Every year, I try to eat healthy after the caloric terror that is the holiday season, and every year my husband's January birthday comes around, and I go crazy making an elaborate layer cake.
Okay, so that last part is a relatively new tradition, but it's one that you can go ahead and mark on the calendar from here until eternity because I am officially obsessed. There is a reason so many food bloggers and Instagrammers go all in on the cake aesthetic: MAKING CAKE IS SO FUN.
This is the three-layered cake I made for the husband last night. Why three layers? Why the heck not! The first layer is this champagne cake from Molly Yeh plus some sprinkles I dumped in the batter; the second is a chocolate-hazelnut cake I came up with after consulting a bunch of similar recipes; and the top layer is a coconut cake also from Yeh that I have made four times in the past 12 months because it is so freakin amazing and coconuty.
Choosing the flavors was the toughest part. I figured the coconut and chocolate would taste good together, and that the champagne would be a relatively plain flavor I could add sprinkles to that wouldn't make things too weird. For frosting, I did a classic chocolate, a coconut (basically, vanilla frosting with some coconut milk), and a standard vanilla for covering the entire cake.
There are some ambitious, labor-intensive foods that I like eating (potstickers where you at), so I make them, even though the process always takes longer than I anticipate and at the end of two hours in my kitchen I am ready to collapse, potsticker dough caking my counter and my face. But then there is cake. I love making cake. I find it so soothing and magical, the whisking and the rising and the sprinkling of it all. It is definitely a lot, especially if you go to the trouble of making your cake look as good as it tastes.
This is my second year making and decorating family birthday cakes, and I have learned some things. Like, you need plans for a second event at which you can serve the rest of the cake, otherwise you will have way too much cake in the house for two people who are trying to get back to their wedding bodies thank you very much.
Here are some other cake tips:
Follow the instructions.
Baking is a science, not a free-form art project like a lot of other cooking. You need to measure your flour and extracts. You need to set the oven timer for 28 minutes if that's what the recipe says. You need to let the cake cool in the pan before dumping it out onto the counter, because pieces of it will stick to the pan and ruin your first attempt at the coconut layer. Just a hypothetical. And this one is key: If a recipe calls for whipping butter, especially for use in a frosting, go ahead and whip it GOOD, like the song says, until it is smooth and fluffy, so you don't have chunks of butter roaming around in the finished product.
Don't make it all in one night.
You can, sure, but it will take hours because each of your cakes needs at least 30 minutes to bake. I made the cakes one night, refrigerated them, then assembled and decorated the day we'd be eating them. Plus, cakes are way easier to work with when they're cool, so decorating them straight out of the fridge is ideal. (Though make sure to let your frosting sit out at room temp at least an hour before you need it.)
Buy a small cake pan
I made this year's cake in a 6-inch cake pan, and it was great for reasons that are threefold. 1. So dang cute!!! 2. Most recipes make enough to fill at least two of these pans, so if you mess up the first one, you can try again. 3. It's ultimately easier to work with a smaller cake, especially when you're layering. (Also, the leftover batter can become cupcakes.)
Go to town with the sprinkles
You need some real skill to flawlessly frost a multi-tiered cake, and I have not mastered that yet. So I do what I can, then I distract from the less attractive frosting spots with lots of doodads. Mostly, sprinkles! Try gently pressing some onto the side of the cake - it's messy, but the finished look is festive AF.
Cake crumbs are pretty
Got leftover cake? If you used a small cake pan, you sure do! Crumble them up and sprinkle them on top of your cake, or gently press them onto the frosted sides. I used the extra cake with sprinkles in it, which made things extra festive, but even plain white cake crumbs look uniquely pretty against a backdrop of frosting.