Fifteen years ago, during a spirited conversation with Nathan Fong, I told him: "If you ever get married, I will be glad to make your wedding cake." Fast forward to December 2014. Woody and I were working on our computers when I received an email from dearest Nathan, to which my reaction was something like this: "Woody, Nathan is getting married... wants us to make his wedding cake... will fly us up to Vancouver....what? January 16th? We cannot possibly do that in less than a month.... I'm emailing him right back, to say --no!" Nathan quickly replied to my reply, with: "it's not January 2015 it's a year later"! Nathan's choices were a chocolate cake for Michèl with the addition of raspberry for him. He assured me that there definitely would be no more than 250 guests at the dinner. He also told me that birch trees were to be the theme for the wedding decor. Woody and I decided to make the Deep Passion Wedding Cake from Rose's Heavenly Cakes, with the added enhancement of raspberry in the cake and the frosting, which would be ganache. For the birch theme, the cake was to be decorated with the "Meringue Birch Twigs" from The Baking Bible. It was a year of testing, planning, spreadsheets, confirmations, laminating our recipes, and crossing our fingers, before we flew to Vancouver, Canada for what was to be an extravaganza wedding and a celebration of food event. Nathan is a renowned, world-class food stylist and event planner. He had pulled out all of the stops for planning his and Michèl's wedding. Michèl, in addition to having been a pastry chef, is also an event planner and talented decorator. Going to Canada meant that virtually all of the ingredients and equipment had to be supplied by Nathan and his staff. We arrived on a Monday night to Vancouver's typical winter weather--raining and in the mid 40's F. One of the biggest challenges of baking in an unfamiliar location is always the oven. How will it bake our cakes? Especially since, we were making 9 cakes from 6 inch rounds to 18 by 12 inch sheet cakes.
Tuesday, our first day, was coordinating with Naomi Horri, Nathan's invaluable assistant, on what she was able to acquire, Vin, the Sutton Hotel's restaurant pastry chef, and Jason Pitschke, the special event pastry kitchen's head pastry chef. We immediately made two tests of our 9 inch round cake to evaluate how the oven baked. We saw that we had a big problem. The commercial Blodgett convection oven always needed to be in convection mode as we were told that the heat would not circulate without it. For the first cake, the savory chef advised us to bake at the same 350°F temperature that we normally use. This may work for savory cooking but it was another story for the cakes. The porridge like batter for this delicious cake, which magically mushrooms just a few minutes toward the end of baking, was instead getting blown to the back of the pan by the oven's convection circulation and higher heat. This made the baked cake lopsided. (We later discovered, after gradually decreasing the temperature, that the oven needed to be set a full 50°F under the usual temperature.) Our solution to the uneven layers was, when sandwiching the layers, to reverse the two same size layers so that from the outside they looked perfectly even and level. Fortunately, the 18 by 12 inch sheet cakes ended up being only slightly off kilter and the final one, baked at the proper temperature was perfect. Our next 10 hour long 3 days were spent racing between the two kitchens, baking the cakes, brushing the cakes with ganache syrup, frosting the cakes, and what would become a fingers crossed all day adventure--the making and mounting of the birch meringue twigs. Humidity is the enemy of meringue, and effectively capable of turning crisp meringue columns into bending, collapsing spires. Our solution was to attach them to the ganache-covered cake the morning of the wedding but in order to keep them from absorbing moisture from the ganache, we painted each of over 200 meringue twigs with melted white chocolate. We made double the number we needed not only to allow for breakage but also for plating along with the slices of cake from the sheet pans. Vin, the pastry chef for the hotel restaurant, did a beautiful job of cutting and plating. He starts his work day in the wee hours of the morning so needed to cut and plate the cakes 6 hours in advance of serving. Miraculously the cake stayed perfectly moist! photo compliments of our new friend from Milan, Italy: journalist Isabella Radaelli Speaking of breakage, we learned an important lesson about ganache. The cream available in Vancouver is 36% butterfat and our recipes are developed with 40%. Because some of the usual amount of cream was replaced by raspberry purée, more butterfat was needed. Pastry chef Jason ended up adding quite a bit of extra cream, emulsifying it with his immersion blender, and saved the day. Our evenings were spent at Nathan's planned events and meeting old friends including many from the International Association of Culinary Professionals where Nathan had been a board member. Nathan also scheduled me for an early morning (pre baking) radio interview on Vancouver's CBC Early Edition radio program with legendary host, Rick Cluff. He was also to be Nathan's emcee for the reception. We didn't want to miss the wedding ceremony that was to be held at Christ Church Cathedral, the same Church where Nathan's parents had been married 57 years ago. So to be safe, we decided to affix the birch twigs before the 11:00 am wedding. The night before the twigs were perfectly crisp and firm, but the rainy morning of the wedding, to our horror, we found them in a softened marshmellowy state. Fortunately, our assembly took place in the reception lobby where the room was air-conditioned. To dry out and stiffen the twigs to keep them standing tall, as they would be in a forest, on our three-tier chocolate "mountain," Woody acquired two fans from housekeeping. The cake was intended to be the centerpiece to greet the over 450 guests as they arrived from the church. We left for the church, where we were spellbound by the grandeur of the wedding ceremony, until the moment near the end when I was summoned by the event planner to take a phone call concerning the cake. We quietly but quickly left the church to attend to some of our falling timbers due to the air-conditioning and fans having been turned off. Though we had moisture-proofed the backs of the meringues, the fronts were still able to absorb moisture from the air. Even as the reception guests were arriving, Woody was running back and forth from the Bride's room to replace some of the twigs while I was uselessly wringing my hands. Then came the next unanticipated drama when a few of the guests wanted to touch the twigs. One guest even managed to pull one of them off, which Woody calmly replaced, as I shrieked NO! In order to be able to join the rest of the guests who were enjoying everything from crispy pork belly sandwiches, to fresh oysters, to geoduck, we secured a hotel staff member to guard the cake with strict orders to slap any meringue-twig-seeking hands. Along with our cake, Nathan had orchestrated a Who's Who of 20 chef-friends from all over the world to serve their best at several tables at the afternoon reception and later for the fantastic 8 course black tie wedding dinner with excellent wine pairings. We breathed a major sigh of relief when Nathan and Michèl finally arrived in time to see the wedding cake still in perfect shape. There were many delightfully engaging speeches, a Chinese tea ceremony, a Japanese fan dance, and finally the cake for Nathan and Michèl to cut and feed each other their first pieces as a married couple. The following day we enjoyed a tour of the city by Barry Rector, Nathan's gregarious high school music teacher, followed by giving a fun talk and book signing at "Barbara-jo's To Cooks Bookstore," an impressively elegant cook books-only bookstore with demo kitchen for classes and talks. We brought some of the wedding cake to add to the two chocolate cakes already on display before an attentive group of baking lovers. I was so happy to meet Tee Jay, one of my Vancouver blog masters, in person. Barbara-jo's assistant Janice did an excellent execution of the tricky Marble in Reverse cake from the "Baking Bible" and pastry chef Kamel made the challenging cover cake from "Rose's Heavenly Cakes." The glaze looked perfect which did not surprise me when I discovered he had worked at Robuchon in Paris, one of the best restaurants in the world. Our last stop was at Jackie Kaiellis's divine "Beaucoup Bakery." She had laboriously sourced all of the many special ingredients for the cake. We were treated to a sampling of her pastries and were also given a box of goodies for our next day's flight home. We departed filled with happiness and joy, carried on the wings of a week of being surrounded by the most supportive and loving people imaginable. And we were so gratified to have succeeded in producing a cake of our dreams for a long-time friend who is the soul of generosity, and our newer friend, his husband Michèl Chicoine, who is clearly his soulmate and equal. The Cake Details The Cake: Deep Chocolate Passion from Rose's Heavenly Cakes, brushed with: Milk Chocolate Ganache Syrup from Rose's Heavenly Cakes, flavored with Raspberry essence from Mandy Aftel's Aftelier, frosted with: Raspberry Ganache from Rose's Heavenly Cakes, adorned by: Meringue Birch Twigs from The Baking Bible.