Friday, July 11, 2014

"Girl with the Red Hat"

"Girl with the Red Hat"
Bottom tier: Triple-layer Chocolate Cake with Chocolate Fudge Filling
Top tier: Triple-layer Red Velvet Cake with Vanilla Buttercream Filling
Hat: Sugar Cookie covered with tinted Vanilla Buttercream

A couple weeks ago we were in Washington DC.  Whenever we're in the Nation's Capital, I love to visit the National Gallery of Art on the Mall.  This wonderful museum is filled with very recognizable work as well as pieces from less mainstream artists.  It's a great museum to visit if you ever have the chance...and it's free.

In with the Dutch masters, there are a few paintings by Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675).  Of his work displayed, is an itty bitty beauty titled "Girl with the Red Hat." 

Note: Our oldest daughter has a degree in Art History.  When I asked her if this work is titled Girl with "...the..." or "...a..." Red Hat, she assured me either is correct.  Seriously, I've read it both ways and really hate getting this kinda thing wrong.

Anyway, so back at the soon as I laid eyes on that crazy red hat, I was like, "That's a cake."  And then I walked away.

The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to bake and create it.  But this project seemed too big for me.  I didn't know how to go about it.  What would be the interpretation?  How literal or abstract would such a cake look like?  Coloring is critical...and that's difficult for me to manipulate.

Nonetheless, I soldiered on.  And nearly every.step.of.the.way. I stopped and asked myself,
"Is this right?" 
"What do I do next?" 
"Is this idea too big?"
"What happens when this step falls apart?"

It's only cake.  I can always start over.
The first order of business was deciding on a cake base or stand.  In order to visually support a larger cake, the base needs to be broad and substantial.  I don't have any really large stands, so I put one together.  A dark base seemed to be a smart choice, but I didn't have a dark cake plate.  Instead, my Plum Fiestaware  Hostess Tray was pressed into service.  It was not ideal due to the ridges, but it was a good size and color.

Three layers of chocolate cake, 9" rounds.
Three layers of red velvet cake, 6" rounds.
A hat.  Made of anything I want to use.  Of course, cake would seem like a natural choice, but it wasn't my first thought.  Immediately upon placing a cardboard cake round on top of the pans, I thought cookie.  A hat as cookie sounds as reasonable as anything else in baking.  Of course the greatest concern is weight.  Between the cookie and the buttercream and placing it on a slant, weight was going to be critical. 
Note: I had my very own, From the Earth to the Moon, episode 5, "Spider" moment when all of my concern was focused on the weight of the design.  Tom Kelly, project engineer at Grumman for the Lunar Module, stated, "Weight's gonna be the most important factor. Of course, if we could find some teeny-tiny astronauts, we'd be done in a month."  But teeny-tiny cookies weren't going to help me. 

Our oldest daughter refers to my oven as an "easy-bake oven."
It's not much bigger, but I'm grateful to have it.
I tinted the sugar cookie during the mixing portion.  I thought
it would be helpful later on in case the buttercream was problematic.
When it came time to build, I was good during the crumb-coating.  I've done that often enough, however, anxiety ramped up as color-mixing loomed ever larger in the window.

The filling is a delicious chocolate fudge; I thinned it out with a
bit more cream for the crumb coat.


I didn't finish crumb coating the top of the red velvet since it needed to be carved just the right angle.

Initially, I thought the cut was too steep, but as I shaved it down and applied a layer of buttercream, I knew it would be just fine.  I was happy with the final results of this awkward carving.

I didn't have any navy blue coloring gel.  I used royal blue, delphinium blue, orchid, and two drops of black.  For the lighter tone, I stayed primarily with delphinium blue with a small bit of orchid.  I tried to produce a bridge tone, but just couldn't get it right.  I decided to stay with the two colors I liked and blend the best I could.  I was happy with the results.

I worked with the hair and skin tones present in Vermeer's work.  In the chaos that was the kitchen all day, I managed to make a small amount of chocolate ganache to add to the vanilla buttercream for the top tier.  I knew it would be much easier to work with chocolate instead of coloring gel.  And, taste better too.

And now to the red hat.  The centerpiece of this cake - without it, all I have it a two-tiered cake with a slanted roof. 
I worked on the red - I used liquid Red from McCormacks, Wilton's Red Red, and a small spoonful of the left over blue.  I might have added a bit too much blue, but that's ok.  The consistency was key - it needed to be quite stiff in order to hold a wonky shape, but stiffness also meant weight and again, this was worrisome.
It's sitting on a 12" cardboard cake round; this was necessary to displace the weight
and keep the cookie in one piece.  Perhaps later on down the road, I can let
my Freak Flag fly and just add a giant cookie without any support. But not today.
Only the top has been treated; the sides were done while resting on the cake.
Final construction, and everything could still fall apart.  And, by this point - I was tired.  I'd been two days baking and thinking.  Mostly thinking about what is my interpretation of this great masterpiece.

I'm a home baker.  I'm a cake decorating hobbyist.  I can't make my cake look like Vermeer's painting.  But I can make it look like my interpretation of his painting.  That gave me confidence to tackle the last portion of the build.  This is my cake informed by Girl with the Red Hat.

The are kabob skewers; I trimmed them down to about 4".
It was important to "pre-drill" holes in the cardboard before placing hat on cake.

The ring of white buttercream is a perfect mirror of the white collar seen on the girl in the painting.
I used my postcard from the National Gallery of Art as a gentle reminder and guide.
What happened when I was finished?  My life partner walked into the kitchen and was beaming with pride - I could just tell.  And, I was really happy with the results.  The cake ...went back to the cake fridge.
I'm grateful that when I catch myself on an idea that I can't release, my people support the crazy creative process.  Texting update pics to my family is the social equivalent of looking into the stands to see if someone is cheering me on.  They were.  They always have been.  Probably always will be.


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