7 Tips for Tastier, Prettier Cakes


So you have to make an impressive cake? Don’t panic—we got you. Beautiful cakes are much more than expertly slicked buttercream frosting and piped rosettes. They’re about knowing little tricks for making the whole production prettier as well as tastier. Because, as senior food editor Dawn Perry says, “You can’t just put sprinkles on it and call it fun.” We chatted with the test kitchen cake mavens, and they gave us seven tips for achieving just that.

1. Go nuts
“Imperfect frosting job? Cover it with candied nuts,” suggests Perry. As well as being delicious, things like poppy seeds and chopped pecans are your friends.

2. Rethink that vanilla extract
A dash of the stuff can do a cake good. But you know what else can? A whole vanilla bean. “Scrape the seeds of one bean into your cake batter, frosting, or both,” suggests assistant food editor Claire Saffitz. The actual plant is much more floral and perfumey than the extract—and it actually tastes like vanilla. If you do want to use an extract, try almond extract. “It’s a flavor people recognize but can’t identify,” explains Saffitz. “It rounds out a cake where all you taste is sugar.” Be warned: With almond extract, less is more. Keep it at a couple of dashes.

3. Show a little skin
Not all cakes need to be completely covered in frosting, like this gorgeous tomboy cake. “Don’t feel like you need to frost the sides of a cake, especially a layer cake,” says Perry. “Let those beautiful layers peek through. Also: Sometimes, it’s just too much frosting.”

4. Give it a nice soak
The term “soak” is a little misleading when it comes to baking. You’re not physically submerging your cake in anything—just giving it a little extra moisture. “It’s also a great way to add flavor,” says Saffitz. Make simple syrup and add a couple tablespoons of bourbon or lemon juice. Then poke holes all over your cake with a toothpick, and drizzle the mixture over the surface. “Remember, sugar is a wet ingredient in baking,” says Perry, “which is why the soak will keep your cake moist.”

5. Go beyond the frosting
“You don’t have to make a buttercream frosting every time,” says Saffitz. Check out ganache, caramel sauce, or even some simple whipped cream.

6. Add a layer of fruit
“I love adding fruit curd between the layers of a cake,” says test kitchen contributor Jesse Dameck. “It adds a tart flavor for a break from that sugary frosting, as well as another texture.” We like lemon curd and raspberry jam, but you can experiment with any kind of preserves you like.

7. Stretch your layers
“Make it look like you’ve done more work than you really have,” says Saffitz, “and slice your layers in half.” It’s best done with a long, thin bread knife, very carefully, and with your eyes level to the center of the cake. Place your flat palm on the cake’s surface while you cut—it’ll help you get the layers more even.

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