipped egg whites, and put it in the oven. Again, the troublesome part of this process is getting the eggs just right.
Eggs at room temperature will work best, and will curdle if you whip them into the mixture too hard. It might take a bit of extra time, but be sure to fold in the egg whites gently, and only to the point where you can no longer see any white streaks in the mixture. We felt like we weren’t mixing hard enough when we tried it, but voila — the finished product was the best we’ve ever made!
A croquembouche is a traditional French wedding cake, and is made up of little choux pastry balls that are filled with custard cream, and typically held in place by toffee, chocolate or some other kind of sticky icing. If you’d really like to be fancy, use some spun sugar to adorn your delicious pastry tower.
The trouble with this dessert is twofold: making the pastry itself, and constructing the thing once the balls are ready. Our first few attempts at making choux balls left much to be desired because we piped the balls into shapes that were too flat, so they didn’t rise well. The paste should be quite thick if mixed correctly, and so will be able to stand up on its own when you pipe it out vertically. Balls that were taller and narrower generally came out a lot nicer!
Constructing this masterpiece is near impossible if you don’t have a cone or base underneath the stick the choux balls onto. We used some flat cardboard that was recommended by our local bakery.
This layered cake is sometimes called Germany’s ‘king of cakes’. Hollow and made on a spit, it’s iced with some chocolate or sugar. The inside of the cake looks a bit like the rings of a tree, which explains its name: ‘baumkuchen’ literally translated means ‘tree cake’.
It might be a little trickier to make this cake at home since most of us are unlikely to own a cake spit. Traditionally, the cake batter is poured onto a rotating spit and as each layer browns slightly, another layer is poured on. This is how the cake’s distinctive rings are formed. However, you can make a non-spit variation of the cake by pouring layers of batter into a pan, and then baking each layer for about 3-5 minutes separately in your oven. Once it’s brown, add another layer and bake it again.
We’re not going to lie — before writing this article, we had no idea what phyllo pastry was. Then we learned it was also called ‘filo’ or ‘puff’ pastry (and had seen it in the Sainsbury’s freezer plenty of times before), and that plenty of people will tell you it’s not worth making from scratch. But as with anything homemade, we think it’s worth the extra effort if it will make your creation taste better.
Baklava is a traditional dessert in the Middle East and the Mediterranean, and has slight variations depending on which country you’ve lifted the recipe from. Generally speaking however, baklava is made of buttered layers of phyllo pastry and ground nuts, then drizzled in sweet syrup.
Combining the ingredients you’ll need to make the dough seems simple enough, but the constant processes of beating and stretching can seem a bit daunting if you’ve never done it before. Make sure you have a large working surface to stretch out your pastry—trust us, you’ll be surprised just how far it will go.
Itching to enter the scrumptious, sugar-coated world of baking, cake decorating and cookery? Whether you want to wow your friends with cute cupcakes or learn how to pull pastry, we’ve got a course that will most definitely tickle your fancy.
Monica Karpinski received her BA (Media and Communications) and Diploma in Modern Languages (French) from the University of Melbourne, Australia. An art and culture aficionado, in her spare time Monica enjoys film, reading and writing about art.