the 3 secrets of cake baking

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Let’s talk about cake. Cake intimidates. But it doesn’t mean to. It’s just that since the ’50s when box cakes became a thing, homemade cake got this image. You know, people started thinking that baking a cake using flour and eggs and butter and a hand-mixer was for only the Mrs. Cleavers of our world. But cake doesn’t want you to think that. Cake wants to be enjoyed, savored, and eaten for breakfast. I can’t lie to you and pretend that baking cake doesn’t have a learning curve, because it does. I won’t pretend that I haven’t cried over cakes–or even thrown my failures into the sink. That happens sometimes. Cake baking is a “skill born of experience,” is what my master-cake-baking grandma would say if I asked her to write this blog post. What that really means is that when it comes to cake, you’ll mess up a lot before you get good at it. And even when you’re good at it, you’ll still bake a flop sometimes. But the more you bake, the more you get it. So today I present you with

Charlotte’s Top-3 Secrets of Cake Baking

1. FAT

Yes, fat. Here’s the thing about cake: use the butter. Cake-baking is no place to use substitutions–for anything. Fat isn’t there to taunt your love handles–fat yields flavor, texture, and quality. Baking is science and chemistry. And fat matters. A lot. If you want to bump up the quality of your homemade cake, start with the fat. Use the butter! Use the whole milk! You’ll see–and more importantly taste–the difference. And while we’re at it, all of your ingredients should be at room temperature, unless otherwise noted. Eggs, milk, butter–pull it out of the fridge early so you don’t get stuck fiddling with a finnicky microwave. (And to clarify, butter should be both softened and slightly cool. I’ve made cakes with totally room temperature butter, and they weren’t as good. Something to do with emulsification or something. Ask Christopher Kimball if you really want to know.)

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2. Study

Know your recipe. Before you actually need to make your cake, read the recipe through completely. And read it through again. And again. And maybe one more time before you go to bed. The key to successful cake prep is knowing what step is next and knowing the order of things. I made this cake last week when we had family in town. It is intense. I read the recipe through a week before I actually had to make it, and kept referring back to it over and over before the Cake Day. You can’t go into any Cake Day and not be familiar with the cake at hand. If you really need to, write down a time-table or list out what you need to do when. Recipes themselves aren’t always clear on stuff like that.

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For instance, this chocolate-salted-caramel cake has several facets to its preparation. Wednesday I baked the actual cake layers, and then I froze them. Because I’d studied the recipe beforehand and had written down the order of certain steps, I knew that I first needed to cook one batch of caramel and mix it with the chocolate so it would have time to cool completely. While the chocolate-caramel combo was cooling, I cooked the second batch of caramel. (Yes, this recipe requires that you cook two batches of salted caramel–I know.) By the time I’d whipped the pound of butter in with the chocolate-caramel triumph, the second caramel batch was cool enough to begin assembling the cake. Know your recipe, bakers. 

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3. Chill 

Don’t be afraid of the cake. Be excited for the cake! Don’t worry yourself with calories or gluten or dairy or clean eating. Cake isn’t there to energize your body for a marathon. It’s not supposed to be healthy. So accept it. Embrace it. Just acknowledge that it’s okay to eat cake sometimes and not worry about the scale or whether or not it works in with your Whole 30. (Spoiler, good cake definitely won’t qualify for a Whole 30.) Sometimes I feel sad that people won’t eat cake. Is it really such a bad thing to eat something not-as-healthy every once in a while? Will that slice of chocolate-salted-caramel cake really ruin your body chemistry for ever and ever and ever? Sure, healthy eating is important, and yes, if you eat cake for breakfast every day, your body will notice and you probably won’t feel great. So just get real about it–cake has its place, and when we eat it, we should savor every single bite. We shouldn’t guilt ourselves about that second slice or beat ourselves up for licking the frosting beaters. When it comes to cake, it’s not an everyday kind of treat. It’s a special treat, and when we approach our diet with moderation in mind, we can sit down with that slice of cake and simply enjoy.

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If you approach your cake baking with the intent to enjoy the result, I think those good vibes translate to the cake somehow. You know, super scientific and everything. Cake energy.

***It’s important to clarify that if your body actually does react violently to things like gluten or refined sugar, proceed at your own risk. I have friends and family who would get physically sick if they ate cake, even delicious ones. So this particular secret to cake-baking is for the rest of us who have no excuse to say no to cake.***

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Surprise! An extra secret! Have a cake consult, someone who knows their cake and whom you can call for help, input, and advice. I have two primary cake consults (in addition to my mother, obviously), and they helped immensely with my chocolate-salted-caramel adventure last week. Baking is first about being delicious and second about making friends. So make some cake friends. They’re right there on par with my sewing friends.

So bake a cake this week! Or maybe bake a cake when it’s not 100-degrees out. But decide to bake a cake and do it. Learn it. You’ll never go back to Funfetti.

***A note on the featured chocolate-salted-caramel cake. You can find the recipe here. If you are a cake-baking novice, I do not recommend starting with this one. It is not for the faint of heart–both figuratively and literally. The frosting for this cake alone has a pound of butter and a pound of chocolate. It is not messing around. If you want to try out a cake that’s easier on the baker, I’d suggest trying out this one. I made this yellow cake for my mother-in-law’s birthday just last month, and it was a hit. The mixing method isn’t conventional, but it made for the best yellow cake I’ve ever made.***

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4 Comments

  1. Andrea Olmstead
    Posted July 7, 2014 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    Hi Charlotte – I just love watching you create!! This cake looks wonderful. Thanks for sharing. Andrea

  2. Andrea Olmstead
    Posted July 7, 2014 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    Hi Charlotte – I just love watching you create!! This cake looks wonderful. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Mom
    Posted July 7, 2014 at 10:02 pm | Permalink

    Impressively full layers! Grandma would be so proud.

  4. Marilyn Fowler
    Posted July 11, 2014 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

    LOVED your insights and just at the perfect time for me. My creative juices have been back to the goal of improving my cake baking abilities. Made Grandma Charlottes White Mountain Frosting, last week.. Turned out lovely but I must have put too much on as the cake layers slid!!! Tasted yummy, but oh the presentation was a disaster! I even said out loud, “Oh dear Charlotte, I’ve flunked my 4-H Project! Love you honey!!

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