Shit happens. Has shit happened to you recently? Have you been the shit that happened to your kitchen?
Did your overly ambitious chocolate layer cake unravel in a dramatic lesson about man’s hubris?
Did your attempts at making tiny sandwich snack cakes in charming winter patterns end up looking more like mayonnaise sandwiches on Wonder bread?
Are you, like your cake, crumbling with feelings of inadequacy due to an inability to meet self-imposed deadlines?
Are you, like me, asking a series of questions in the second person to reassure yourself that you aren’t alone in the universe?
You aren’t alone. It’s going to be okay. In a world with butter, sugar, and brandy, all things are possible. Here’s how we fix it.
Step 1: This Cake Is Not Going To Be The Cake You Thought It Would Be
It’s going to be another cake instead. Let go of the pristine three-layer birthday cake of your dreams, or the understated single-layer cake with the secret caramel reservoir, or the charming snowflake cut-out cakes. You aren’t going to eat those cakes today. But that’s okay! Console yourself with a cake scrap. You’re going to be tearing your cake layers into pieces anyways, so you might as well try them now.
Enjoy that piece of cake. Think about what you want to eat with it. You’re going to add three new components to it. One of those components is going to be alcohol. The other two are up to you.
- Alcohol and sugar syrup. Do you like brandy or bourbon better? Done. Decision made.
- Some kind of sauce. Anything with the approximate texture of goop will work here. Caramel sauce, lemon curd, whipped cream, and fruit reductions will all work really well here. You can do more than one of these if you want!
- Accent flavor and texture. This is going to go on top of the rubble cake, and it should be a nice contrast to your cake and goop. I’ve used crushed pretzels and candied citrus peels. Anything you can put in a bag and smash with a hammer will probably work fine—peppermints, crunchy cookies, maple candies, etc. This option should have some bite, either in sharpness (like the peppermints), saltiness (pretzels) texture (a nice crunch), or bitterness/tartness (citrus peels).
These decisions depend entirely on what you have in your kitchen and what sounds tasty to you. For the chocolate cake scraps, I made a caramel sauce and crushed up pretzels for the top layer. For the vanilla yogurt cake that makes up the base of those snack cakes, I used leftover Chantilly cream, lemon curd, and candied grapefruit peel.
Step 2: Gather Your Materials
- Cake scraps. Tear the cake scraps into cube-ish pieces, no bigger than a few inches on any side. Don’t worry about it. Just fuck the cake up.
- Alcohol/sugar syrup: put 1/3 cup each of booze (brandy or bourbon), water, and sugar in a small pot. Throw in a piece of citrus peel if you feel so inclined. Simmer, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes or until you get bored.
- Goop: For the chocolate rubble cake, I used the caramel sauce from the Petit Foes. Here are instructions for Chantilly cream from Joe Pastry, and the lemon curd recipe I used. The raspberry sauce from the Crime Scene Cake or the brown sugar glaze from the Pancake Cake are other good options.
- Accent flavor and texture: grab your ingredient of choice. If it is sliceable, cut it into small pieces (no longer than an inch and no wider than a quarter inch). If it is smashable, seal it into a freezer bag and smash it against a wall, counter, floor, or other hard thing until you no longer resent the beautiful, perfect cake that will never be.
Step 3: Assembly
Grab your serving container. Any serving bowl, casserole dish, or baking pan will do. Put down a layer of cake scraps, enough to cover the bottom but not so many that the cake pieces are stacked on top of each other.
Paint the cake scraps with the booze-sugar syrup. Get them good and damp, but don’t soak them through. Then pour your goop component(s) over top. Lay that on thick. The goop will glue the scraps together and make this feel like a coherent cake instead of some kind of bullshit dessert salad.
Repeat two more times, or until your cake scraps run out. Then grab your final accent ingredient and coat the top of the cake. Feel free to pour more goop on top or add accents like raw sugar or a drizzle of melted chocolate.
Step 4: This Was Your Plan All Along
Look at this bowl of ridiculous nonsense. I had to serve it with a spoon. It might be the best cake I’ve ever made. The cake stayed moist for days, the caramel soaked in, and the pretzels gave just the right counterpoint of crunch and salt.
And the citrus version? It was a fucking gift.
If you fucked up your baking, it’s okay. Let go of the cake you thought you could have, pilfer your cabinets, and you could wind up with something way better than anticipated. At worst, you’ll have a cake-based consolation prize with an “I don’t give a fuck” attitude. That’s what we call a good problem.