Lifestyle

Baking with the Cake Lady

Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter Holly Levin, the “Cake Lady,” decorates a spice cake with apple filling and a buttercream frosting sunflower design. -
Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter Holly Levin, the “Cake Lady,” decorates a spice cake with apple filling and a buttercream frosting sunflower design.
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Eileen Mintz
What’s Cooking

Mercer Island’s Holly Levin has been professionally designing cakes for 11 years. Known as “The Cake Lady,” this talented wife, mother and cake baker is at the top of her career, constantly setting high standards of excellence in designing and decorating. She also utilizes techniques she acquires through continuing education. Her decorated party, novelty, b’nai mitzvah and wedding cakes reflect the latest trends and designs that are expected in today’s savvy marketplace.

Levin started in the business by making kids’ birthday party cakes and promoted herself through donating gift certificates. She wanted to learn more and signed up for a three-course cake decorating class.

“Once I learned how to make roses, I knew I was hooked,” said Levin. “With further education I learned about frosting applications, border enhancements, buttercream floral arrangements and tiered cake construction.”

Levin continued with “sugar arts” classes, demonstrations and seminars.“These courses have led me to use new methods in cake decorating,” she said. Because of her growth in the decorating industry, Levin has been asked to teach others.

“I have taught at Sur La Table and at the professional level at International Cake Exploration Society conventions, which I attend yearly. My demonstrations are filled with helpful hints plus lots of fun stories.” Two years ago, Levin was asked to fly to New Orleans to demonstrate for an international audience of professional cake decorators.

In the kitchen with Levin, I noticed her electric mixer.

“It’s always ready to use as I like to make fresh cakes for my clients and never give them a frozen one,” she said. Levin also uses the mixer, a 1,000-watt, seven-quart Viking, to make all her fondants because “it has the strength to cream it together without burning out the motor,” said Levin. One of her baking techniques is to fill her cake pans two-thirds full, let them crown and then slice off the top crown to get an even cake.

Levin likes to handcraft all her sugar art details and decorations, including lettering, lace, flowers, monograms, bows, ribbons and streamers for her cakes. She is an expert in transferring original artwork as well as invitation art onto a cake and uses a novel frozen buttercream technique to reproduce nearly any line art design.

“I can also customize a cake with a company logo, monogram, type font and even add in Hebrew letters in royal icing,” she said.

When it comes to contests, Levin has won awards for using her specialty decorating techniques and for her buttercream wedding cakes, novelty cakes and frosting flowers at the Washington Cake Show.

“One of my best memories, though, is being awarded a winner in the nationwide contest through Sur La Table for Julia Child’s 90th birthday cake tribute,” says Levin.

HOLLY LEVIN’S SPICE CAKE

This is a moist and delicious spice cake that is great for the fall season. Levin suggests that you fill it with apple pie filling and drizzle it with caramel. She decorated her cake with a sunflower made of colored frosting. Just what you would expect from the “Cake Lady!”

31/4 cups cake flour

2 tsp. baking powder

1 tsp. baking soda

1 tsp. ground cinnamon

1/2 tsp. Chinese five spice

1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg

1/2 tsp. ground cloves

1/2 tsp. salt

11/2 tsp. cocoa powder

1 cup soft butter

1 cup packed light brown sugar

1 cup sugar

4 large eggs

2 tsp. vanilla

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour three 9-inch cake pans or a 9-by-13-inch pan. Sift together dry ingredients. Using an electric mixer, cream butter, sugars and eggs one at a time until well incorporated. Add vanilla. Slowly add dry ingredients and beat on low until well mixed. Pour into pans and bake for 35 to 40 minutes. The cake is done when a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool 10 minutes and invert on racks to cool completely. Fill with an apple pie cake filling (Cash & Carry shop has the large, 2 lb. tube; it’s the best one to use) and frost.

SIMPLE BUTTERCREAM

1 lb. butter

2 lb. confectioner’s sugar

3 TBS. milk

11/2 tsp. vanilla (Levin uses Mexican clear vanilla)

Beat butter until light and fluffy; slowly add sugar, beating on low. Add liquids until all ingredients are mixed and frosting is smooth and creamy. If too stiff, add a bit more milk, 1/2 teaspoon at a time. Keep in the refrigerator or freeze.

HOLLY LEVIN’S COCOA CAKE

Levin told me that this variation of the classic Hershey’s chocolate cake adds buttermilk for tang and moist crumb. She replaces water with espresso, giving this cake a rich, deep chocolate flavor. She says that if you don’t have espresso powder around, instant coffee will do in a pinch. “For the best flavor, use fresh brewed coffee or even a morning latte instead,” says Levin. “This cake is a delicious format for any frosting, including orange cream cheese. But for a truly decadent, death-by-chocolate cake, fill and frost with quick and easy ganache.”

2 cups sugar

13/4 cups all-purpose flour

3/4 cup Dutch process cocoa

11/2 tsp. baking powder

11/2 tsp. baking soda

1 tsp. salt

2 eggs

1 cup buttermilk

1/2 cup vegetable oil

2 tsp. vanilla extract

1 cup boiling water

2 TBS. espresso powder

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour two 9-inch, round baking pans or one 9-by-12-inch pan. Dissolve espresso powder in boiling water. Mix together dry ingredients. Add eggs, buttermilk, oil and vanilla. Beat on medium speed for two minutes. Add espresso and mix on low speed for one minute. Pour batter into prepared pans. Bake for 35 to 45 minutes, until toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool on wire rack for 10 minutes; invert cakes on wire racks to cool completely before frosting.

LEVIN’S QUICK AND EASY GANACHE

Levin says that this ganache is so creamy you can fill and frost with it. You can even whip it for a lighter frosting.

12 oz. chopped chocolate or good quality chocolate chips

12/3 cup heavy cream

1 TBS. butter

1/8 tsp. vanilla

Place chopped chocolate or chocolate chips in a blender. Scald the cream and pour into the blender. Let the chocolate soften for one to two minutes; blend on low for 30 seconds. Pour through a fine mesh sieve into a bowl and stir in butter until melted. Stir in vanilla. At this time, you can also flavor the ganache. For example, add 1/8 tsp. peppermint or orange extract or orange oil. You can also flavor with your favorite liquor. Cool ganache uncovered for several hours or overnight; it thickens and becomes frosting consistency when cool.

LEVIN’S BETTER-THAN-SCRATCH CARROT CAKE

Holly told me that this is the closest to a homemade cake with a little help from a boxed cake mix. The nuts and raisins are optional, but be sure to enjoy this cake with orange cream cheese frosting.

1 package yellow cake mix

1 package (3.4 oz) butterscotch instant pudding mix

2/3 cup orange juice

1/2 cup vegetable oil

4 large eggs

2 tsp. ground cinnamon

3 cups grated carrots

1/2 cup raisins

1/2 cup chopped pecans or walnuts

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour two 9-inch, round cakes pans. Mix together cake mix, pudding, orange juice, oil, eggs and cinnamon in an electric mixer. Scrape down sides after one minute. Increase mixer speed to medium and beat another two minutes; batter should be thick and well-blended. Gently fold in carrots, raisins and nuts. Divide the batter between the prepared pans, smoothing out the top. Bake cakes until they are golden brown and spring back when lightly pressed in the middle. Remove pans from the oven and cool on wire racks for 10 minutes, then invert each onto a wire rack to cool completely. Frost with cream cheese frosting and enjoy! Frost with orange cream cheese frosting (see below).

HOLLY’S ORANGE CREAM CHEESE FROSTING

1 8-oz. package cream cheese, at room temperature

1 stick butter, at room temperature

3 cups sifted confectioners’ sugar

2 TBS. orange juice

1 TBS. grated orange zest

1/8 tsp. orange essence or oil

Place cream cheese and butter into a mixing bowl and blend with an electric mixer on low speed until combined. Add confectioners’ sugar, 1/2 cup at a time, until all the sugar is incorporated. Blend on low for one minute. Add orange juice, zest and orange essence or oil and beat until the frosting becomes light and fluffy.

MELINDA BARGREEN’S BLACK FOREST CHERRY TORTE

Here’s a special holiday cake! I found this great recipe in an old Seattle Times cookbook.

CHERRY LAYER

2 (15-16 oz) cans pitted sweet dark cherries

3/4 cup kirsch

CAKE

1 cup firmly packed brown sugar

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup butter, softened

2 eggs, slightly beaten

2 ounces unsweetened chocolate, melted

2 cups flour

1/2 tsp. salt

11/2 tsp. lemon juice

Milk (as needed)

1 tsp. vanilla

1 cup boiling water

1 tsp. baking soda

WHIPPED CREAM LAYER

21/2 cups whipping cream

2/3 cup sugar

1/2 tsp. vanilla

FROSTING

1 cup powdered sugar

1 oz. unsweetened chocolate, melted

1/4 cup butter, melted

GARNISH

Maraschino cherries

To prepare cherry layer: Drain the cherries, reserving 1/2 cup liquid. Soak the cherries overnight in the kirsch in a tightly covered bowl in the refrigerator. Also refrigerate the reserved cherry liquid.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. To prepare cake: cream the sugars and butter together until fluffy. Add the eggs and melted chocolate.

Combine the flour and salt and add to the creamed mixture. Put the lemon juice in a measuring cup and add milk to make 1/2 cup. Add this to the creamed mixture and beat until smooth. Add the vanilla.

Combine the boiling water and baking soda. Add slowly to the cake batter, mixing one to two minutes or until smooth. Pour the batter into two greased and floured 9-inch cake pans. Bake 25 minutes or until done. Let pans stand 10 minutes before removing the cakes to wire racks to complete cooling.

To prepare whipped cream layer: Beat the cold cream in a chilled bowl until soft peaks form. Slowly add the sugar and beat until stiffer peaks form. Beat in the vanilla and set aside.

To prepare frosting: Combine the powdered sugar, chocolate and butter, mixing until smooth. If too thick, add a few drops of milk.

To assemble: Cut the cakes into four layers. Place one layer on a serving platter. Perforate with a fork. Cover with 1/3 of the reserved juice and 1/3 of the cherry-kirsch mixture. Spread with 1/4 of the whipped cream. Continue in this manner until all cake layers are used. Do not cover the top layer, and save remaining whipped cream for garnish.

Spread the top carefully with the frosting and then pipe the remaining whipped cream in a border around the edge. Garnish the edge with maraschino cherries.

JERRY CAPLAN’S DARK CHOCOLATE CHEESECAKE

CHEESECAKE

5 oz. dark semi-sweet chocolate

11/2 lbs. cream cheese, softened

3/4 cup sugar

3 large eggs

1 tsp. vanilla extract

1 cup sour cream

CRUST:

11/2 cups graham cracker crumbs

6 TBS. butter, melted

1/4 cup sugar

1/2 tsp. nutmeg

1/2 tsp. ginger

3/4 cup crushed walnuts

To make crust, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix all the ingredients together and press mixture onto the bottom and partly up the sides of a greased 9-inch springform pan. Smooth mixture along the bottom to even thickness. Bake for 10 minutes. Cool before pouring in the filling.

FILLING

Reduce oven temperature to 275 degrees. Melt chocolate in the top of a double boiler. Meanwhile, in a large mixing bowl, beat cream cheese with sugar until smooth and light. Beat in eggs and vanilla. Stir in melted chocolate and sour cream, then blend well. Pour the mixture into the baked and cooled pie crust and bake for one hour and 15 minutes. Turn off heat and allow the cake to cool completely in the oven. When cooled, refrigerate or freeze it. Serves 12 to 14.

BETH HUPPIN’S APPLE CAKE

1/4 lb. soft butter or margarine (1 stick)

3/4 cup sugar

2 large eggs

1 tsp. vanilla

11/2 cups flour

11/2 tsp. baking powder

2 medium apples or 1 large one

MIXTURE

1/2 sugar

Cinnamon

Cream butter with sugar in an electric mixer. Add in eggs and mix well. Mix in vanilla. Sift together the flour and baking powder. Add this to egg mixture.

Pour into a lightly greased 9-inch cake pan. Slice apples with skin on and lay in pinwheel design around the pan. Push down. Mix sugar with six or seven shakes of cinnamon and scatter over the apple mixture. Bake at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes. Test to make sure the cake is done.

For a complimentary design consultation with the Cake Lady, call 854-4067, or check out Levin’s Web site at http://xlntcakes.com to view her impressive Cake Lady Custom Cakes. Levin certainly knows how to make the most beautiful and tasty centerpiece for any kind of special event.

Eileen Mintz can be reached at 232-1984, eileenmintz@comcast.net.

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