Flop Proof Vanilla Cake Recipe with Master Baker Mari-Louis Guy – for Woman & Home April 2014

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Accomplished food stylist, cookbook author and baker Mari-Louis Guy, shares some of her baker’s secrets with Ishay Govender-Ypma to achieve a flop-proof vanilla sponge.

I spend the night before my masterclass with Mari-Louis Guy, the Cake Queen, with butterflies in my tummy.  By all accounts, I can do a fair job in the kitchen. As long as it does not involve fancy plating and keeping too many things at an optimal temperature at the same time (20 perfectly poached eggs, for example), I am fine. I can’t admit to never having baked a successful cake or brownie, either. But I am no accomplished baker. It’s the chemistry aspect, coupled with a good few flops, such as the time I ambitiously used most of my wonderfully expensive cacao powder and farine (flour) bought in France in a cake recipe. Is it the fear of committing to exact measurements, the threat to the free spirit and non-conformist in me, I’ve had to ask.

I request that we bake a simple, go-to flop proof vanilla cake recipe that can be served at a tea with girlfriends or dressed up for a celebration. When Mari-Louis suggests a Hokey Pokey (honeycomb) Cream Cake, I’m really glad. I’ve made honeycomb before, and despite my best intentions to make perfect golden nuggets as a hostess gift, pack it into a lovely tin and eat half of it on the way to the dinner, a la Nigella Lawson, I failed miserably. The honeycomb burned, and I was left thinking that it isn’t as easy as it’s made to look

When I arrive at Mari-Louis’ house, she is preparing to move the very next day, and yet the kitchen is a food stylist’s dream, with an array of vintage and modern pastel-coloured appliances, utensils and crockery framing the space. She flings open her arms and greets me with a great, big smile and a warm hug, dressed in blue jeans and Converse sneakers. I relax immediately and we chat through the details of the recipe and how we will tackle it. I feel calm. “Just be fearless,” she says a few times during the morning.

Mari-Louis, who works in close collaboration with her brother and business partner, Callie Maritz, published this Hokey Pokey Cream Cake, inspired by an American friend, in their first cookbook, Cakes to Celebrate Love and Life.  “It is so versatile – you can style and decorate it in a hundred ways. It stays fresh for a while so you can make this the day before.” This appeals to me greatly, as often I start preparing for a dinner in the late afternoon, and I know how quickly those two and a half hours fly by. If the cake can be made the night before, I’ll be able to present it with nothing more to do when guests arrive, than whipping the cream.

I explain an account of previous baking mishaps, and Mari-Louis smiles kindly as she dispenses her golden rules for flop proof baking. They are as follows: 1. Read the recipe twice, measure your ingredients carefully, bake once. 2. Preheat the oven as you start to measure the ingredients. 3. Always line your tins with baking paper, even if the recipe does not state this.

cake by Maggie Austin. Dress up the Vanilla cake anyway you see fit

cake by Maggie Austin. Dress up the Vanilla cake any way you see fit

She goes on to explain that baking paper is not wax paper, and the latter will burn. Sometimes Mari-Louis uses a silicon baking mat at the bottom of a tin. I think of the cakes I’ve made before that have gotten stuck despite thinking I’ve adequately greased the pan. I make a note to look out for silicon mats.

As we measure the ingredients, Mari-Louis spends some time explaining the importance of getting it right. I’ve always thought myself conscientious, but realise that my ‘creative meddling’ with the quantities could be the reason I’ve had some mishaps. The trick is to have two sets of measuring cups and spoons handy – one for wet ingredients, the other for dry. “If you give the measuring cups for liquids a little coat of non-stick cooking spray before you start, it will help oils and such not to stick,” she shares. The next important thing about measuring is to be accurate. Deadly accurate, if you can. If you don’t have an electronic scale, you need to practice levelling your measuring cups in order to stay consistent.

While the room-temperature eggs and sugar are whisking in the stand mixer, an essential piece of baking equipment, says Mari-Louis, though you could also use a handheld beater, she explains how to know when the eggs are ready. “Speeds vary on mixers, so your eyes are still the best judge. It must be a very pale yellow, light and airy and closer to a creamy colour than the yellow of butter,” she says. Eggs are easier to work with at room temperature, and must be as fresh as possible for the best results.

This cake uses a hot milk and butter mixture. Before we mix the milk into the flour and egg batter, we test to see if it’s cooled down sufficiently. If it’s cooled enough to insert a finger without burning, it’s ready.

When the batter is mixed (a gentle stir at the end), we pour it into the pre-lined tins. Some baking paper brands have useful circles traced out in the circumferences of the different tin sizes, so you can effortlessly cut the correct size without taking out a compass. This is fantastic news, to me.

Because we use three tins to bake the layers (this way we don’t have to bother with fiddly cutting of layers), it’s important to ensure each one has the same amount of batter. We use an electronic scale to measure the exact quantity of batter. You could also use the measuring cups. This means that the three layers, in Mari-Louis’s large oven, can be done all at once and will be ready in around 25 minutes.

Before we place the tins in the oven, Mari-Louis gives each one a little shake and bangs it lightly on the counter. This will help to dislodge any air bubbles and give a smooth, even finish.

While the cakes bake, we tackle the honeycomb and Mari-Louis selects a well-used deep heavy-bottomed pan. This is essential because the mixture can burn if the bottom is too flimsy and the height is required, as it will foam up when you add the bicarb.

“I made a conscious decision to make baking easy in my books, so I don’t prescribe sugar thermometers and gadgets that the average baker might not have at home,” she says. It’s important to select the right golden syrup as the colour of the syrup determines the colour of the honeycomb. A dark-hued syrup makes judging when it is ready difficult.

“Always wear oven gloves,” advises Mari-Louis, “A hot sugar burn is the pits.”

There is a sense of satisfaction as we pour the honeycomb over a silicon mat and press the hazelnuts into it. Also, the aroma is so tempting, I steal a few shards as we bash it with a rolling pin.

When the layers are cool (this happens much quicker than with a single large cake), we whip up the cream, again in a stand mixer. Mari-Louis offers some of her food styling tips in suggesting cab, or artificial cream as a reasonable substitutive. “For friends and special occasions, I only use fresh cream,” she says. “But, I always keep a bottle of cab cream handy. It is a non-dairy cream, very stable, almost impossible to over-whip, and is vegan friendly too,” It’s hard to argue with that.

There is just the layer of baking to paper to remove off the cakes (they are completely cooled) before we can assemble them.

If the layers are not as perfect as you hoped, Mari-Louis, who opposes any waste, offers this advice, “Dust the cake liberally with icing sugar or cocoa powder as this hides any imperfections. Think of it as base make-up!”

There’s a magical feeling of accomplishment in the air as we decorate the cake with layers of cream, berries and a crown of hazelnut-studded honeycomb. If this was my birthday cake, I’d be extremely pleased.

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Mari-Louis Baking & Styling Tips 

 1.    Baking as relaxation is best done alone, with music in the background. Decorating is better with company

2.    For baking with kids, you need a chair to get them level with the baking process, a little lesson as to what we are doing, and maybe a fun decorating competition.
3.    Three things to always have in stock– vanilla pods, buttermilk and butter
4.    Baking spread is more economical for baking larger batches. But even when using these, I still grease the baking tins with real butter. It still imparts that lovely buttery smell.
5.    Most cakes will bake with a slight dome in the middle. For a homely, homemade look, leave it as is. For elegant, more professional looking cakes, invert the cake and present it with the flat part on top for a perfectly level cake.
6.    Invest in a beautiful cake stand in a neutral colour, then decorate it with colourful ribbons such as will suit the occasion.

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Books by Mari-Louis Guy and Callie Maritz

Cakes to Celebrate Love and Life – Baking only with the focus on celebration cakes

Cakebread Pudding & Pie (aka Sugar&Spice in Australia) — Baking only but with a mix of sweet and savoury

Love&Food ( On commission for Food Lover`s Market) — Wholesome recipes with some lovely twists and combinations

Make Give Sell- Focus on the those lovely dishes that you would find at slow food neighbourhood markets, street food from around the world, church fetes etc.

Cooking for Crowds-  We scaled up our favourite recipes to serve 12, 25 and 50 people for those wanting to entertain big

She can be found here as well: https://www.facebook.com/pages/CakebreadMari-Louis-Guy-Callie-Maritz