It took a few attempts, but I finally landed on just the right texture and flavor for a beautiful “naked” wedding cake, one with no dairy.
My wedding present to an incredible young woman I’ve known since she was an adolescent was to make her wedding cake. It is a great honor to be asked to create something so important for that festive day, and Mariah made things quite easy by asking for a simple cake without a lot of fussy ornamentation –– just flowers and fruit. In fact, she wanted a “naked cake” which is quite popular right now, and for good reason –– they are unique, beautiful, and usually enhanced with fresh and vibrant flowers and fruit, giving them a more natural appearance.
There’s always a twist!
There was a twist of course, the cake had to be dairy free! No butter, no margarine, no milk or milk product of any kind.
My first thought was that I was glad it was not gluten- or egg-free!
The cake was to be vanilla, with raspberry and coconut buttercream filling. A delicious combination. The top bride’s tier would be a coconut cake I made for her engagement party and she loved it.
Back to basics
The first attempt was my mother’s standard yellow cake with a little extra vanilla to bump up the flavor. I used a vegan margarine, but all I could find in my regular market was the whipped version, so I carefully weighed it before adding to the recipe thinking that was all I needed to do. I used soy milk in place of the dairy milk.
“All the practice cakes did not go to waste. One cake was happily consumed by some musicians who were staying with us during our local music festival. The rest was boxed up and sent to our drop-in center for dessert one lunch time. A couple of pieces were consumed in house…”
When the cake was done, it was really moist, more moist than usual, but it did not rise properly. It was heavy. Two days later, it actually tasted better, but the texture was dense and grainy. Not a good wedding cake candidate, and it didn’t taste like my mother’s cake.
Take two. Next, I tried a shortening cake from that product’s website. All I’m going to say about it was that although beautiful, it was so dry, no amount of sprinkled syrup could revive it.
Cake three was an all-oil cake from a Depression-era cookbook. This one had a better flavor, was quite moist and I thought I had hit the right formula. However, although the smaller layers came out great, the largest layer fell in the oven before I had even opened the oven door! The outside was quite brown and the inside was pretty raw.
After consulting with my daughter, the family baker, we decided the oil batter was probably too heavy for a layer of this size.
While shopping for other ingredients out of town (at a larger store), I came upon the same vegan butter in a traditional, dense stick form (like regular butter), not the whipped version. I decided this might work better.
Back to basics, again
Back to my mother’s recipe, substituting stick vegan butter and coconut milk for the regular ingredients since the frosting was going to be a coconut buttercream.
This time, it worked! The cake rose nicely, browned evenly, the largest layer did not fall, and all was well in the world. Off to the freezer the layers went.
A couple of days later, trying to figure out how much filling I would need for this “naked cake,” I pulled out a copy of “How to make the Perfect Wedding Cake” that I probably should have read first. It indicated that when baking a large layer of 12- or 14-inches, I should use a “cake heating core” a little metal cup that is placed in the pan before filling with batter, and then filled itself with batter. The little cup cake will be a plug in the resulting hole. There is also a cake heating core that looks jut like a flower nail that heats the batter in the middle of the pan more quickly, thus rendering the cake more stable. Who knew?
Talking to a friend the day of the wedding, as I was commiserating about the fallen cake layers, she told me she used the cake heating core when she made her daughter’s wedding cake. Did everyone in the world know about this funny little device except me? It sort of looked like the cups of a popover tin, I could certainly see how this little contraption would be just what was needed. (photo right).
When I made the cake, I deviated a little from the recipe in addition to the dairy substitutions. I warmed the coconut milk gently and added a split vanilla bean for each batch to bump up the vanilla flavor. I also swapped out vanilla bean paste for the regular vanilla to enhance it even more (the paste has the flavorful little bean flecks in it). I also added just a touch of almond extract, which, I’m told, is traditional in a wedding cake. My last swap was to use cake flour rather than all-purpose flour simply because I always do!
The hardest part of making the cake was calculating the number of batches of batter I would need to make each layer and how how long to cook each. Math has never been my strong point, so I will spare you all the intricacies of how I was able to reach the right volume for each layer –– this is because at this point, I really don’t have a clue. I just kept making more batter than I thought I would need, then making a little more, and eventually I was done!
I also knew the only way I could transport this cake would be in layers and assemble it on site. This was possible because the bride requested a “naked cake” which means no fussing piping of frosting or smoothing of fondant on the outside, just layers of cake and lovely layers of raspberry jam and coconut buttercream (also vegan) decorated with fresh fruit and flowers.
My daughter suggested begging some pizza boxes from the pizzeria in town (can you tell who the real baker in the family is?). This worked out wonderful to transport the cake to the production room of the winery where the cake was to be assembled.
Although I would assemble it on site, it would have to be moved by the caterers to the reception tent. My son assisted by creating a large plywood base with legs so that fingers could be easily placed under to pick up and transport. It worked like a charm!
My biggest worry about the cake (in addition to it toppling over) was that it would dry out. There is no frosting on the outside, and once assembled would sit out for hours before it was cut. In addition to using simple syrup to soak the layers to keep them moist, I also brushed the syrup all around the outside of the layers, and it worked splendidly. When I tasted the cake at 9:30 in the evening, it was still beautifully moist!
Now, full disclosure here, I’m not a cake lover. The way I usually eat cake is to scrape off all the frosting and take one bite of the cake. But this one, I ate two bites, frosting and all, and really liked it!
Four tiers and eight layers later (not counting the “oops!” ones) I learned an awful lot about baking cakes and I’m grateful for the opportunity to gain this knowledge. It was the biggest cake I’ve ever made, and I think just about anything else I’m apt to create will be smaller in scale, but I’ll be armed with a bit more understanding of the cake baking process. The final assembly, level in hand and armed with a large mallet for driving the large dowel through the cake, was a blast! As my daughter predicted, the decorating part was my favorite of the process!
Non-Dairy Wedding Cake
The challenge: make a wedding cake without dairy. No milk, no butter, not even margarine because these all contain some kind of dairy element. The results? A really delicious, moist wedding cake with tons of vanilla flavor and lovely texture. Weigh your flour when baking cakes, it is more accurate especially if the weather is really humid, which it has been here all spring.
For each batch, you will need:
- 8 oz. coconut or soy milk, 1 cup, 227 g.
- 1 plump vanilla bean pod, split
- 12 3/4 oz. unbleached cake flour, about 3 cups or 360 g
- 2 1/2 tsp. baking powder, non-aluminum
- 1 tsp. salt
- 8 oz. vegan “butter” 2 sticks, 227 g.
- 10 1/2 oz. sugar, 1 1/2 cups, 300 g.
- 4 large organic eggs, room temperature
- 1 tbsp. vanilla bean paste
- 1/4 tsp. almond extract
Preheat the oven to 350°F.
Butter two 8” round cake pans and line with waxed paper. Butter the paper too, then flour the interior, shaking the flour around until the entire surface is coated. Tap out excess. This is what my mother always did, and her cakes never stuck. Insurance.
Gently warm the coconut milk over medium low heat. Add the split vanilla bean and set aside to cool.
Mix together the dry ingredients: the flour, baking powder, and salt. Sift and set aside.
Beat together the butter and sugar until light and well blended. Scrape down the bowl and begin adding the eggs, one at a time, blending in well between each addition.
Add the vanilla and almond extract, and blend well again.
Beginning and ending with the flour, on low speed, add the flour mixture alternately with the milk (remove the vanilla pod) and blend between each addition: one-third of the flour, one-half the milk, second third of the flour, last of the milk, last of the flour. You will see this procedure often in assembling a cake batter, and it is important that you do this slowly.
Scrape down the bowl, and mix only until the lumps are gone and the batter just smooth.
Divide the batter between the two pans. I use a scale for this to keep them even, but you can eyeball it if you wish.
Give them a good tap on the counter to release any air bubbles that are trapped in the cake. This is another important step if you want a nice even grain to your cake. You will see the little bubbles come to the surface.
Place the cakes on the middle rack of the oven and set the timer for 30 minutes and take a peek. They should be starting to brown. They will need to bake for probably another 10 minutes more.
The cakes are done when they spring back when gently touched and a toothpick in the middle comes out clean with maybe a crumb or two attached. The house will smell like cake, the sides will be just pulling away from the pan, and, if need be, you can take the temperature with an instant read thermometer –– 206 to 210 degrees, no more or the cake will be over baked.
Let the cakes rest for 10 minutes, then invert them onto a wire rack to cool completely and remove the paper.
Level them up with a serrated knife if they domed in the middle. If you are making this ahead of time, wrap tightly in plastic, then cover tightly with foil, and put in a zip-lock bag. They freeze beautifully!
Moisten them: Make a simple syrup (1 cup of sugar and 1 cup of water boiled for a minute or two until the sugar is dissolved, then cooled). Brush this on each layer to help keep it moist. I flavored mine with another vanilla bean. Use any leftover in iced tea!
Assembling: If you are making many batches and assembling a wedding cake, give yourself a break and split up the tasks into two or three baking sessions, and do the baking ahead of time and freeze the cake. To assemble, there are several good sties on line that give tips on using dowels and straws to stabilize the cakes and keep them from shifting. I watched Martha Stewart’s instructions when she was on Julia Child’s baking series: Baking with Julia.
“Magic” Coconut Italian Buttercream
This is my new favorite buttercream. It’s magic because you don’t boil the sugar and add it to the whipped egg whites. In this version, you combine egg whites and 10x and then add the butter slowly. Instructions in this technique I found online were nicely textured, but either too sweet or much too buttery. I fiddled and came up with just the right proportion to use with the cream of coconut.
This frosting is not overly sweet, spreads and decorates beautifully, and has very little hands-on time, just a lot of time with the mixer running. It also held up well on a hot day, even after the wedding cake was placed in the sun by the caterers!
The vegan butter works beautifully in this if someone has a dairy allergy and cannot use butter.
- 4 farm-fresh, large egg whites or 4 ounces organic pasteurized egg whites
- 220 g 10x confectioners’ sugar (about 3 cups)
- ¼ tsp. salt
- 1 tsp. vanilla bean paste
- 1 tsp. coconut extract
- 2 ounces coconut cream
- 14 ounces unsalted butter or 3 ½ sticks
Combine the egg whites and confectioner’s sugar in the bowl of a standing mixer. Combine until the mixture is completely blended and takes on a glossy appearance. You will have to scrape down the bowl a couple of times.
Add the salt, extracts, and coconut cream and blend again for a minute.
Cut the butter into chunks, about two tablespoons each, and add slowly with the mixer on medium. Let it blend in before next addition.
When all the butter is incorporated, turn the mixer on high and set the timer for 10 minutes.
Use immediately, or refrigerate. If refrigerated, bring to room temperature and refresh by whipping again until smooth. You can also freeze this; thaw in the refrigerator, and refresh.
Vanilla buttercream: Omit the coconut cream and increase butter to a full pound. Omit the coconut extract, and double the vanilla extract or use vanilla bean paste.
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