Otanjoubi omedetou! (Ramen birthday cake)
It’s that time of year again, you guys; Memorial Day, the start of summer, Vin’s birthday, a.k.a. the making of the most awesome cake of the year!!! Vin really is the best. He’s worked so hard to get in shape and become healthy, his food critique brand is really taking off, he’s always always thinking of me, and even after five years of marriage we’re still goofy and mushy and hold hands wherever we go. (And that’s NOT just because I’m clumsy and will probably trip on myself if I’m wearing heels.) I really love being with this guy, and one of the few things better than hanging out with my husband is enjoying delicious tasty food with Vin.
Seriously, this is all cake and sweetness (except for the bowl and chopsticks)
As you may know, he is Mr. Johnny Prime, steak connoisseur. However, his reviews have expanded to include all really good food and great restaurants in general. Given that this past winter was so brutal and long, we were on a ramen and noodle soup kick, and nothing can warm your cold bones better than some delicious hearty soup! Of course this gave me the idea MONTHS ago to make Vin a ramen cake for this year’s birthday, but according to him, he TOLD me he wanted a ramen cake. Details, details. Haha So I started planning out his ramen cake… I googled “ramen cake” and “noodle cake” for inspiration and I just kept thinking that these could be better. Don’t get me wrong; these cakes are absolutely amazing and a lot of them are better than I could have made mine since (full disclosure) I didn’t make the bowl. But… in all the photos I found, the “broth” really bugged me. They were all too dense and solid and uniform and clearly made from fondant, and that just takes away from the awesomeness of the rest of the cake. I compared those cake images to 2394759 photos of actual ramen and I was determined to find a way to make the “broth” look more realistic… My initial thought was to play around with sugar. But boiling hot sugar on cake and fondant didn’t seem like a great idea. I’ve never worked with isomalt before and I’d probably end up burning myself and melting the fondant and cake and insert all the other possible Murphy’s law scenarios you could think of that would result in ultimate cake destruction and me never wanting to decorate another cake again. So I thought about gelatin. Plain, petrie-dish gelatin has this natural cloudy color that solidifies to the perfect “soup broth” effect, and I made notations to add coconut powder to make it partially opaque so HOPEFULLY it would look like real broth. I told Vin about my plans on how to fabricate each piece of his cake, and his initial response was, “We’re SWAMPED with stuff going on right now… you don’t have to make anything this year.” Uhhh, how many times have I heard THIS before? And how many times have I not listened to it? =) And then, he goes, “I didn’t even think there’d be broth for this cake. Just a blob of cake and fondant noodles and toppings and faux seaweed.” (This is when I think his diet affects his brain and he forgets who he married.) I said, “Oh yesss… there will be broth. I’m going to one up every single ‘noodle’ soup cake out there. I think. Hopefully my gelatin idea will work…” And then, he suggests pineapple and coconut Jell-o to get the right cloudy color [note: I don’t think coconut Jell-o exists?]. I say that’s a good idea, and he brags about always being my cake consultant, and then I’m like, what? I thought of gelatin WAYYY before you thought of not even wanting a cake, and then he argues that he always gives me ideas and is a great helper and we basically argue about how awesome we are at creative cake ideas and it’s like, seriously, bro? So then, I say how he IS a fantastic assistant and has saved my butt on some huge projects and he goes, “Aww, I love you” and I go “I love you so much!” This is some of the silly sh!t we fight about: how we’re awesomer than the other BECAUSE we married such an awesome person. Hahaha Of COURSE we were swamped with tons of crazy things going on the weekend before Vin’s birthday and I wasn’t really able to prep the cake components well in advance like I hoped. The only thing I was able to do the weekend before was heat up marshmallows and knead a lump of fondant. I didn’t want to make TOO many pieces in advance because they’d dry out, but I wanted to at least get the seaweed and scallions done and bake the cake… Anyway, the countdown went like this: Three days before his birthday, I decided to make the soft boiled egg. I had white fondant and yellow fondant and thought I could just shape half a solid egg white by hand and hollow it out and press some “yolk” into it. That’s a dumb idea. The correct way to do it is 1) roll a glob of bright orange-yellow fondant into a ball that is just over 1” in diameter; 2) wrap some white fondant around it, making sure 2/3 of the oval shape is white and that a thin layer of white covers the yolk; 3) slice this in half, long ways. I didn’t use a large enough chunk of white fondant to wrap around the yolk, so I just wrapped it around half of it. Half the egg looked pretty damn good (the yolk looks legit, dude); the other half looked deformed. Whatever. I just need half. In trendy NYC ramen joints, half a soft boiled egg costs $1.50. Geesh! Two days before the big birthday, I decided I’d make nori [seaweed, not the Kanye and Kim kollaboration]. This was THE simplest topping and I was not right in the head since I spent a ridiculous amount of time on it and almost ended up scrapping the first attempt anyway. I bought this bulk pack of rice paper and thought it had THE perfect texture for that lone piece of seaweed that hangs on the edge of the ramen bowl. I also had a palette of petal dust and figured I could just smear dark green dust on the rice paper and call it a day. Unfortunately, I didn’t have dark green dust. I had like… 3 of the same color muted green and it SO didn’t match the color. So I smeared some black edible dust on over the green and it looked better, but it still didn’t have that dark color and glisten. I dabbed some water over a section and it was SLIGHTLY better, but the areas that were too wet were just destroyed; the water disintegrated the thin rice paper and I was left with some holes. No bueno. I set that aside in a sealed plastic bag to work on later. Later came, and it was the night before Vin’s birthday. He was at a press dinner tasting some delicious food to review for his blog, so I got to work making his cake. I decided to forgo this grandiose idea of actually MAKING an edible bowl given the lack of time, so I used a real inedible Crate & Barrel bowl. I also used real chopsticks. Had I planned this out better, I should have just made my own chopsticks out of fondant a few days in advance so that they could properly harden in time. Oh well. Next time I do a noodle cake, I’ll try to remember that. First, I made microwave cake. I love how microwave cake is super fast and easy and it cooks so evenly. I didn’t have to dirty up the stand mixer and attachments. Actually, I didn’t even mix the batter in a real bowl; I just whisked everything with a fork in a quart size plastic takeout soup container and nuked it. There are no extra brown spots where the heating is uneven, and it just easily slides out of the container. I sliced off a ¼ of the cake to use for my test cake and have enough to use for 3 more ramen cakes. The reason I wanted to make a test cake and THEN make the real cake? I don’t usually work with Jell-o and wasn’t sure if it was going to completely melt the cake and frosting and fondant. I didn’t want to make all these pretty toppings and then have a sad but colorful, sugary blob in a bowl to present to Vin. That would blow in a very bad way. So I put my test chunk of cake in a bowl, smeared some vanilla frosting on it, and set it aside. I went back to the muted pale green rice paper sheet and decided this will not do for nori. Since I have another 95 sheets of rice paper, I decided to try green gel food coloring on the delicate paper. Why the F not? And the result: Wilton dark forest green gel on the rice paper makes for a carbon copy piece of seaweed. The color was dead on and the texture was perfect and it had a nice shine. Things you never know unless you try! I’m not one to waste things and I felt obligated to do something with the initial pale green rice paper, so I cut it lengthwise and decided to make cut up scallions from it. They weren’t the exact color, but I figured it would be good enough to pass it off as cut up scallion rings. Good thing I cut the sheet into thin strips because the first attempt on a scallion stalk was just flat and stuck together. The water just made both sides stick together and it didn’t even open into a ring. Fail. So I took the second strip of pale green rice paper and wrapped it around a straw and THEN sealed the edges with a few dabs of water. WIN! It actually resembled the top part of a scallion, and when it dried, I just snipped this into little rings. Next, I wanted to make some good pieces of pork for the soup. I googled images of “chashu” and went back and forth between making thinly sliced pork or a thick piece of pork belly… this time, thin pork wins. You know how on Iron Chef you see the master chefs spend half an hour making this intricate thing with tons of ingredients and 50,000 steps and it ends up being a garnish? This is kinda what happened with the pork. The pork slice picture I referred back to showed all this close up detail, and you could see all the different colors that made up one slice. I ripped off a chunk of my white marshmallow fondant and separated it into 3 sections. I had 3 gel colors that I thought COULD match the color of cooked pork, and I kneaded the gel into the pieces. The first one was a super faint light peach color, the next was a light peach tone, and the last was just bright pink (I needed some of that for the Naruto anyway). I noted that the inner most part of the pork slice was kinda dark, so I mixed a tiny brown into a small piece of pink fondant and rolled it into a ball. I mixed a little of the pink with the peach and wrapped that in a hemisphere around the dark ball. This was repeated with the last super light peach section, but unfortunately it appeared REALLY close in color to the middle section. Oh well. I kept going with it and wrapped a thin layer of white fondant to resemble the thin layer of delicious fat that separates the skin from the meat. This half ball looked almost NSFW, and when I sliced it into pieces, they just ended up looking like half boobies and half areolas. Pretty disturbing. I cut out a bit from the inner dark meat section and the notch made the piece look less breast-like. I took a small test piece and decided to rub a thin layer of tan food coloring over it and it looked MUCH better. But I wasn’t done with my pork fondant experiment just yet: I took my handy blow torch (ooh! flames…) and torched the edges. My God, I’m a genius. It looked like a real piece of grilled pork. I repeated this with the 2 larger pork slices I planned to use and it just looked fantastic. It wouldn’t taste like bacon, but still quite delicious because it was basically a flattened, roasted marshmallow. Mmmm… S’mores… One of my friends said that the pork slices looked unrealistic… because he NEVER got pork that looked that good when he ordered ramen. Hahaha I set the pieces of meat aside and went to work making the kamaboko naruto, also commonly known as “the white and pink thing in soups.” This was really simple. I ripped a small piece of the hot pink fondant and rolled it in a thin strip. Then I took a hunk of white fondant, rolled it into a ball, and then gently rolled it out into a circle, pressed the hot pink piece on top, and then flatted it out some more with my fondant roller. It looked great! But it was a little big in comparison to the size of the other toppings, so I rolled out a thinner pink strip and pressed it onto a smaller ball of white fondant, and that piece of “fish cake” looked super cute. I laid out all my “toppings” and moved on to making the fresh noodles. Vin bought these super awesome heavy duty attachments for my KitchenAid a few years ago, and I never got around to using them. We have a meat grinder attachment, and a few pasta-making accessories. I never used the pasta attachment for rolling out fondant before since I usually need larger squarish/circular pieces and this rolls out loooooong thinner pieces, but it was perfect for making fondant noodles! After covering the heavy attachments in powdered sugar (no sticking!), I used the flattener attachment and rolled out two long even sheets of white “dough” then switched to the spaghetti-maker accessory. I WISH I was able to take video of this, but my hands were full and everything was covered in sugar. Seriously, dude, if the DEA happened to burst into my kitchen, it wouldn’t have been a pretty scene with machines shooting powder all over the place and me in an oversized cut up t-shirt with crazy hair and hopping around the kitchen like a whacked out rabbit because I almost dropped one of the attachments on my foot (them sh!ts is heavy metal). Anyway, my point is, the sugary mess was worth it because the “noodles” that came out of the pasta attachment looked like NOODLES. I was so beyond pleased. It took me back to being a little kid and cranking Play-Doh out of a crappy plastic press machine. Haha I put off the most uncertain part for last. I mean, every aspect of this cake (minus the actual vanilla cake) was a questionable experiment that just happened to turn out surprisingly well. I didn’t want to f*ck this sh!t up by putting all the lovingly handmade topping pieces into a Jell-o mixture and watch it disintegrate, so I purposely bought TWO packs of pineapple Jell-o: one for my test run with extra cake and test fondant noodles, and another pack in case the experiment blew up in my face. I went back to the bowl with the wedge of vanilla cake and frosting and dumped extra fondant noodles on top, then prepared the Jell-o. The last time I made Jell-o was probably… I don’t know, junior high? And they were Jell-o “jigglers” which didn’t turn out too well because I didn’t let them set long enough. And this Jell-o was BRIGHT yellow, not quite the color I wanted for ramen broth. I added a heaping spoonful of coconut powder to the boiling hot unhealthy pee-colored mix and this beautiful cloudy color appeared that totally looked like ramen chicken broth. (Tonkatsu pork broth was out of the question; I knew I didn’t have the right gelatin color for that so I didn’t even bother attempting that “broth” hahaha) I couldn’t pour this in the bowl to set it just yet since it would melt everything, so I finished off the Jell-o using the “quick set” way, also known as “mix with ice water with ice and then take the ice out real nice” method. It was still warm when I poured the mixture onto the cake and fondant, but it didn’t all melt so that was already a plus. Then I thought about how my favorite ramen had drops of flavored oil on it, and we were really into black garlic mayu oil and had a small bottle of delicious shrimp oil… so I thought to myself, “Self, what would happen if you dropped yellow and black food coloring on the Jell-o? Would it look like flavored oil? Dooooo iiiiiitttt…” So I dropped some watery food coloring in the bowl and popped it in the fridge to let it soft set for half an hour. In the meantime, I cleaned up the kitchen and loaded up the dishwasher. Twenty-two minutes later (I know, I know, I was anxious) I opened the refrigerator door and peeked into the ramen bowl. It looked like it congealed bee-YOO-tifully. There was a light, cloudy layer on the top that looked like flavorful, floating fat. The color and consistency of the Jell-o… it couldn’t have been any more perfect. It basically looked like liquid broth with real drops of orange and black oil, but I could easily tip it over and nothing fell out. An hour ago I was most proud of making amazing faux pork; right now I was proudest of my broth result. At this point, Vin was already home (I ran to pick him up from the train station and got sugar all over the driver’s seat; good thing I wasn’t pulled over by a cop!) so I showed him my test ramen broth. He thought it was fantastic and said it would be silly to make another bowl of ramen, so I added more fondant noodles and artfully placed the toppings on the bowl. The final touch was making “suspended chopsticks” which was just floral wire wrapped around chopsticks and strategically covered with fondant noodles. The birthday boy loved his cake <3 It was super late by the time I finished (yikes, it was almost 2 am) so he didn’t try it just yet. Vin snapped a bunch of pro shots for me and I Instagrammed a quick photo before I put the cake in the fridge for later. A lot of people thought I just posted a pic of a bowl of ramen and didn’t realize it was all sweet and not savory.
A day after his birthday, Vin tried some of his cake and said it was very good and pineapple-y, and he ate the piece of naruto and noted how “marshmallowy” it was. I had a bite and the flavor of the Jell-o did seep into the cake, so it WAS pineapple-y and super moist. Then I tried a piece of pork (it looked like biting into a boob) and it tasted exactly like a Lucky Charms cereal marshmallow. There goes another birthday cake for the best husband! And it was the least stressful, most manageable, innovative and realistic cake of the past 4 years. Haha HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO MY AMAZING VIN!!!