I can’t bake. This really should shock no one, baking is a precision science and I’m far too blase in the kitchen. But it’s deeper than that you see, because even when I give it my best shot, with the small exception of a couple tried and true cookie recipes, I can’t bake.
Seriously, ask me about the great fudge disaster that happened on New Year’s Eve 2019. It made for some lovely garden pavers. It single handedly cursed me to the the family’s “bad cook” reputation holder for about two years. I could not smokehouse mac and cheese my way out of that title, couldn’t homemade gnocchi soup my way out of it, even my fried pickles didn’t win them over (and yes I just used mac and cheese and soup as verbs, it’s legal….probably). It wasn’t until my cousin made some truly disastrous pumpkin pie bars that I was off the hook. Funnily enough she didn’t inherit the title… but I’m grateful nonetheless.
Thing is, I still end up on the hook for a lot of the birthday cakes around here. Why? Because I’m friends with the bakery ladies at my grocery store. Aaaaand because I can zhuzh a box mix with the best. Lemme explain.
(For those staring at the spelling of zhuzh, I was mad about it too)
Box mix cakes ask you to use foolproof ingredients so that people like me, chronic baking failures, can still achieve a pretty, fluffy, tasty cake. It’s usually something like a little bit of oil, some water, and an egg. Mix it up, throw it in a greased pan, Bob’s your uncle. Nice, satisfying cake.
But! Water and oils do not impart much flavor, so we can swap them out with relative ease. Butter is, unsurprisingly, my favorite swap for oil, as it gives you that warm, rich, buttery undertone and sometimes can make for a better texture (in my opinion). The taste of butter really starts to matter in lighter flavored cakes, think vanilla or lemon, so make sure you like it before swapping it out as a permanent solution. Also, important safety tip, salted vs unsalted butters taste, obviously, quite different and can drastically change your intended flavors.
Swapping in milk for the water works wonders too. I remember Alton Brown saying on Good Eats, my favorite cooking show ever, that most of the time, water in a recipe is a good chance to swap in flavor. You’ll almost always find me swapping stock or broths in for water in cooking recipes (it’s life changing for rice) and milk in my cake mixes. Buttermilk works too, makes it creamier, but you gotta add more. And it requires you to have buttermilk on hand which I rarely do. I have a friend who subs in cream cheese sometimes, but I’ve never been brave enough to try it.
I’m also a big fan of adding extracts! Obviously vanilla is a go-to, mostly for punching up the flavor in vanilla cakes but also for helping along the flavor in others. Chocolate loves vanilla, as does red velvet (basically chocolate on steroids) and caramel. Lemon seems to usually prefer lemon extract (i know shocking right?) But it does not hate vanilla.
Chocolate cake does well with so many additions, I think because chocolate cake can taste the most flat. Depending on my goals I’ll add anything from a little peppermint/spearmint or almond extracts, or if you have no one in your house with an aversion coffee (specifically espresso, but to be honest I’ve just added the last of whatever was brewed that morning), coffee is a fantastic compliment in chocolate cakes. It just elevates the richness in the chocolate, unless you add lots and then it lends its own flavor profile. It’s at this point we could probably talk about the solid flavorings like sprinkles and candies and things, but those require a whole level of know-how to prevent the sugars from burning, the chocolate from running to the bottom of the pan, etc. It’s generally something I’ve not played with because it worries me and I have a bad habit of walking away from the oven during cook time. While I don’t really have experience with solid mix-ins like chocolate chips or candies, and I know those can go terribly wrong, I do love a little food coloring to tailor a cake to its event. Obviously you’re more tied to vanilla cake at that point, but it’s worth it for the effect occasionally. You can get away with lemon if you are using warm tones for your colors.
The trick with all of these though, food coloring or flavoring, is remembering that you are adding extra liquid and to adjust other measures accordingly. Especially with red velvet cakes, you have to add a terrifying amount of coloring, and all that can throw off your milk/water ratios or risk making your batter too loose.
If you use pre-made icings, adding food coloring can actually be a much needed help to loosen them up a little. I don’t remember this being such an issue on the coast, although I didn’t bake nearly as much there, but for some reason here if I buy pre-made frostings they are for sure going to need some work before they are usable. So, food coloring and a little milk to make it spreadable, and extracts to lend flavor if needed. Otherwise it’s a solid sugar brick, regardless of brand.
Otherwise, decorating is an art all of its own. I’m not terribly patient, so I tend to frost and eat, but I have tried little chocolate ghosts, and I oven dried some pineapple into flowers once. I tried a couple star wars themed cakes, we don’t need to talk about those, but they proved people like candy on their cakes. As long as you remember the crumb coat and keep a patient spirit (and your cake is cooled) you can probably get away with a lot more than you think.
Alright, I’ve procrastinated enough, time to post this rant and go actually make some cake… or maybe cupcakes? Either way, I need some blue and pink desserts for a gender reveal and I’ve written myself out of time. Wish me luck!
Until we chat again, my friends.