A century before Marie Antoinette was born, Marie-Thérèse, the wife of Louis XIV, uttered the words “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” (we know it as the infamous “Let them eat cake” adage) which was transferred to the person of the ill-fated queen Marie Antoinette. Would Marie-Thérèse have had a naked cake?
First things first, because oh dear, the horrified look on your face demands to be wiped off. A naked cake is not a dirty reference to a phallic shaped cake or some similarly inspired gateaux. It is just as it sounds – no innuendoes involved. A cake that is left au naturel post baking.
The big trend in the bake-happy world is to strip icing off the wonderful confection called cake. Instead, pastel shades of buttercream are used to layer the sponges and often edible, wild flowers and sprightly coloured berries are added for a fresh, rustic touch.
At the head of the movement is Christina Tosi, New York’s master baker. Within the walls of her kitchen in her cutting-edge bakery, Momofuku Milk Bar, Tosi experiments with all kinds of baked goodies. She notes: “I love to eat cake. So I asked myself why was I hiding the colourful, textural parts of being in the kitchen behind a wall of décor? Why not challenge the norm? Let the stars be the cakes themselves.”
The Manhattan Milk Bar opened shop in 2008 with a promise of dabbling with fun American treats. The likes of crack pies and compost cookies figured prominently. Meanwhile Tosi who has authored two books, Momofuku Milk Bar and Milk Bar Life, has been slated by reviewers as the “talented new voice you want whispering in your ear as you bake”. She kicked off the trend of naked cakes or exposed crumb cakes, as she refers to them, with a funfetti birthday layer cake that had three tiers with layers of vanilla frosting, the outsides dotted with funfetti and cleverly topped up with birthday cake crumbs.
“When I opened Milk Bar, I wanted to redefine cake. I am an old soul-meets-tomboy-meets-classic-meets-quirk. Or, an old-school American baker-meets-junk foodie-meets-fancily-trained-pastry-chef,” adds Tosi.
Cakes have been partial to the frills of fondant and elaborate decorations since the Victorian era when wedding cakes were as ornate as they could get. Lumps of baked dough from the 14th century (called cakes though we would have a hard time associating them with today) met the concept of icing only in the 1760s when refined sugar became a common commodity in Europe. In the 21st century, birthdays and weddings are incomplete without an order of tall, unfrosted cakes.
“The visual social network Pinterest has stoked the trend for naked cakes. It has introduced the cool bride to the idea that she does not have to have a white wedding with cutlery. She started thinking, ‘I can get married anywhere. In a barn, a tipi or a village hall with lots of bunting’. The naked cake with its rustic appeal complements such simple but chic affairs,” says Cynthia Stroud, an English baker who tinkers around with naked cakes at her bakery, Pretty Gorgeous Cake Co., in Hertfordshire. Her bakery is one of the first few in England to play with the concept of naked cakes.
In the bakeries of Bombay, the word is out on exposed crumb cakes.
Not to be left behind in international baking trends and experimentations, head chef Rachita Doctor-Shah at Paagal Khana Kitchen (translated means, Mad Food Kitchen) puts her signature eggless twist on things. Cutting chai cakes are her particular quirky invention. If your eyebrows are reaching your scalp at the thought of what a cutting chai could be, it is a local Bombay term for ordering half cup tea in glasses. To give credence to her variation, Doctor-Shah puts layers of the cutting chai cake in a glass with ganache in the middle and minimal or no frosting on its sides.
On her otherwise bespoke kitchen menu are naked cakes in the shape of idlis, served up with a side of cream cheese chutney. Talk about baffling the senses in a happy, cake-some way. “In our made-to-order kitchen, we bake naked cupcakes with no buttercream and cakes for school parties, tea parties and house parties. We do ganache fillings, a cream cheese- honey coconut glaze topped with fresh figs, and often put an Indian twist to the cakes with a rose and almond flavour,” says Doctor-Shah who started her outfit with her husband three-and-a-half years ago.
Yes, flavours do make or break a naked cake. At Icing On Top, a bakery in Kemp’s Corner in Bombay, owner and head baker Ayushi Shah specializes in light and moist sponges with an emphasis on flavours. “The flavour is the It factor. We offer light and crumbly combinations – lemon, lavender and poppy seed cakes, green tea-almond cakes and a sesame and chocolate financier (financier cakes are rectangular cakes for tea time usually made with whisked egg whites). My favourites are the lemon, lavender and poppy seed cakes but the masala chai and almond cake is a hot seller,” says Shah.
The Marseille-born proprietor of an English dessert company called French Made, Lauren Delpech, makes sure that her unfrosted and pared-down cakes expose layers of sumptuous sponge but not dull on the eye or the taste buds.
“We believe in mixing up the look. For example, we are inspired by Rockabilly, one of the earliest genres of rock and roll music from the early ‘50s, fantasy such as the cult television show, Game of Thrones, and fairy tale themes. We can adorn the cakes with French biscuits, make them sit atop a tower of cupcakes. Really, you name it,” says Delpech who started her bakery in Essex, England, in 2010. Her motto: The quirkier the better.
Sticking to her French upbringing that stresses on a passion for all things stylish, Delpech does not compromise on taste. The most wanted flavours at French Made are Victoria Sponge and lemon cakes but they dabble in the exotic too. Try coconut and lime cake or a coffee flavoured cake with fresh cream, caramel frosting and toasted flaked almonds. Decorations differ according to the seasons – citrus and summer berries for spring-summer and richer flavours for autumn and winter such as black grapes and figs.
A cake with no icing means that there is nothing to hide the flaws of an imperfectly baked sponge. The sponge has to be perfect. “More time is spent in the baking of a naked cake. The sponge should not go too brown or rise too much. Else it goes into the bin. Details are key to the baking process. The sponge has to be cooled a certain way, turned upside down for an even finish. Often cakes crumble, are discarded and you start all over again,” points out Stroud who likes to layer her cakes with different flavours in each tier. Her range of flavours encompasses red velvet to coconut, passion fruit, peanut butter and strawberry.
If that is how the cookie (or shall we say cake) crumbles, assembling the layers of sponges is another matter altogether. “It takes me two hours to just assemble a four-tiered naked cake,” adds Stroud. Delpech goes a step ahead and sets up naked cakes at the venues for a party or a wedding. Consider this that the cake and fresh ingredients, such as fruits and flowers, shall dry out if left out too long. She also makes sure the cake is set up at the spot where it shall be displayed for the day.
Meanwhile the Hummingbird Bakery, which opened first in the hip and chic Notting Hill quarter of London in 2004, uses authentic American recipes for the sponge and frosting to ensure that their brand of naked cake is rich and deliciously moist. “For home bakers, the naked cake is less forgiving and it is a challenge to get the layers levelled out. The key is to take time and ensure that the frosting is spread evenly with a palette knife. It’s much like building a house with bricks and mortar – the level below will always influence the level above,” advises Tarek Maklouf, Managing Director, The Hummingbird Bakery.
“Failing that, if you are baking a naked cake at home, and there are imperfections in your sponge, a dusting of icing sugar will cover all sins,” adds Maklouf.
Now, there is a twist on semi-naked cakes which are also making the rounds among bakers. It is about putting a thin scraping of buttercream or frosting around the sides to dress up the cake. While Stroud declares it be to the “the halfway to hell”, Delpech says that the slightly frosted look is quite irresistible when made with white buttercream that can give it an elegant, wintery touch or funky with a coloured look.
Be warned that just because the thick layers of fondant icing or buttercream icing are not slathered on the outsides of the cake, naked cakes are not low calorie. The layers of buttercream add their sinful touch. And, prices are often a tad bit lower than regularly iced cakes. But again, it depends upon the ingredients you choose. Make it gluten free and organic and the cost goes up. Shah pegs her basic naked cakes with a chocolate flavour at Rs1500 a kg. Meanwhile Delpech’s cakes start at £140 for tiered cakes while Stroud charges about £350 for a 3-tier naked cake. These bakers point out that these variety of cakes have to be finished within a day because they dry out fast.
But when it comes to passing the acid test, Tosi who kicked it all off, has a checklist that has to be ticked off. “Texture, visual appeal, ability to execute consistently – if it doesn’t pass every test, it doesn’t make it on the menu. But flavour is always the first line of defence. Most importantly, you have got to innovate. Time spent in the kitchen should always be done with a sense of adventure.”
(A version of this story was published in The Telegraph, Calcutta, on November 15, 2015)