The cake is an essential part of any celebration, like a sugary anti-depressant.
In a chilly room at Junipa’s in Johannesburg’s Bryanston, giant cakes are assembled and iced. There are four of them on view and they look slightly battered and chipped. But they are due to be retired and are, in fact, only iced polystyrene.
Here, a four-tier wedding cake for 150 people costs about R8 000. Their latest is a huge cake with fancy white icing and iced rose petals. It is about half a metre high. At the base is a 37cm chocolate mousse cake, followed by concentrically smaller cakes — lemon poppy, red velvet and carrot.
There’s a lot going on at Junipa’s. It is an all-day (and some of the evening) café and bakery that also has a coffee roastery. The bakers make, among other things, sourdough bread, New York rye, sweet potato bread, brioche, boiled bagels and kitke.
It looks on to a parking lot and not the sea, but this is the case with almost every restaurant in Johannesburg if it is not in a mall.
The cake is an essential part of any celebration, like a sugary anti-depressant. At weddings, it has to be on the table at the reception as everyone files in and it must stay intact until the couple ceremonially cuts the first slice. It is only part done, and is then taken off to the kitchen and cut into portions.
What is surprising is how underwhelming a wedding cake usually is — passable at best and certainly not something to be remarked upon later.
Pastry chef Michael van der Merwe has the slightly pinkish look of a man who has spent most of his life next to an oven. He says it takes about eight hours to make some of the larger cakes and that customers are paying to ensure the cake arrives in one piece, because there is significant risk in balancing the layers.
Van der Merwe uses small plastic columns hidden inside the cakes — in this case three at each level — to support the layer above.
He says other bakers make the bottom layer of their cakes too heavy and strong. “They’ll make it for the structure, not for the taste.”
The first reference I was able to find to the now ubiquitous red velvet cake (also known as Satan’s, demon, devil’s food, or oxblood cake) was from the 1800s, but now it seems you cannot go into a cake shop in Johannesburg without finding one.
American pastry chef Stella Parks says: “Red velvet cake has become the archetypal mediocre dessert: style over substance. Oh, I get it. It’s pretty and red. But, holy crap, it’s not magic. You poured a freaking petrochemical straight into the batter. Of course it turned red.”
Like Martha Stewart, Van der Merwe uses beetroot, not dye. He bakes the beetroot, covered in foil, over salt and then purées them.
He serves me a perfect slice, iced with mascarpone and white chocolate. It has a pleasant, light texture, its sweetness, like that of carrot cake, cut by the beetroot. Also, there is something chocolatey, or perhaps like vanilla, in there.
He becomes a little vague when I start asking about the recipe: Eggs? How many?
“Yes, lots of eggs, and flour, sugar and chocolate,” is as far as he will go.
Junipa, Shop D4/D5 Hobart Grove, Grosvenor Road, Bryanston, Johannesburg. Tel: 011 706 2387. Website: junipas.co.za