Cakes are to Roni Smith what a canvas is to a painter: a platform upon which to unfurl her creative imagination.
Although she’s been decorating cakes for only about a year, Smith shows a talent that goes beyond her tenure. Both in eye appeal and in general yumminess, Smith approaches cake baking and decorating as both a science and an art.
“When I was younger someone got me a piping kit so I could practice,” Smith explains about how she became interested in cake decorating.
“And I didn’t do it much for a lot of years, just because I’ve got kids and it’s a mess.”
But in the past year or so, friends and families started to request that Smith bake a cake for some special occasion. Then her latent talent in colors, designs and baking began to emerge.
“I like crafts. I like to scrapbook, I like to draw — all that sort of stuff. But I don’t think that’s where it comes from, though. If I can sit down and decorate cookies for an afternoon, you know, you can make everything pretty.”
Smith said the freedom of being able to create with cake batter and icings is what inspires her.
“I’ve got this one thing and it can be any size I want, and any color I want and I can decorate it,” she said.
Smith, 39, grew up in Lewiston, where she still lives, and learned candy making in a 4-H club when she was a girl. She’s never taken a cake-baking class, but she’s fascinated by pictures of fancy cake making and interested in stories other bakers tell of their experiences.
When she once saw a picture of a cake with flowers piped on the sides, she decided to try it.
“But I ended up covering the whole thing in flowers — my own flowers, not somebody else’s flowers. So I usually just gather ideas from a lot of different sources, and then I do my own thing. It’s how I cook, too. I’ll read five recipes, and then I’ll do what I want. So the same goes with cakes.”
One of her more recent creations was a champagne cake she made for her husband’s grandmother’s surprise 80th birthday party.
After reading other bakers’ suggestions about using either straight champagne in the cake batter or imitation champagne flavoring, Smith decided to try both. She invited a neighbor over to do the taste testing.
“I tested a champagne cake recipe a couple weeks in a row. The key is to read what other people are experiencing and how they’re doing it, and then I kind of take my own experience and do what I think will be the right thing.
“If you read other people’s recipes and their blogs they’ll give you, like, their tips and their experience: ‘Here’s something that always works and here’s something that can always throw you off if you get this part wrong.’ So I like to gather as much knowledge as I can and then, based on my experience, just incorporate what other people are teaching.”
In the case of the champagne cake, Smith and her neighbor concluded a mixture of real champagne and imitation champagne flavoring gave the best result. It has, in fact, become Smith’s favorite cake.
“I’m thinking I’m just going to do champagne cake all the time,” she said. “It’s just really light. You don’t think champagne immediate (when you taste it) but it has a little bit of an aftertaste that reminds you of sipping on champagne.”
When she made the frosting for that cake, she used salted butter and a tiny bit of strawberry flavoring.
“So it wasn’t overly sweet, and it had this little hint of strawberry with the champagne. It was just perfect.”
Her experiments don’t always turn out perfectly, however. Things such as weather, humidity and the inside temperature of the house can all factor into cake making and result in something less desirable. Smith recalls a wedding cake she worked on for 17 hours. A thunderstorm boiled up and ruined three batches of icing before she got the result she was hoping for.
But even the disasters aren’t a total loss. Smith and her husband, Richard, have four children: Maddisyn, 17; Lilly, 13; Rylee, 10; and Matthew, 6. And when the cake doesn’t turn out like she wants it to, the family helps clean up the mistakes.
Smith has worked as an internal consultant for Regence Blue Shield of Idaho for 13 years and said, even though she loves making cakes and trying out new flavors and techniques, she doesn’t plan to give up her day job to do it professionally.
“I call it my side hustle, but it does not pay,” she said.
Basic Butter Cake
1 cup butter
1½ cups granulated white sugar
½ teaspoon salt
3 cups flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1¼ cups liquid (milk, water, fruit juice, sparkling wine, etc.)
1 tablespoon vanilla extract (substitute other flavors as needed)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Use any cake pan, or cupcakes. For best results, line the bottom of your pans with parchment paper and lightly mist with nonstick cooking spray.
Beat butter in a mixer on medium; add salt and sugar. Next dial the mixer back to low and add one egg at a time, increase the speed to medium until fully incorporated. Sift flour and baking powder together, and ready your wet ingredients. With the mixer on low, begin incorporating your dry ingredients and wet ingredients, alternating to keep the batter uniform. Scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl to ensure nothing missed the beater. Give it one more mix with the beater if needed.
Divide the batter equally between your prepared pans and bake for 15 minutes before checking, rotating and ensuring you are getting a level bake. Continue baking until done. (Check the internet to find standard baking times for your cake pan and watch what your oven does. Weather, inside temperature and individual ovens all play a role in baking, so I suggest learning the quirks of your home.
2 pounds powdered sugar
1 10-ounce package mini-marshmallows
3 tablespoons water
½ to 1 teaspoon flavoring, if desired
Empty bag of marshmallows into a microwave safe bowl, pour in water and microwave for 30 seconds. While this is heating, use your hands to coat a scraper/spatula with coconut oil. Use that scraper to stir your marshmallows.
Typically, I place the marshmallows back in for an additional 30 seconds; you are seeking a melty marshmallow consistency. Once you have stirred the marshmallows a second time and most all the marshmallow lumps have melted away, add flavoring, (this is also the best time to add color if that is what you need).
Next begin to incorporate the powdered sugar, I typically add ¼ cup at a time and stir. I keep doing this until it starts to form a cohesive blob. Next I turn the mixture out onto powdered sugar on my work surface, coat my hands in coconut oil and begin kneading and incorporating the rest of the powdered sugar. (Don’t worry about the bits or the sugar stuck to the bowl. You have enough.) You likely will not use all of your sugar; just knead the fondant until you get a nice, dry consistency like Play-Doh. Roll this in a ball and place it in a zip-close plastic bag with a bit of extra sugar and store overnight. I try to prepare my fondant 1 to 2 days ahead of my planned decorating date.
5 egg whites (room temperature)
Flavoring, if desired
1 cup white granulated sugar
1 pinch salt
1 pinch cream of tartar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 pound butter, room temperature
NOTE: I recommend using a stand mixer because of the time and work involved. An infrared thermometer is also a lifesaver. Before getting started, understand that at certain points, this buttercream is not going to look right. You are going to think it is ruined and typically, that is not true. Stick with it and it will be beautiful and delicious.
Begin with water and ¾ cup of sugar in a small saucepan, stirring until the sugar dissolves, This is the only time you stir the sugar. Put the stove on medium heat while you start your egg whites. The egg whites should be in a clean mixing bowl, with a clean and dry beater. Additional moisture, soap residue, or the tiniest bit of egg yolk can ruin your meringue, so be diligent here.
Beat the eggs on medium and add your pinch of cream of tartar. Turn burner up to high and check the temperature. Mixture should reach 235 degrees. Egg whites should be getting fluffy, but no peaks yet. Begin to sprinkle the remaining sugar into the eggs. Watch the egg whites carefully; they should begin to get shiny. Keep checking the temperature on the syrup.
As soon as the syrup reaches 235 degrees, turn off the burner and carry the saucepan to your mixer. Turn mixer to low, and begin slowly pouring a thin stream of sugar mixture down the side of the bowl into the edge of the egg whites. Do not let the sugar stream hit the beater, and do not incorporate the hot syrup too quickly. Keep the stream slow and steady.
Once all the syrup is in the egg whites, check the temperature with infrared thermometer. The mixture likely will be in the 100 degree range. Turn mixer on high and mix for a few minutes while prepping the butter.
Monitor the mixture’s temperature; it needs to be 80 degrees before adding butter. The butter, which should be about 70 degrees, should be cut into small cubes that can be incorporated one at a time.
Once meringue reaches 80 degrees, begin adding pieces of butter. Keep monitoring temperature; if it drops below 70 degrees, pinch the butter as you add it to warm them slightly. The buttercream may look a little curdled as the final stick of butter is added, but it will come back together.
After all the butter is incorporated, turn the mixer to high and mixture should fluff up. If it isn’t fluffing up, it might be too cold, so turn the mixer to medium and hold a hot washcloth to the bottom of your bowl. Depending on how cold the icing is, you may need to rewarm the washcloth. Keep whipping and warming, and frosting will come back. Other frosting revival tips are available online. This buttercream will stay fresh for a few days at room temperature, a week in the refrigerator and also can be frozen.
World’s easiest white chocolate buttercream
1 12-ounce bag white chocolate chips
2 cups butter
Place butter in a microwave safe bowl, and cook for 30 seconds. Add bag of white chocolate chips, and microwave for an additional 30 seconds. Mix, and then, if needed, melt further in 10 to 15 second intervals. You want to be able to stir the mixture until it is smooth, but you do not want the butter to break completely.
Set it aside and stir occasionally as the mixture cools to room temperature, about 30 minutes. Once it is at room temperature, it should be a smooth creamy consistency; place it in the refrigerator for another 30 minutes, then whip it with a hand mixer prior to use. This buttercream can be refrigerated or frozen, but, to be workable it needs to be just below room temperature. If you would like to incorporate another flavor (I like strawberry), feel free just after melting.
Hedberg is a longtime Tribune reporter who loves to cook and bake. Anyone who has recipes to share, or knows of someone who's a whiz in the kitchen, may contact her at email@example.com or (208) 983-2326.