If life were as forgiving as fondant, maybe all of us would feel just as picture perfect as Joan Grunzweig's custom-made cake toppers look.
"That is the wonder of fondant," the Niwot baker said Thursday after demonstrating how to make tiny poinsettia's from the sugar product that she rolls and cuts like gingerbread dough.
"If you make a mistake, you can ball it up and start all over. And believe me, I have done that many times," she added.
Her journey into telling fanciful stories through sugary mediums began in the mid 1990s, when, Grunzweig, who operates Joan's Petite Sweets, built her first gingerbread house over the holidays.
Two later creations eventually showed up in Good Housekeeping's photo spread on the subject and got even more mileage last month when the magazine published a roundup of top gingerbread houses. Her creations, photo No. 27 and photo No. 42, both made the magazine's Nov. 15 online story: "50+ Cutest Gingerbread Houses to Make Over the Holidays."
But for all that national recognition, Grunzweig since has shifted her creative direction to smallish sweet nothings.
Truffles. Brownie blossoms. Cake pops. Cupcakes.
This year, though, she could not resist adding sugary bling — fondant poinsettias with exactly six yellow nonpareils in the center of each one — to a Jumbo dessert, at least by her usual bite-sized standards. Her red velvet cheesecake serves 14-16 and in itself gives bakers bored with the usual holiday treats something to show off at parties.
Grunzweig said the trick to getting the cake's red velvet base layer to support the dense cheesecake layer in the middle is all about keeping it chill. Cold cake can take the weight that would flatten it at room temperature, she said.
So, her tried-and-true method calls for overnight cooling to set both types of cake and then limiting room temperature to the serving time. While this means no cake stand for this beauty, its brief time at the table still will accomplish her mission -— adding interest to desserts through exquisite details (e.g. the yellow nonpareils in the center of the poinsettias).
To this end, she shapes her fondant with some fancy cookie cutter-looking tools; presses in textures with imprint mats; tosses shimmer by dabbing a fine paintbrush with Luster Dust; and places dragees -— the french word for tiny, decorative hard candies — in just the right spots.
But for all her fussing, the retired elementary school teacher used plain speak to explain her creative triumphs.
"It is persistence. You have to be persistent. Five years ago, I could not do what I do now. But I practiced with fondant almost every day," Grunzweig, 66, said. "But the best thing I can say is, 'Go for the taste first.' If the cake doesn't taste good, it doesn't matter how good it looks."
Joan's Red Velvet CheesecakeFor red velvet cake:
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 tablespoon red food coloring (paste)
1 tablespoon white vinegar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 1/4 cups cake flour
1/2 cup baking cocoa
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk
1 3/4 cups sugar, divided
4 8-ounce packages cream cheese, softened
3 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 cup heavy cream
2 cups sour cream
For decorative poinsettia cake toppers:
About 1 cup red fondant
About 1/2 cup green fondant
About 1 teaspoon bright yellow nonpareils
Directions: For red velvet cake: In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in the food coloring, vinegar and vanilla. Combine flour, cocoa, baking soda and salt, and add to creamed mixture alternately with buttermilk. Pour into two greased and floured round, 9-inch springform pans also lined with parchment. Bake at 350 degrees for 35 to 40 minutes or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean. Cool for 10 minutes. Then, run a knife around pan edges before removing to wire racks to cool completely. Seal each cake in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
For cheesecake: Butter a round 9-inch springform pan and line just the base with parchment paper. Beat cream cheese, 1 teaspoon vanilla and 1 1/2 cups sugar until smooth. Add eggs, and beat until just combined. Add cream, and beat until just combined. Pour batter into the springform pan, and bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Then, without opening the oven door, reduce heat to 250 degrees and bake for another 30 minutes or until the center is set.
Combine sour cream, 1/4 cup sugar and 2 teaspoons vanilla. Spread evenly over top, and bake another 30 minutes at 250 degrees or until set. Cool cheesecake on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Then, run a knife around the edge of the pan to loosen. Cool 1 hour longer. Then, seal in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
For poinsettias: To make six to 10 decorative poinsettias for the cake, begin by using a fondant rolling pin to roll out a thin layer of green fondant -— preferably Satin Ice fondant, but Wilton fondant works fine — on a silicone pastry mat. Start rolling with your hands centered on the rolling pin, and then gradually move them toward the ends of the rolling pin.
Then, with a calyx flower cutter of about a 2-inch diameter, cleanly stamp the pattern in the green fondant to use as the poinsettia leaves. Also, use this cutter for the next two layers of red petals before switching to a smaller calyx flower cutter to create the topmost layer of red petals.
Then, stack them -— beginning with the leaf base — in a pinwheel that fans leaves and petals evenly. To make the flower layers stick together, use a water pen very sparingly or carefully add droplets of water to make the layers stick together before the fondant sets up over the next 10 minutes. Note: If you would like to add more dimension to stem and petal layers, you can use a flower former -— a shallow white plastic dish that adds that depth -— as you arrange the shapes cut from the fondant.
Finally, with your finger gently press a shallow well in the center of the fondant poinsettia. Add a droplet or two of water there before adding about 6 yellow nonpareils and gently pressing them down before the fondant firms up. (To view Joan Grunzweig's demonstration video on how to make decorative poinsettias, visit the video page at dailycamera.com.)
Cake assembly directions: After chilling both cakes well -— this step is critical -— gently shear off the mounded top of one of the red velvet cakes to create a more level surface. Use that cake as a base for the cheese cake. Then top the cheesecake with the second red velvet cake. Frost the entire cake then with your favorite frosting before adding interest to the top and the base with the fondant poinsettia decorations.
Chill cake until serving, and chill any leftover cake, too.
Makes 14-16 slices.
Pam Mellskog can be reached at 303-746-0942 or firstname.lastname@example.org.