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How to bake the best cake

Baking these classic treats is both a science and an art, but there’s always room to experiment.

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Photos by: Kelly Neil

Recipes Featured In This Article

Baker Glynnis Kennedy remembers a time in Newfoundland when brides only had two options when it came to their wedding cake: light or dark fruitcake. Even without refrigeration, the long-lasting slabs would keep for weeks, and there was no danger that a multi-tiered cake would collapse. “Literally, it was like stacking bricks,” she says with a laugh.

Luckily, from wedding to birthday cakes, a lot has changed since then. In fact, thanks to advances in the science of baking and the architecture of cake design, along with the rising popularity of cake-related television shows and blogs, bakers are increasingly whipping up delectable works of art that are as beautiful as they are delicious.


About 10 years ago, while she was on maternity leave, Kennedy became obsessed with baking television shows. So her husband bought her a starter set of decorating tools. “He said, ‘It’s all you’ve been talking about, try this,’” she says. She started making cakes for friends and family and her hobby quickly snowballed into a full-fledged career. She says business is booming.

“I turn down twice as many cakes as I can take per week,” says Kennedy, whose hand-painted designs have included orange flames on a Harley-Davidson cake, jewel-toned peacock feathers on a wedding cake, and one extraordinary life-sized trout on a Father’s Day cake. “A lot of people are increasingly using cakes as the centrepiece for birthdays, for christenings, for anniversaries. They really want that wow factor.”

The sky may be the limit on the size and designs of cakes, says Jody Waugh, owner of Seahorse Sweets in Hammond Plains, Nova Scotia. But when it comes to flavour, most people tend to play it safe. “By far the most popular flavour is vanilla bean or a vanilla-almond cake with buttercream icing,” Waugh says. “Not a lot of people, if you offer them a slice of vanilla cake, will say no.”

In the village of Paquetville, New Brunswick, where Dawn Lee started her company the Cake Boutique in 2008, vanilla and chocolate are by far the best sellers. Still, she says specialty flavours like red velvet and strawberry are becoming more popular.

A family favourite at Kennedy’s house in Paradise, Newfoundland is orange cake with orange cream-cheese frosting. Prince Edward Island baker Jennifer Prinz says her family loves a seasonal spiced applesauce cake when the weather turns chilly.

While cake baking may seem simple on the surface, Lee says baking is as much a science as it is an art. “You have to have the exact ingredients, your measurements have to be very precise, your timing has to be very precise,” she says. “It has to be a moist cake, but you don’t want a light cake because with all the decorating it has to be pretty durable.”


When it comes to icing, bakers tend to fall into two different camps. Many coat their cakes in fondant, a light sugar-based coating that can be rolled out and draped over a cake. It provides a flawless finish and outlasts buttercreams when exposed to heat or light, which is why it is popular on wedding cakes.

Some bakers swear by American buttercream, an icing made from creaming icing sugar into softened butter. With the addition of other ingredients, you can transform an American buttercream into Italian meringue buttercream by incorporating a stable mixture of whipped eggs whites and sugar syrup, or into French buttercream, which uses whipped egg yolks instead of whites.

Waugh says she tries to use buttercream over fondant, wherever possible, simply because she prefers the flavour. “I find fondant doesn’t taste as good,” she says. “I would much rather bite into a piece of buttercream than fondant,” although she concedes that many people, particularly brides, love the photo-friendly, blemish-free finish it provides.

Sometimes it comes down to practicality. Prinz, who owns City View Bakehouse in Charlottetown, P.E.I., says fondant gives more security to the cake, particularly if it’s a very large or design-heavy cake. “If it’s out for a long period of time any cake will melt, but with a buttercream cake you really have no time at all,” she says.

“If you’re going to indulge, make it taste really good.”

Plus, you can shape and paint fondant to resemble nearly anything, from a flowing waterfall to a ruffled ribbon. Ombre cakes, or cakes with graduated colour palettes, are increasingly popular for weddings, says Prinz, as are handcrafted flowers.

Either way, there is consensus on one thing: icing is there to complement the cake. For instance, Waugh spreads a rich and slightly savoury cream-cheese icing on her family’s favourite carrot cake, which helps balance the strong spices and sweetness. In fact, the options are nearly endless. You can blend zests from limes, lemons and oranges into buttercreams for brightness, and steep aromatic herbs like lavender, verbena or rosemary in milk or cream to incorporate easily into an elegant and unconventional buttercream.

For aspiring cake bakers, Kennedy says the best way to find a foolproof recipe is through research and trial and error; she spends hours online looking at new recipes and variations on traditional cakes. “After a while you get to see the common denominators in the recipe, and the twists,” she says. “Then you should start to tweak it yourself to come up with recipes that you like.”

When developing a recipe, Waugh never cuts corners. She always adds extra vanilla and will typically substitute melted butter for oil in any recipe. “It’s not as healthy, but it’s cake and you don’t eat it every day,” she laughs. “If you’re going to indulge, make it taste really good.”

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