Photo: Cake Power
Options abound when baking. Sometimes, you just want a simple cake you can sprinkle powdered sugar on, or drizzle with honey or jam.
Sometimes you want a homemade cake, but simply want to slather easy-peasy store-bought frosting (yep, we said it!) on it. Or maybe you have a go-to, no-fail frosting recipe like this one, just requiring butter, sugar, vanilla, and fewer than 10 minutes).
Or maybe you’re feeling super ambitious and ready to take on (gulp) 3D design? We tapped our top baking guru, Kate Sullivan of Cake Power, for advice.
Planning and Designing:
Sullivan explains that making the cake always takes longer than anyone thinks it’s going to take. In a bid to expedite the process, she says plan for more time than you think you’ll need. Really complex cakes take at least three days, and she often makes the 3D elements way ahead of time, leaving a cushion of days for repair or, if necessary, a do-over.
When you begin adding design elements, even simple ones, she advises sketching out designs for the cakes before the baking begins. Sullivan advises getting out the baking pans for your cakes and studying them before getting started, and if you are a serious baker, investing in pans that may be taller (3-4 inches) than the typical pans (2 inches), to add a sense of drama.
Here is Sullivan’s favorite silky-smooth super chocolatey cake recipe, with a fabulous layer of heat from the cardamom, which makes it perfect for either a plain or more complex cake.
Chocolate Cardamom Cake
Makes two 10-inch cakes2 ⅓ cups (325 grams) all-purpose flour
1 ½ cups (150 grams) unsweetened cocoa powder
1 ¼ teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon baking soda
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon ground green cardamom
3 cups (600 grams) granulated sugar
5 large eggs, room temperature
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
1 ½ cups buttermilk, room temperature
1 ½ sticks (170 grams) unsalted butter, melted
1 ½ cups strong espresso coffee
- Position rack in lower third of oven and preheat to 350°F (180°C). Line two 10-inch baking pans with parchment paper or flour pans. Set pans aside.
- In a large bowl, sift together the dry ingredients: flour, cocoa, salt, baking soda, baking powder, and ground cardamom.
- Stir in the sugar.
- In a small bowl combine the eggs and vanilla extract. Mix into the dry ingredients.
- Add the buttermilk, melted butter, and coffee.
- Scrape the batter into the prepared pans. (*Do not fill pans more than half way up, this recipe rises quite a bit and will overflow). Bake until set around the edges, and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, about 50 minutes.
- Transfer pans to a wire cooling rack. Let the cakes cool completely in their pans before removing. Loosen sides of cakes by running the flat side of a knife blade around the sides of each pan. Invert onto wire rack top-side down, and remove the pan. Reverse the layers by turning them top-side up again, to prevent layers from splitting.
- Cover in plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to a week. Or, add a layer of foil over the plastic wrap and freeze for up to two weeks.
Frost! Once the cakes are cooled, they’re ready for primetime. If you don’t have your favorite icing, considering ripping a page out of Sullivan’s well-paged playbook.
Sullivan’s Meringue Buttercream:2 cups (4 sticks, 450 grams) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
5 large egg whites
1 ½ cups (275 grams) granulated sugar
- In a mixing bowl, cream the butter. Blend in the vanilla. Set aside.
- In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the egg whites and sugar. Set the bowl over a pan of simmering water, and whisk continuously until the sugar has dissolved, about 3 minutes.
- Mix on high speed using the whisk attachment until firm glossy peaks form, about 4 minutes.
- Reduce the speed to low, and add the creamed butter, about ¼ cup at a time, to the meringue. Beat until smooth and don’t worry if it looks like it’s “breaking.” Just keep going.
- Refrigerate for up to one week. (To restore consistency, bring back to room temperature and just stir with a spatula).
Photo: Cake Power
There’s no shame in ye olden mom route of spelling out the first letter of the object of your affection’s name in M&M’s or sprinkles. But if you’re looking to up your game, put the icing piping sleeve down and consider these luxe-looking, but relatively easy-to-master, décor techniques.
Comprised of icing sugar, almonds and eggs, marzipan has been around for hundreds of years, and in an experienced sculptor’s hands it can be rendered into fruit, birds, and sweet woodland animals, among others. First-timers should opt for easy to master balls, or shapes that can be rolled out and cut with a knife.
For 2 pounds:
1 pound (0.5 kg) almond paste, cut into pieces
1 pound (0.5 kg) confectioners’ sugar
½ cup (75 grams) light corn syrup or glucose
Vegetable shortening, for hands
Combine paste, sugar, syrup in a bowl. Knead with vegetable shortening-coated hands to prevent sticking. Shape into balls and wrap in plastic wrap. Place in an airtight container until ready. Refrigerate for up to four months. Shape into desired balls, or flatten with a rolling pin and then cut with cookie cutters or carve simple shapes with a sharp knife.
Gum paste is pliable and doughlike; it can be rolled very thin and also turned into flowers, bows, cherries, banners, etc. First-timers, may we recommend the simple bow?1 cup (125 grams) gum-paste mix (available at cake supply stores and upscale markets)
1 tablespoons hot water
Vegetable shortening, for greasing
- Combine ½ cup of the mix with the water in a small, lightly greased glass or ceramic mixing bowl.
- When blended, work in the rest of the mix and knead into a ball. Grease the surface and wrap in plastic.
- Place in an airtight container in a cool, dry place for 12-24 hours before using. It can be kept for several months.
When you do attempt your first 3D confection, remember: Rome wasn’t built in a day! Even Kate Sullivan sometimes has to throw out her cake and start over. (And by throw out, we mean reserve for personal consumption). Tag us on Instagram and let us know how your baking adventures go!