I’ve been baking cakes since the Easy-Bake Oven era. In addition to the fact that I’m a fan of eating my creations, the act of creating them has always served as a kind of therapy. Something about the process of measuring and mixing and the artistry of spending hours on a fancy layer cake just calms my soul. But good heavens, keeping the baking therapy alive since becoming a full-time working mom has been rough. Determined not to let Mickey Mouse and diaper changes replace all of my hobbies, I took a new approach to cake baking. The EASY approach!
No matter your baking style, consider trying out a few of my favorite hacks the next time the baking bug strikes.
Jazz up a cake mix. I used to be one of those annoying people who insisted on making everything from scratch. It’s okay, you can judge. No longer! I now embrace the semi-homemade lifestyle. This shows up today in cake/cupcake baking. There are lots of easy ways to make a boxed cake mix taste un-boxed. My two go-to strategies are adding instant pudding mixes and flavor extracts. With the pudding, take any boxed mix and an instant pudding mix with a complementary flavor. Mix them together, follow the directions on the box, and voila! Dense and moist like fancy bakery cakes. Don’t have pudding mix? Trying adding a teaspoon or so of your favorite extract. You’d be amazed how a teaspoon of almond extract elevates the flavor of a white cake mix without tasting almond-y. And if you want it to literally fall from the pan after baking, invest in a can of floured baking spray (in the cooking spray aisle).
Homemade frosting made easy. To me, most commercially made frosting tastes too sweet or has a pretty unexciting texture. Gotta say, seeing that slathered on a sad cupcake just doesn’t entice me. I don’t know why I thought making frosting was hard, but it’s not. If you have a stand or handheld mixer and a few other ingredients, you’re golden! Over the years I’ve developed my own favorite recipe for light, fluffy, not-too-sweet frosting.
- 1/2 C butter and 1/2 C of vegetable shortening (or just 1 C of either if that’s all you’ve got)
- 3-4 C powdered sugar
- 1 tsp. of your favorite extract, like vanilla
- 2-5 Tbsp whipping cream, milk, or coffee creamer
Whip the butter and/or shortening until fluffy; add powdered sugar starting with whipping in 2 cups; taste and add 1/2 C at a time between tastings until you reach your desired sweetness; whip in the extract; add whipping cream, milk, or coffee creamer, starting with a smaller amount and adding more gradually the lighter/fluffier you want it to be until it tastes good to you. Lastly, the longer you whip it (whip it good), the fluffier it will be. Don’t be afraid to whip for 5-10 minutes on high. Seriously, it’s long.
Make extra layers or level with dental floss. Want to split a single layer into two or cut off that uneven cake top? It can be messy and uneven to do this with a knife. A neater way is to place toothpicks every 2-3 inches or so around the edge of the cake where you want to make the cut — you will use these as guides to keep your cut even. Using a serrated knife, make a “starter cut” approximately an inch into the cake. Then switch to a taut piece of dental floss, pulling it through the starter cut and across the cake and keeping it above the toothpicks (as though you were using it as a knife). Pull the toothpicks out and separate the layers. Need a visual? Click HERE to watch a helpful video by Food & Wine Magazine.
Freeze your cake a day ahead for easy decorating. This will make your decorating life so much easier. Since I don’t have much time after the kiddo goes to bed, I often find myself making cakes or cupcakes across multiple days. Simply bake your semi-homemade cake one night, let cool, and wrap each layer in plastic wrap. Even easier? Toss it in a gallon size plastic bag and squeeze out the air before sealing. Pop those cakes in the freezer until tomorrow night and you’ll find you have far fewer crumbs getting caught up in your frosting.
Keeping the serving plate neat: One of the most annoying things about frosting a cake is getting crumbs and excess frosting all over the nice serving plate as you go. Problem solved! Tear off three or four little (3-5 inch wide) strips of wax paper, parchment paper, or tin foil. Before you set the first layer on the serving plate arrange the strips so they cover all of the edges of the serving plate. It will look like you have a little triangle or square of exposed plate in the middle, with strips of wax or parchment hanging off the edges. This exposed spot is where you put a dollop of frosting (to keep the cake in place). Place the cake in the middle, frost it, and when you’re done gently pull the little slips out, leaving a neatly frosted cake on a neat and pretty plate.
Frost like a boss. Crumb coat, people! Nothing ruins the appearance of a frosted cake like stray crumbs emerging from the frosting. Avoid this by frosting twice. The first layer will be thin, essentially trapping all the pesky crumbs in frosting. Then stick your cake in the fridge for 10-15 minutes. Take it out and immediately put on a second, more substantial layer of frosting. You’ll have a nice, smooth finished product.
Hide mistakes with decoration. Don’t feel like putting time into frosting nicely but want it to look pretty? Cover a messy frosting job with decorations. My favorite is using toasted coconut to basically mask how ugly the rest of the cake might look. Let your imagination run wild. Other excellent masks may include colorful cereals (think Fruity Pebbles), sprinkles, chopped nuts, or anything else your heart desires.