By Marcia Pilgeram
It’s a wrap, folks. The 16th annual Heart Ball proved as successful as its predecessors. The following night, I watched the Grammys and thought that the Bonner General Health Foundation’s fundraising event was as glamorous — ladies dressed in their finery, accessorized by dazzling diamonds, opera gloves and bejeweled stilettos.
I attended as a volunteer (and cultural observer), so my dress is always real-world black, though I try to add a splash of color to my practical look. My primary task was helping set up the over-the-top cakes and assisting with the foundation’s sales during the fast-paced auction. Once again, we had the support of some of the best youth in Bonner County: the HOSA-Future Health Professionals.
Carrying the magnificent culinary creations from the “front of the house” to the service area can be daunting. Cakes are sometimes top-heavy and/or just plain heavy. And perishable. Though the students are often nervous about the cake procession, I’ve never seen a cake mishap at the Heart Ball. I have, however, seen my fair share of cake disasters, and many involved me for one reason or another.
Thirty-plus years ago (in 1993), I was commissioned to make a birthday cake for the cover of the alumni magazine, Montanan, to commemorate the 100th anniversary celebration of the University of Montana. The triple-tiered, stacked cake was actually frosted Styrofoam. The top layer, created with cardboard and royal icing, was a to-scale miniature replica of Main Hall — also known as University Hall and the oldest building on the University of Montana campus.
For a more authentic look, I went to the local hobby shop and purchased model railroad trees to stand sentry on either side of Main Hall. The middle layer was adorned with 100 candles along the edge, and the bottom layer’s decorations included hand-stenciled UM logos created from thin royal icing.
The cake was tall and cumbersome; but, fortunately, it wasn’t too heavy. We loaded it into the catering van and hauled it to a local photographer’s studio for setup. I’d mentally worked on this cake for months and knew I needed plenty of helpers so we could quickly light all 100 candles and back away swiftly for the cover shot. Once the photo was taken, we had damp cotton towels to lay over the flames and extinguish them to prevent any smoke damage to the cake (in case we needed to redo the photos).
Again, this was a well-rehearsed project — at least in my mind. I had not counted on those tiny, life-like trees bursting into flames and melting into little pools of metal right before our eyes. Fortunately, the photographer got his shot, we extinguished the fire, and the damages were limited to several burned trees and one bruised ego.
At that time, the restaurant I operated was the former banquet kitchen and ballroom in the Florence Hotel, in Missoula, which had been converted to office space. My space had been shuttered for more than 20 years, and locals — especially older ones — were thrilled when I restored it to its former glory. We were booked every weekend for significant events, especially weddings. I made some wedding cakes and had a fabulous baker, named Diane. Between us, we churned out a lot of beautiful and tasty celebration cakes.
Sadly, more than one bride volunteered a best friend who would make their cake, as a wedding gift. And more than one cake met its demise on the cake table. Top-heavy cakes toppled. Other cakes, coated in thick buttercream, became like mountains, with the sweet butter mix avalanching down the pedestal and onto the table. Cakes that made it through the cutting process were often filled with skewers and other reinforcement pieces that occasionally made their way into a guest’s mouth. I finally started charging a hefty cake-cutting fee, which cut down on the number of homemade cakes. We also had a sign next to the cake, thanking the baker by name (we didn’t want credit)!
I made cakes that my crew carried across swinging bridges, rafted to river islands and on ski lifts to a mountaintop. I always came equipped with extra garnish (camouflage), pastry bags filled with fix-it frosting and prayers. I never had a casualty I couldn’t fix, but I came close more than once.
I learned to limit the cake and filling choices that left my premises, and baked many a hike-proof and robust layer, like carrot or banana cakes. My banana cake became a big hit. I’d like to think the recipe will be a hit with you, too.
Banana and pecan cake (8 – 12 servings)
Moist and dense, this cake is delicious, and travels well. For a tropical taste, substitute pecans with macadamia nuts, and sprinkle with toasted coconut. Yield: 2 layer cake or 9” x 13” loaf cake.
• 2-3 ripe, mashed bananas (about 1 cup)
• 2 tsp cider vinegar
• 3 cups all-purpose flour
• 1 tsp baking powder
• 1 tsp baking soda
• ½ tsp salt
• ¾ cup unsalted butter, softened
• 1 cup granulated sugar
• 1 cup light brown sugar
• 3 large eggs
• 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
• ½ cup Greek yogurt
• 1 cup milk
• ½ cup toasted and chopped pecans
• ½ cup unsalted butter, softened
• 1 ½ packages of softened cream cheese (12 oz total)
• 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
• 1 tsp pure almond extract
• 4 cups powdered sugar
• 2 tbs heavy whipping cream
Preheat oven to 325° Fahrenheit.
Grease and line with parchment paper, a 9 x 13-inch pan — or for a layer cake, 2 separate 8-inch round cake pans; set aside.
In a small bowl, mash bananas and stir in vinegar; set aside.
In a medium bowl, whisk flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt; set aside.
In a large bowl of standup mixer, cream butter and sugars until light and fluffy. Scrape bottom, and beat in eggs one at a time, add vanilla extract and yogurt and mix again. Add the bananas, and mix in.
Add the flour mixture alternately with milk, mixing until smooth, but don’t over mix. By hand, fold in pecans for loaf cake. If layer cake, save to sprinkle pecans on top of cakes.
Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake in preheated oven for 30-40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean (cooking time will vary by ovens).
For frosting, in a large bowl, cream butter and cream cheese until smooth. Scrape mixing bowl. Beat in vanilla, add powdered sugar and beat on low speed until combined, then on high until frosting is smooth. Add cream and beat until well mixed.
Spread on top of cooled cake and sprinkle with additional pecans if desired. If layer cake, place so that pecans are on the top of the bottom cake, coat with icing, and place other cake upside down, so pecans are in center of layers in the buttercream. Frost sides and top and sprinkle with additional pecans if needed.
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