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The cakes of summer

(article, Zanne Miller)

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Ah, summer. The cookouts, the picnics . . . the cake? 
Not one of my avid cake-baking friends, when asked, listed “cake” at the top of their summer dessert lists. They chose pie still warm from the oven, or fancy fruit salads, or fresh berries served with whipped cream or ice cream or sorbet. But cake? Nahhh.


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Some cakes, of course, just seem wrong in summer. As much as I love German chocolate cake, for example, the mere thought of making one on a hot day is about as appealing as an itchy wool sweater. Too hot in the kitchen. Too labor-intensive, when I’d rather be outside. Too heavy with all that butter and chocolate. And after five minutes on a picnic table in August, it’s a swampy brownish blob surrounded by wasps. 

But some cakes make regular summer appearances: strawberry shortcake, of course, and the berry-topped flag cake ubiquitous at Fourth of July gatherings. My mom’s airy angel-food cake is one of my summertime favorites, even though it comes from a boxed mix. My friend Michelle Holdway loves her mother’s Jell-O cake. And my friend Mick Westrick adores an orange chiffon cake from Gourmet magazine that he says is “light and spongy like angel food, but with a refreshing dash of citrus.” Add a dollop of whipped cream, and it gets his vote as one of the best summer desserts. 

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Blueberry Cake"]
“Our cakes don’t change throughout the year,” says Catherine Reinhart, who with her sister Cheryl owns Sweet Life Patisserie in Eugene, Oregon. “But lighter things definitely go over better in the summer — like strawberries-and-cream cake or champagne angel-food cake. Or our lemon chiffon cake — it’s bright and airy and goes down easier.”
The most popular items tend to be more on the simpler side this time of year, she adds. Sponge cakes and the aforementioned angel-food and chiffon cakes are fairly light and lend themselves to creativity — add your favorite filling and flavored whipped cream, and you’re done. But you still have to turn on the oven. 

“Baking in the summer is a hard thing,” Reinhart says. “Pies, and the whole idea of cooling a pie on the windowsill, feel more like summer to most people. Plus, there’s so much fresh fruit.” Just find something to do outside of the kitchen while the pie bakes for an hour — and reward yourself with a cool scoop of ice cream alongside your slice of pie. 

Fresh fruit tarts — which require about half the oven time as a pie — and other desserts that highlight the summertime berry bounty are good picks, says Reinhart. Those berries work equally well on my grandmother’s pound cake and in my grandfather’s favorite blueberry cake.
There are summer occasions, however, when only a frosted cake will do, such as on birthdays (my family had three July birthdays while I was growing up) and at weddings (June and August are the most popular months for nuptials). 

If you want to make a summertime cake covered in soft, oozy frosting, there are a few ways to beat the heat. My Aunt Leigh, who remains the chief baker in my family, says she simply “kept the cakes in the refrigerator until the last possible second,” a trick used by many wedding caterers. For a soft, delicate cake like Vegan Lemon Layer Cake, this is the way to go.

But what do you do when you've got to tote a cake to an outdoor party? According to Reinhart, classic buttercream frosting will always hold up better than whipped cream or cream-cheese frosting. But put a buttercream-covered cake outside, and you might have only half an hour, tops, before things start to slump.

At Sweet Life, Reinhart says, the bakers use buttercream made with white chocolate for all their wedding cakes, because the white chocolate helps the icing hold its shape. Home bakers looking to duplicate the Sweet Life white-chocolate buttercream should try the Crème Ivoire Deluxe in Rose Levy Beranbaum's classic [%bookLink code=0688044026 "The Cake Bible"];_ the recipe works well and is fairly easy to make. (Rolled fondant — that thick, smooth, solid frosting that lacquers many a professionally baked wedding cake — also holds up on hot days, but it's trickier to make and use at home.)

[%image angel float=left width=400 caption="Five-Spice Angel Food Cake with marionberry sauce."]

Kari Parsons, a friend who manages to make elaborate train cakes each year for her son Tor’s July birthday parties, says she adds more confectioners’ sugar than is called for to help the icing keep its shape. “It’s really sweet, but the kids at the party don’t seem to mind,” she says, adding that she’s occasionally used silken tofu in the frosting to help it stand up. (Reinhart approves of the tofu idea, but cautions that bakers should check for soy allergies before decorating.)
“I pipe on the icing in fluted little stars,” Parsons says. “This helps with the infernal problem of crumbs mucking up your handiwork. It increases the surface area of the icing and the little flutes dry out a bit while waiting in the fridge for the big moment.”

Even if your cake starts turning into a pancake, don’t sweat it. “One particularly hot summer, when I made a cake in the requested shape of an RER \[the suburban trains of Paris\], there was nothing I could do to keep one side from slumping in the heat,” Parsons says. “Solution: un-slumped side facing birthday boy, slumped side facing guests who were not concerned since most had never heard of an RER and could never tell you what they look like.”

p(bio). Zanne Miller is a writer and a busy mom of two who loves to bake but is relieved that her daughters' birthdays are in November.

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