Baker's best ingredient: Love

Hertneck shows off the cake at the wedding. She and her husband carried it unassembled from Merchantville to Michigan. She got fresh flowers in Michigan.
Hertneck shows off the cake at the wedding. She and her husband carried it unassembled from Merchantville to Michigan. She got fresh flowers in Michigan.

Cindy Rollins Hertneck faced many challenges in baking a wedding cake for her niece, but was unfazed.

Posted: August 23, 2012

Everyone knows Cindy Rollins Hertneck, or someone like her: The baker.

You want her at your party. Sure, there's her scintillating conversation, but you are really counting on her to walk through the door with a fabulous cake or batch of signature cookies.

Hertneck, a former fourth-grade teacher from Merchantville, tiptoed into a more public role by baking a groom's cake and mini-wedding cakes for her daughter's wedding last November.

At the reception, her niece Katie mentioned that she'd be getting married in July and wondered if her aunt would bake her cake.

"We invited 250 people," said Katie Prince, a teacher who lives in Collingswood. "We just wanted a small, two-tier cake to cut and serve" along with assorted pastry.

Nonsense, said her aunt, who set about with a plan to create something grander.

You should know: Katie was getting married in her hometown of Holland, Mich. - 750 miles away from Merchantville. It was set for midsummer - July 28. The reception would be held in a tent. And Hertneck and her husband, Ray, were booked in a Residence Inn - as it turned out, on the third floor.

None of this fazed Cindy Hertneck, who came into cake baking only a few years ago as a hobby and never took even a cake-decorating class. She taught herself with instruction from the Martha Stewart Weddings cookbook ($1 at a yard sale) and a Wilton School cake-decorating book (50 cents at a yard sale) and picked up bags and frosting tips here and there.

"The only question I had for Katie was, 'Will there be any professional bakers there' because I don't want anyone critiquing my work," Hertneck said.

Katie laughed. The cake, Hertneck decided, would be four tiers - two of lemon pound with lemon curd filling and two of chocolate-chip pound with chocolate ganache filling. (Each tier is actually two 3-inch layers.) The entire cake would be iced in snow-white buttercream with a basket-weave pattern.

Making a wedding cake may be your fantasy, or not. Keep in mind the base pound-cake recipe alone is a keeper because it reliably comes out moist, freezes beautifully, and doesn't crack so easily. Hertneck found it in a magazine several years ago and it's attributed to Wilma Head, whose son Tom is former food editor of Washingtonian magazine.

Every week over six months, Hertneck experimented and took copious notes on her experiments. She acquired cake pans - the layers are 6-, 8-, 10-, and 12-inch rounds - and fiddled with oven temperatures. She made icing, practiced spreading and decorating on a cookie sheet pan, scooped it up, and froze it to try again another day.

On the Wednesday before she left, she assembled eight tiers - enough for two cakes, in case of disaster. That day, she baked 12 dozen decorated fancy butter cookies for the reception because "I don't know when to quit."

At 4 a.m. Thursday, the Hertnecks and their Cavalier King Charles spaniel, Churchill, set out in their Ford Explorer, packed with suitcases, pans, her KitchenAid 600 mixer and other supplies, and the cake tiers. They made it to Holland at 5 p.m.

She had planned to make the lemon curd and chocolate ganache on Friday, but "I was nervous," she said. They immediately went to a supermarket, where she bought butter and other perishables, and returned to the hotel room. The table was only large enough for the mixer, so she'd make a batch, move the mixer, assemble the ingredients, and refill the mixer. The room's fridge filled up.

After breakfast Friday, she frosted and decorated the cake, leaving the top and bottom two layers apart so they could be carried more easily the next day. She didn't stop there. With the leftovers, she decorated a 12-inch groom's cake.

The next morning - the wedding day, with the thermometer at 85 degrees - she raided the bride's mother's garden for hydrangeas to top off the groom's cake and returned to the hotel.

Ray blasted the Explorer's air-conditioning, and went up three flights to the hotel room. He, Cindy, and a nephew, wearing shirts and shorts, carried the cakes down the three floors and slid them into the back of the SUV for the 20-minute ride. At the venue, between the bar and the food grill, she assembled the wedding cake, set up the groom's cake, and changed for the wedding. Then she treated herself to a glass of wine.

Mindful of the heat, the wedding party - including bride Katie Prince and her new husband, Dan - admired the cake before the reception. The caterer placed it in a refrigerated truck so it would stay beautiful throughout dinner. They cut it for dessert.

"You work so hard, but you don't know if it tastes good," Cindy said. "Someone told the [catering] chef it tasted homemade."

The ultimate compliment.

"It was wonderful," Katie said.

And it wasn't everything.

Cindy had extra layers sitting in her room. The next day, the Hertnecks attended a brunch for out-of-town friends and family. The 8-inch became a birthday cake for a 3-year-old, and a 10-inch layer was served with strawberries for dessert.

"The wedding cake business is pretty tough," she said. "I'm not interested in going pro. My goal is to make beautiful cakes that taste good."

Wilma Head's Sour Cream Pound Cake

Makes 14 servings

1 cup unsalted butter, at  room temperature

3 cups sugar

6 large eggs separated into yolks and whites

3 cups sifted unbleached all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

8 ounces sour cream

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon almond extract

1. Heat oven to 300 degrees. Butter and flour 10-inch tube pan. Cut out piece of wax paper to fit bottom of pan and slide into place.

2. In medium-size bowl, beat together butter and sugar on medium speed until thoroughly blended, about five minutes. Beat in yolks.

3. In large bowl combine sifted flour, salt, and baking soda. Sift two more times. Alternately, beat flour mixture and sour cream with the extracts mixed in into butter mixture, beginning and ending with flour.

4. In large clean bowl, with clean beaters, beat egg whites until stiff but not dry peaks form. Stir one-third of whites into batter. Fold in remaining whites. Spoon into prepared tube pan.

5. Bake in 300-degree oven 11/2 to 13/4 hours or until cake tester inserted in center comes out clean. Transfer pan to wire rack. Let cool five minutes. Remove cake from pan; let cool completely.

Variations: To make lemon pound cake, delete the vanilla and almond extract and add 2 teaspoons of lemon extract. To make chocolate chip pound cake, delete the almond extract and add 1 extra teaspoon of vanilla extract and 1 cup mini chocolate chips to the batter before folding in the egg whites.

Per serving: 447 calories, 6 grams protein, 64 grams carbohydrates, 43 grams sugar, 19 grams fat, 122 milligrams cholesterol, 197 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.

Lemon Curd

Makes 14 servings

4 large eggs

1 cup sugar

1 tablespoon lemon zest

1/2 cup fresh lemon juice

Pinch of salt

1/2 cup unsalted butter, cut  into pieces

1. Whisk eggs, sugar, lemon zest and juice. Add salt and butter.

2. Set heatproof bowl over pan of simmering water. Whisk constantly till thickened, 12 to 15 minutes. Pour through sieve into bowl.

3. Place parchment paper on surface of lemon curd. Refrigerate overnight. Makes 13/4 cups, or enough to serve with one cake.

Per serving: 136 calories, 2 grams protein, 15 grams carbohydrates, 15 grams sugar, 8 grams fat, 71 milligrams cholesterol, 82 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.

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