I’ve made a lot of special cakes to celebrate birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, births, and even cakes simply for cake’s sake, but this cake was particularly exciting because it was for Neil Gaiman. What kind of cake to make for a world renowned writer with a delightfully dark, mind-bogglingly creative style? Just as I began to ponder this, the message that it needed to be a gluten-free was delivered. My excitement crumbled into a pile of dread, fear and bewilderment.
I have no experience with gluten-free baking and don’t even know the fundamentals behind this niche specialty. Though I was acutely aware of the real possibility of turning out a terrible cake, I wasn’t about to let this happen. I have an extensive tribe of food-obsessed friends and social media acquaintances and a handful of them are gluten-free specialists, so I started clicking around on their blogs to see what I could learn.
It was a post by Jeanne Sauvage, author of the blog Art of Gluten-Free Baking, about how she developed her Gluten-Free Flour Mix that made me think I could in fact pull this off. She is someone who loves baking as much as I do and shares the philosophy that baked goods are treats that should taste good rather than be healthy. I knew I was on the right track. Working with a fabulous chocolate cupcake recipe I’d just developed, I gave Jeanne’s gluten-free flour mix a try. What do you know? The gluten-free cake tasted great. Though the flavor was spot-on, I thought I could improve the texture by swapping out the brown rice flour for potato flour which has a smoother texture. Bingo! A little fiddling with the butter and oil ratios, which had more to do with converting a cupcake recipe into a layer cake than anything to do with the gluten-freeness of it, and I had Neil’s gluten-free birthday cake recipe. Drawing flavor inspiration from Dorie Greenspan’s Chocolate Caramel Chestnut Cake and Francois Payard’s Ardéchois with Chestnut Cream cake, the remaining elements fell in place.
Each layer of rich chocolate cake, three in total, got a splash of rum simple syrup and sandwiched a blanket of chestnut cream gently spiked with more rum for good measure. Stacked one upon the next, the three layers of cake and two cushions of cream were cloaked in dark chocolate ganache. Resting on a cake stand, the cloaked layers of cake and cream appear to be nothing more than a large puck of chocolate. Uniform in color and texture the appearance is unassuming as if to convey there is nothing of interest to see here, so please move along.
A few years ago we got into the habit of feeding Amanda Palmer and her accompanying musicians and performers whenever she happened to be performing in Seattle. In January of this year she married Neil Gaiman and the two of them put together a show and set off on a six-show West coast tour ending in Seattle. It was essentially a mashup of music and readings from the two of them that delighted all who were lucky enough to catch it. A few weeks prior we learned that Neil’s birthday was the day after the Seattle show and that Amanda wanted to present him with a cake on stage. So, one birthday cake was added to the catering menu and I started to ponder various design options. One glance at their tour poster, however, and I had my décor plan for the cake.
As life seems to go, this big project fell in a week packed with other activities and responsibilities. Though I managed to get started on the gum paste work early in the week, I didn’t have the luxury of being able to re-do things once I crested the gum paste learning curve. My infrequent gum paste encounters require me to revisit the entire learning curve each time. Of course if I remade the décor again this week, it would be 100% easier and better. I might even avoid dumping an entire container of gold luster dust on my left shoe and the floor. Imperfections be damned. I contend that intention counts for a great deal and the cake was tasty, which counts for even more.
When I was learning to quilt my sister-in-law gave me some sage advice about fretting over mistakes, “If you can’t see it from a moving train, don’t worry about it.” When it comes to making cakes to be presented on stage, I say if you can’t see it from the second balcony, don’t worry about it.
In addition to the cake appearing on stage, our living room sofa was part of the set and enjoyed center stage for the entire show. Yes, our living room sofa has cushioned the derrieres of Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman and we have the photos to prove it. Being newlyweds, they’re always smooching. We on the other hand have been married for 23 years, but can still smooch like newlyweds.
Happy birthday Neil Gaiman. It was such a pleasure to meet you and bake you a cake.