Every family has its own sequence of nonnegotiable desserts during the holidays, and for mine, it’s a series of cakes. There is, without fail, a reliable slab of sticky toffee, packed with mashed, rehydrated dates, zapped under the broiler until its sauce of brown sugar and cream is bubbling furiously all along the top. My mother makes it, or I do, or my brother does. It doesn’t make a difference, because we all make it the same way. Then we eat it warm, with extra sauce on the side, picking back up on our endless conversation about the next day’s food plans, and the next day’s cake.
No matter how late the night, how big the dinner, how jet-lagged the out-of-town uncles and aunties, when a cake comes out, there’s a communal surge in appetite and spirits. Everyone has room for at least one piece. A cake is how we mark the rareness, the specialness, of time off in one another’s company. This time of year, I’m eager to show my family that I care about them, to make them something delicious, but also, if I’m being honest, to take the occasional break from them. I make a sticky toffee cake by heart, but then I’m drawn in by grander, more complicated cakes, by layered, frosted, patterned projects that reward my time and attention. Much like my family, baking is both a remedy for my stress and a source of it.
My earliest understanding of this goes back to Anne Shirley, of “Anne of Green Gables,” who at one point in the novel is sitting in the twilight of Prince Edward Island, goofing around with her best friend. She has plans to make a cake for guests the next day — fun! — but no, the task is giving her nightmares, visions of goblins, premonitions of disaster. “I just grow cold when I think of my layer cake,” Anne says. “Cakes have such a terrible habit of turning out bad, just when you especially want them to be good.”
This is a piece of well-established cake logic, familiar to anyone who has baked for a special occasion, and no one illustrated it better than Lucy Maud Montgomery, who wrote “Anne” more than 100 years ago. Though I never made the same mistake as Anne (swapping in a disgusting-tasting medicine for vanilla), I was responsible for all kinds of bad cakes when I first started baking as a child, reckless and unsupervised. There were warped, sloping cakes, speckled all over with hard pebbles of unsifted cocoa. There were inexplicably dense, flabby and elastic cakes, some still trembling and raw at the center, or a bit too browned at the edges, or forgotten and burned, or stuck tight in an unlined, ungreased pan, scratched out and served in crumbling pieces. There was the occasional pretty cake, too, but it would be crushed in the fridge by a toppling container of leftovers, or balanced on the narrow sill of an open kitchen window (because isn’t that what they did in cartoons?) and demolished by the dog. The edible cakes would be cheered, regardless of how they looked, sliced and shared, gone by the end of the day.Continue reading the main story
After I worked in restaurant kitchens, I learned to be more careful and precise, archiving all the tactile and visual reference points that would work like cues. I became good enough, at least, that I was enlisted to make birthday cakes for my friends. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I became obsessed with a single-subject Tumblr account at this exact time. The site, called Doom Cakes, cataloged cakes that cast long, dark, menacing shadows in films like “The Birds” and “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past.” While I waited for yellow layers to cool in their tins, I’d watch Matthew McConaughey in a shiny waistcoat, struggling to hold up a structurally unsound four-tier wedding cake, and failing. The intricately decorated layers would splatter, finally, in extravagant chaos. Genre didn’t matter. In animation, thrillers and romantic comedies, a cake was vulnerable, and usually a sign of imminent disaster.
These horrifying clips should have put me off, or slowed me down, but instead they propelled me to attempt more and more complicated techniques, and produce more elaborate cakes. A classic Opera cake for my mother’s birthday at home, the almond layers soaked in a boozy coffee syrup. A strawberry-and-cream sandwich built in an acetate-lined ring, carried to friends in Prospect Park on a dangerously warm day. I took a thick roll of spongecake filled with yuzu curd to my boyfriend’s father in the hospital and left it on a plastic folding table with a note, and built a wobbly whirly-domed charlotte that was grotesquely beautiful, serving it after a lunch at home of salad and fried chicken. At a friend’s apartment in Brooklyn, I glazed a sheet cake layered with mint buttercream and chocolate ganache, piping tiny, unnecessary patterns all over it out of melted dark chocolate. What I found was that I baked well with a shiver of dread, that I liked the feeling of rushing ahead without knowing with any certainty that everything would turn out all right. Dread motivated me in the kitchen, in the same way a looming deadline motivated me at my laptop.
When two of my closest friends in New York married, they didn’t ask me to make the cake, but they did give me the navy blue stand mixer they received as a wedding present. Before that, I did everything by hand, switching arms when I got tired, or turning to an ancient, wheezing electric whisk that would bend if it met cold butter and whir to a halt after a minute or two. The stand mixer made me feel superhuman, taking over all the hard work of creaming fats and sugars, whisking stiff meringues, mixing boiling hot sugar syrups into buttercream.
I still feel mildly anxious about making a beautiful cake, though it’s not necessary: If you read recipes a few times before you start, a cake is not, in fact, a mysterious adventure, revealing itself in snippets as you go. If it has been some time since you last baked, you can make sure you have all the ingredients ahead of time, and check the levels in your tin of baking powder and your pan sizes. The things that seem obvious now didn’t always. I occasionally take the temperature of my oven, to make sure it matches up with what’s on the dial (it usually doesn’t, and I adjust accordingly). I buy rolls of parchment paper to line the bottom of every pan. I use a digital scale and weigh everything out before I start. I let cakes cool, completely, before cutting or frosting them.
All year long, I’ve baked cakes I’ve read about on blogs and in books, and found my way to some favorites. A gingerbread cake, full of spice and warmth, doesn’t always need a frosting, Genevieve Ko reminded me. She makes a version with spelt flour and rehydrated prunes, hot with ginger, cinnamon and clove, and finishes it with a dusting of cocoa powder. It’s excellent right away, particularly light and tender and full of flavor, but it seemed to get even more mellow on Day 2. It came together quickly and required no decorating, simply taking on the curves of the Bundt pan.
Helen Goh and Yotam Ottolenghi’s lemon cake, frosted with black-currant buttercream, had been in the back of my mind since this past summer. It looked simple enough, but cut open, revealed several bright vertical layers, like a kind of magic trick. The technique was unusual — instead of making a long, skinny jellyroll out of the large sponge, they cut the cake into three pieces, connecting them to make one shorter, thicker roll, and then sitting it upright. I followed the recipe at home, amazed. By then it was fall, so I replaced the black currants with frozen cranberries, and the tart frosting turned a beautiful shade of pink.
Few recipe writers are as precise as Stella Parks, a former pastry chef whose instructions always fill me with a sense of clearheaded confidence. The batter for her devil’s-food cake comes together in a single pot, without any special equipment. But to call it a dump-it cake would be a kind of disservice: It bakes into an exceptional, sturdy but somehow very tender chocolate cake, buttery with a soft edge of bitterness. Stacked in three layers, covered with a thick meringue frosting, then torched like a giant marshmallow, it’s one of those cakes that defines the genre of showstopper.
I anticipate all kinds of minor catastrophes when my family gets together. I always do. This year, none of them have anything to do with cake.
Cranberry-Lemon Stripe Cake
When I first started baking in Melbourne, I made a simple chocolate cake, and it ended up on the front page of the weekend paper with the headline “World’s Best Chocolate Cake.” From then on, I had this cult following, and in a way, it was a lot of pressure. I didn’t have much experience, but it spurred me on to live up to this reputation.
I still have my practice as a psychologist in London; I also develop cakes for Ottolenghi, Yotam’s cafes in London. These have to be visually appealing, cut neatly and keep well in the window, because it’s an unrefrigerated counter. When Yotam rang me up, saying we needed more color in our cookbook, I had the idea that the best way to get color into a cake would be fruit. (My mother used to say, “Fruit is God’s candy.”)
I had seen a vertical-stripe technique before, and it isn’t difficult to do, once you get your head around it. The thing with this spongecake is to separate the yolks and whites. The meringue uses a little sugar, because if you whip it without sugar, it gets airy and dry. With sugar, you get a very glossy, slightly denser meringue, and when you fold it into the batter, it doesn’t break down as much. It’s strong but light, and still airy from the meringue. It’s quite a rich cake to eat. When you roll it up, sometimes the seam finishes really neatly, and sometimes it doesn’t, depending on the exact pan size you use. But I don’t worry about it too much: The buttercream covers it all up.
Devil’s-Food Cake With Toasted-Marshmallow Frosting
I’ve been making cakes since I was a child; we had a babysitter who would come over to the house with a box of cake mix and a tub of frosting, and we had a blast making cakes. By the time I was 9 or 10, I was ready to graduate from a mix and make them myself. I got super into it, and I made my first wedding cake, for money, at 16. I can remember the sheer terror of delivering it: My dad drove, and I was allowed to sit on the floor of the van with the cake, unbuckled, in case the layers moved around. This was what led me to culinary school, to a baking-and-pastry program, to restaurants. I thought, I want to really figure this out, because this is so fun I could do it forever.
Historically, a devil’s-food cake would have been a chocolate cake made with all butter, egg yolks, hot coffee and cocoa powder. A lot of cakes use the creaming method, because there’s so much sugar and butter that the batter is really dense, by nature. The way the ratio of mine is formulated, it’s not that dense, which means it doesn’t have the deep need for aeration that some batters do. I didn’t intend to develop a one-pot recipe, but that’s how it evolved.
Sugarplum Gingerbread Cake
I grew up in a Chinese-American family in Southern California, the first generation born here, and I didn’t taste gingerbread until well into adulthood. Both of my grandmothers lived with us — one from China and the other from Hong Kong — and they both loved sweets. As a treat, they’d offer me candied ginger, which can be hot and intense, along with many varieties of dried plums. And they’d buy cakes from Chinese bakeries, which would be very light and fluffy, not that sweet.
I didn’t taste gingerbread, but I always had a fantasy of gingerbread, as a warming cake that kids ate in snowy cabins. Once I started working at American food magazines, tinkering every year with gingerbread recipes, I wished for something different, and lighter in texture. I came back to this confluence of ginger and dried plums, the flavors that had been with me my whole life. Dried plums are earthy and almost a little funky. They have a gentle tannic quality that I also find in molasses, just on the edge of bitterness, which softens the harshness of the gingerbread and gives it layers of complexity. Rehydrated, the plums make up the liquid base of the batter, which keeps the cake’s texture light. So does the spelt flour, which has a natural, round sweetness. Because it’s an oil-based cake, it stays tender for days. This is the gingerbread I was always chasing.Continue reading the main story