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Cake from a box? Sure, just buttercream it

Even pro bakers - and there will be plenty in Austin for competition - take help from mixes

Addie Broyles
abroyles@statesman.com

Even professional bakers know that there is a time and a place for cake mixes.

"You don't always have all the time in the world to make the cake," says Heidi Swiderski , owner of Envy Pastries, who also teaches baking classes at All In One Bakeshop. "I prefer to bake from scratch, but there's nothing wrong with taking a box mix and making it your own."

For example, you can use coffee instead of water to add flavor to chocolate cakes, or use a store-bought cake mix with homemade buttercream frosting.

Swiderski and thousands of fellow cake bakers and pastry enthusiasts will celebrate all things sweet at the seventh annual That Takes the Cake sugar art show and cake competition this weekend at the North Austin Event Center, 10601 N. Lamar Blvd.

Celebrity cake bakers will be doing live demonstrations, and dozens of experts will host classes and demonstrations throughout the event. Show director Jennifer Bartos , who owns All In One, says there will be a lot of opportunities for hands-on learning and visitors can vote on which of the more than 300 professional cakes on display are their favorite.

Bartos says the theme this year is Caked Crusaders, which means teams for one of the main events — a live cake building contest from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday between contestants from the TLC show "Next Great Baker" — will have to create their own original superhero and build a cake based on the character.

In addition to the cake show, Capital Confectioners is hosting dinner and a movie at 6:30 p.m. Saturday that will feature the 2009 documentary "Kings of Pastry" and a Q&A with its star, Jacquy Pfeiffer , co-founder of the French Pastry School in Chicago ($50, tickets at thattakesthecake.org).

General admission to the show, which runs from 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, costs $8 a day or $14 for a two-day pass in advance, and $10 and $17 at the door. Children younger than 18 accompanying adults get in for free, and you can also bring a nonperishable food item to donate to the Capital Area Food Bank to get $1 off admission.

Throughout both days of the cake show, instructors will be teaching specialty classes on molding 3-D cakes, using fondant and making sugar sculptures ($65-$165, tickets online), but ahead of the event Swiderski offered some tips that anyone could use to make better cakes at home.

Even if you don't think you have much time, don't try to whip out a cake in two hours. Not only do you need to let the cake fully cool before frosting it, you shouldn't rush the decorating process. "Break it up into two days, if you can," she says. "Do the baking and prep one day and take your time decorating the second day. You'll burn yourself out if you try to do it in one day."

Whether you're using a cake mix or baking a cake from scratch, use butter and eggs that are at room temperature, Swiderski says, and use whole milk and high-quality vanilla extract.

Experiment with fondant, the pliable sugar that professional bakers use to create smooth surfaces on cakes. "It's kind of like Play-Doh for adults," Swiderski says. You can knead in different flavors by adding extract and rolling it out like cookie dough and cutting out shapes with cookie cutters.

Even though some brands of fondant taste better than others, Swiderski doesn't recommend using only fondant on a cake or cupcakes. She says it's best to frost the cake with a layer of buttercream before placing the fondant on top, and besides, "You can't have a nice cake without the buttercream frosting."

Buy an inexpensive oven thermometer to test your oven. Most ovens are off, some by as much as 50 degrees, which can have disastrous effects on your cake.

Baking powder and baking soda don't last forever, so check the expiration dates on your ingredients or the cake mix; otherwise, don't be surprised if your cake turns out dense. Sifting dry ingredients not only breaks up clumps, it also helps fully incorporate the ingredients so the cake bakes evenly, Swiderski says.

Cake mixes are OK in a pinch, she says, but resist the shortcut of using canned frosting, which lacks in flavor and texture. When making homemade frosting, start off with less liquid than you think you'll need and slowly add in liquid until you reach the desired consistency.

A butter knife doesn't have a long enough blade to adequately cover a cake with frosting, so pick up an inexpensive icing spatula (it doesn't have to be offset) to smooth out the surface. Don't have a cake turntable? Use a lazy Susan.

Lastly, if you're making a kids' birthday cake — or any cake, for that matter — include young cooks in the process, even if it's just helping measure ingredients. "There's such a sense of accomplishment when they get to help," she says.

abroyles@statesman.com; 912-2504

White Cake

4 1/2 cups all purpose flour

2 Tbsp. baking powder

1 1/2 tsp salt

2 sticks plus 2 Tbsp. (10 oz.) unsalted butter, room temperature

2 1/4 cups sugar

1 1/2 cups buttermilk

9 large egg whites, lightly beaten

1 Tbsp. pure vanilla extract

1/4 tsp. almond extract

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease two 10-inch round pans and line with parchment paper. Set aside.

Sift together flour, baking powder and salt and set aside. In mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, combine butter and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, approximately 4 minutes. In a separate bowl, combine egg whites, buttermilk, vanilla and almond extract. Alternately add flour mixture and egg white mixture in three additions into the sugar mixture, just until combined. Be sure not to over-mix batter.

Pour into prepared pans and bake for 45 to 55 minutes until center of cake is firm or until cake tester comes out clean when inserted into the center of the cake. Let cool in pan for 15 minutes, then invert pan and let cakes cool completely on cooling rack before icing.

— Heidi Swiderski of Envy Pastries, www.envypastries.com

American Buttercream Icing

1 lb. high-ratio shortening, divided (see note)

2 lb. powdered sugar

4 oz. whole milk

1 Tbsp. clear vanilla

1/4 tsp. salt

Mix powdered sugar, milk, vanilla, salt and half of the shortening for 5 minutes at low speed, then an additional 2 minutes at medium speed. Add the remainder of the shortening and continue mixing for another 5 minutes still at low speed.

Note: You can buy high-ratio shortening, which contains a higher percentage of emulsifiers than traditional shortening and has a less "greasy" aftertaste than traditional shortening, at specialty baking stores. You can use regular shortening if you don't have high ratio.

To make chocolate buttercream, make a chocolate ganache by bringing 4 ounces heavy cream to a simmer and then pouring over 4 ounces dark chocolate chips. Let sit for one minute and then stir gently until combined. Add ganache in the above recipe when adding second half of shortening.

— All in One Bake Shop, www.allinonebakeshop.com