Sweet Success – A La Carte Food Column, November 2010

Written by NOREEN LIVOTI | Oct 22, 2010 12:47 PM

It seems like it should be simple: Mix some flour, sugar and eggs, throw it in the oven, and voilà! But when baking a cake, there’s actually a rather large margin of error, and only one chance to get it right. Bakers are often compared to artists, especially those chefs who create elaborately decorated cakes or pastries. While there’s no denying their artistic ability, they may actually have more in common with those who wear lab coats and goggles than paint-splattered smocks.

“Baking is all chemistry,” says Shanelle Lee, owner of Bliss bakery, based in Ephrata. “If you change the temperature of an ingredient or whisk instead of using a mixer, you’re going to change the texture and end result of the product.” Still, if you were all thumbs with your Bunsen burner in high school, there’s no reason why tasty, pretty cakes are out of reach.

First of all, it’s not necessarily cheating to use a boxed cake mix — but try a few add-ons to get a “wow” factor. “Make a vanilla box cake, but add a pudding filling and a chocolate glaze to turn it into a Boston cream cake,” says Lee. And don’t just think of a traditional two-layered, frosted dessert: “Use a boxed mix for an angel food cake, cube it and layer it with fresh chopped strawberries and whipped cream in a trifle dish for a nice, easy dessert.”

Amy Parks, owner of Bumblebee Cupcakes in Gardners, south of Carlisle, says knowing what flavor combinations work well together also makes a huge difference. “Experiment often,” she suggests. “I add two shots of espresso to my chocolate cakes. This helps heighten the chocolate flavor, and the end result has no coffee flavor.” Salt is another favorite ingredient: Adding it to chocolate, especially, can actually turn the volume up on the taste. Lee also suggests adding different extracts to cake mixes to give the batter a more interesting flavor combination. One of her favorites is almond: “It adds an interesting edge to things but is sort of indistinguishable,” she says. “Use it sparingly, though: Only a quarter teaspoon makes a big difference.”

If you want to make your dessert a star but don’t have time to make everything from scratch, Lee suggests it’s what’s on the outside that counts: “One thing that always makes the difference is homemade icing.” Lee’s mother created a cream-cheese icing, which actually only requires four ingredients: confectioner’s sugar, butter, cream cheese and vanilla extract. Simply combine, beat until smooth, and use to cover cakes, cupcakes, cookies — basically any baked goods of your choice.

And if you’re not ready to tackle a full-sized cake, which can be trickier to cover with frosting and decorate, try the mini version: “Cupcakes are certainly very trendy right now,” says Lee. “They’re easier for a novice baker because they can be a bit more forgiving than a whole cake. Plus they’re much more fun to decorate.” Decorating doesn’t have to be difficult, but can take some creativity. “Don’t limit yourself to an icing bag and a bunch of tips,” says Lee. “Browse the decorating aisle at your local craft store and see what they have available.” Adds Parks, “You don’t need an expensive set of mixing tools. Don’t be afraid to make a mess and have fun.”

For example, consider the flavor of the cupcake itself when you’re decorating. Try adding some peppermint extract to a chocolate cake mix or recipe, frost with some green food-colored cream cheese icing, and top with a half a piece of chocolate-covered peppermint candy. Or, alter Lee’s Boston cream cake recipe by baking cupcakes from a vanilla boxed cake mix and, after they’re baked and cooled, filling each individual one with the vanilla pudding, using a pastry bag and dipping the tops in chocolate glaze.

While baking a great dessert can be accessible even to the novice, the ingredients can be tricky to deal with if you don’t follow a few tips from seasoned bakers. “Always soften your butter for half an hour at room temperature if the recipe calls for softened butter,” suggests Lee. “This goes back to the matter of chemistry. It’s important that your fat — butter — blends with your sugar properly. Softening it at room temperature ensures this.”

Says Parks, “Always beat your butter and sugar before you mix anything else in. This makes the cake light and fluffy.” Also, for extra-fluffy baked goods, separate your eggs. “Add the yolks, and then right at the end, whip up the whites and add them to your batter. You will get a great cake all the time.” Those eggs should also be used at room temperature and, especially as a home baker, use the pan sizes the recipe calls for — don’t, say, bake something in a Bundt pan if it calls for a 9-by-13. “In that same vein, don’t be afraid to mess up — take some chances,” says Lee. “My opinion is that you should just have fun with it. Take the time it requires — don’t try to rush baking.”


2 Tablespoons cake flour

2 Tablespoons sugar

¼ teaspoon baking powder

2 teaspoons cocoa powder

Pinch of salt

2 Tablespoons milk

½ teaspoon vanilla

2 teaspoons oil

Spray the inside of a microwave-safe coffee mug with nonstick spray. Measure the ingredients into the mug and stir with a fork until smooth. Microwave on high for 60 seconds.


42 Oreos (leave 30 whole and coarsely chop 12)

2 lb. cream cheese, softened

1 cup sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

4 eggs, lightly beaten

1 cup sour cream

Pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 275°F. Line muffin pans. Place one cookie in the bottom of each cup. Beat cream cheese on medium. Gradually add sugar, beating until combined. Beat in vanilla. Drizzle eggs in a bit at a time. Beat in sour cream and salt. Stir in chopped cookies. Divide batter among pans. Bake for 22 minutes or until filling is set. Cool completely on wire racks. Refrigerate at least 4 hours.


2 cups 10x sugar

4 Tablespoons butter, softened

8 oz. cream cheese, softened

2 teaspoons vanilla

Combine ingredients and beat until smooth.


¾ cup flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

16 oz. dark chocolate, coarsely chopped

10 Tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch pieces

6 eggs

1¼ cup sugar

1 cup brown sugar

1 Tablespoon vanilla

1 cup semisweet chocolate chips

1 cup white chocolate chips

1 cup dried cherries

Sift together flour, baking powder and salt. Combine dark chocolate and butter and melt until smooth. Set aside to cool. Beat eggs and sugar on high until pale and thick, about 5 minutes. Add cooled chocolate mixture and vanilla and beat until just combined. Add flour mixture on low speed until just combined. Fold in chocolate chips, white chocolate chips and cherries. Refrigerate 6 hours or overnight. Preheat oven to 375°F. Line two baking sheets with parchment. Drop by rounded tablespoons onto prepared sheets about 1 inch apart. Bake for 10-12 minutes, rotating pans halfway through baking time, until tops are set and begin to crack. Remove from oven and let cool slightly before removing from pans.

Recipes courtesy Shanelle Lee

Published in A La Carte

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