Ever find yourself confused by cake jargon? As a cake professional, I have been guilty of accidentally using pastry terminology on unsuspecting clients, who were usually too shy to ask for definitions!
When ordering a cake, you might find yourself facing a list of sponge flavors, and another list of fillings, and sometimes a third list of frostings, too! Instead of opting for good ol' fruit cake to avoid complicating things, read on!
Let's start by looking at cake sponge, where we usually start when choosing a flavor combination. There are several types of sponge:
Pound cake: an American classic, dense, yet tender and moist.
Butter cake: the most common type of cake used in celebration cakes, strikes a balance between a sturdy structure, and a tender crumb.
Chiffon: An egg-and-sugar base cake, with a little butter or oil. Very light and airy, but not ideal in celebration cakes due to not being firm enough to bear the weight of fondant.
Genoise: Similar to a chiffon cake, except no fat is used. Although very light, the sponge can be a little dry on its own, so it's often syruped to add flavor and moisture.
Angel Food Cake: A fat-free sponge made with egg whites, sugar, and a little flour. Not a popular choice for celebration cakes, again due to being too fluffy to support fondant.
Hybrid Cake: Some bakers won't acknowledge this exists! Basic techniques from two types of cake are combined to produce a cross-breed. This is my go-to cake type for wedding and celebration cakes, which results in a lighter cake than butter cake, but with enough structural integrity to hold itself together under the weight of decorations.
Angel Food Cake. Notice the white, spongey texture. Photo courtesy of joyofbaking.com.
Now, let's discuss how flavor is added to these basic vanilla sponges.
Extracts: such as almond, lemon, mint, lavender, orange, cherry, and of course, vanilla.
Chocolate: in the form of cocoa and/or dark, melted chocolate. A slightly denser texture results from the addition of melted chocolate.
Fruit: pre-soaked dried fruit is added to a traditional fruit cake, while stewed, caramelized apple is added to an apple cake. You can also fold in any soft fruit, such as blueberries or raspberries. Care must be taken not to let the fruit sink to the bottom. Fruit syrup, jam, or juice can be used to flavor a sponge.
Basic ingredient substitution: molasses for soft brown sugar, sour cream for milk, almond flour for a portion of the flour, etc.
Vegetables: Shredded carrot makes carrot cake, and the juice in the carrot results in a very moist, very tender crumb. Other vegetables are sometimes used, such as beetroot or courgette.
Spices: cinnamon, ginger, all-spice, cloves make the spice blend found in gingerbread cake.
Coffee: most chocolate cakes contain a small amount of coffee, which enhances the chocolate flavor. Coffee can be added in the form of espresso powder, or as a brew.
Nuts: more a texture enhancer, but also add a nice, earthy flavor.
Once a sponge flavor is decided, you now have to marry it to a nice, complementary filling!
Some flavor combinations are well established. We know that chocolate and strawberry go well together. We know that carrot cake calls for cream cheese buttercream. Your cake maker has this knowledge, and would be able to advise you. Check out this link to see how I recommend flavor combinations.
Buttercream is the most common filling for a celebration cake for a few reasons. First, it is stable at room temperature, meaning it won't spoil for a few days outside the fridge. Second, it won't melt or fall apart, causing destruction of a tall, beautiful cake (provided you don't leave it in the sun on a hot day!). Third, it is highly versatile, and can be custom-flavored to your imagination!
There are several types of buttercream:
American buttercream: made with icing (powdered) sugar and butter or shortening. Commonly used as a cupcake frosting. Quick and easy to make, but a little gritty.
Italian and Swiss Meringue buttercream: made with egg whites, which are heated through the addition of boiled syrup, or over a direct heat source, with butter added once the eggs are cooled. This results in a silky, smooth, shiny, and stable buttercream.
Cream Cheese buttercream: sometimes made with block cream cheese, sometimes with mascarpone. Sometimes other flavors are added, such as lemon zest, chocolate, or raspberry syrup.
Smooth American buttercream: Eggless buttercream, where the icing sugar is dissolved prior to the addition of butter. This is the type of buttercream I like to fill my cakes with, as it achieves both lightness and a silky texture without the addition of eggs.
Photo courtesy of www.lollipopcakesupplies.com.au
Sometimes the term "mousse" is used to describe a filling that is not technically a mousse. Typically, a mousse is a flavored, whipped egg white and cream combination. However the term gets thrown around to describe any fluffy filling that has a lower fat ratio than buttercream. A Swiss buttercream can be turned into a mousse by reducing the amount of butter and folding in whipped cream. A mousse in a celebration cake must be firm and stable at room temperature.
Jams and preserves add a layer and depth of flavor difficult to achieve with buttercream alone.
Sugar syrup, flavored or plain, is sometimes added to each cake layer to keep it moist during the lengthy process of decorating. I always drizzle my cakes with syrup, and the resulting sponge melts in your mouth!
Whipped cream is not stable at room temperature. It melts and spoils easily, therefore never used in celebration cakes.
Sometimes creative additions, such as cookie dough chunks, Oreo or Digestive crumbs, fresh fruit, chocolate chips, chopped nuts, crushed candy, coconut flakes, and many more fun ingredients are folded into buttercream to add another dimension of flavor and texture.
Once the cake is baked, syruped, and filled, it is time to apply the ganache coat. Ganache is simply chocolate and cream that are melted together and left to cool to a spreadable consistency. When applied to a cake, the ganache hardens and forms a protective seal around the cake, locking in flavor and moisture, and adding its own rich, creamy, chocolate taste to the cake. It also creates straight lines and edges, leading to clean and polished application of fondant: the final layer on the cake.
Warm ganache = heaven!
Traditionally, buttercream was, and still is used to cover a cake under fondant. Sometimes a layer of marzipan was applied, as well. However, modern cake decorators have realized that ganache is far more reliable. Ganached cakes don't yield to temperature fluctuations, and will remain completely unaffected for hours on a warm day.
So there you have it! Cake types and flavors deciphered!