Tessa Huff


Welcome to STYLE SWEET - a cake and pastry resource for the home baker. Explore, bake, and share!

Back to Basics: Cakes and Frostings!

Vanilla Cake with Pink Buttercream Frosting

Hi all!  Summer is officially over and it’s about that time where everyone heads back to school.  Well, everyone except our house.  Instead, I’ve put together the first Style Sweet CA Back to Basics Course!  I typically share recipes for my latest seasonal cravings, indulgent cakes with whimsical decorations, and a variety of French pastries for when I’m feeling fancy.  But not today (or this week, rather).  Today starts a new series where we are going to take a step back from the trendy drip cakes and unusual flavor combinations in order to get back to basic cake techniques and recipe box staples. 

A quick scroll through my recipe index and you’ll find cakes flavoured with matcha to rhubarb to gianduja and everything in between.  What I found was that it was missing some great basics.  It’s about time we fix that.  Need a go-to yellow cake batter or a quick, one-bowl sheet cake to feed a crowd?  I’ve got you covered.  Looking for a perfectly moist and chocolatey cupcake recipe to replace all others or the most heavenly cream cheese frosting you’ve ever tasted?  Just sit tight, we will get there soon. In addition to the recipes, I’ll be sharing little tidbits of cake knowledge sprinkled between the recipes from the role different ingredients play in creating tender crumbs and silky frosting and what’s in my cake decorating tool box to tricks like baking perfectly domed cupcakes and how to schedule out a multi-component cake.  Be sure to subscribe, follow along over the two weeks, and enter the giveaway at the end of this post!

Vanilla Cupcakes with Vanilla Bean Frosting.

That’s right, I’ll be giving away TWO signed copies of my book Layered: Baking, Building, and Styling Spectacular Cakes at the end of next week!  Find out how to enter at the bottom of this page.

Here’s a quick look at what we will be discussing over the next two weeks:

–  My Cake Baking Top 10, All About CHOCOLATE + Devil’s Food Chocolate Cupcakes
–  All About BUTTER + Classic Yellow Butter Cupcakes with Whipped Vanilla Buttercream
–  All About EGGS + White Cake and my go-to Swiss Meringue Buttercream
–  Layer Cake 101 + Old Fashion Red Velvet Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting
–  All About SUGAR, Cupcake Tips + Coconut Cupcakes with Italian Meringue Buttercream
–  All About FLOUR + One-bowl Chocolate Sheet Cake and the Giveaway announcement!

You can probably tell from my quick syllabus that I won’t be able to discuss everything under the sun regarding cakes (I’ll try my best!), but I still encourage you to follow along and share your thoughts/comments/concerns/questions along the way.  If you are newer to cake making, then this is the perfect way to start.  Already a master baker?  Then feel free to share your expert tips in the comments and just enjoy the little tidbits and pretty pictures.  This series is like a cake and frosting resource library of posts to be saved and referenced for all of your future cake needs.  Understanding the basic techniques, the ratios of ingredients that make a great cake, and the little bit of science behind it all will help you develop your own recipes and flavor combinations, too!  So let’s get started….

My Top 10 List for Cake Baking Success:

10.  Read Through the Entire Recipe Before Getting Started + Mise en Place
Reading the directions might be an obvious start, but understanding the steps and order of the ingredients can sometimes be undervalued and quickly brushed over.  Some recipes call for components that need plenty of time to rest/chill/cool, so be mindful when scheduling your baking sessions.  You’d hate to have a cake all ready to go only to find out that the ganache needs to be chilled for at least 4 hours before being whipped into frosting.  Likewise, some recipes, like caramel sauce, come together in a hurry, so it is best to be prepared and understand the process to keep stress and panic at bay.  In addition to reading and understanding the recipe, I recommend practicing Mise en Place or “putting in place.”  Having all of your ingredients pre-measured not only helps things move smoothly and stay organized, but it also lets you know if you are missing something.  Have you ever pre-heated the oven and started creaming your butter and sugar just to realize you are short an egg or cup of milk? Yup, I've been there, so don’t let that happen to you.

9.  Be Mindful of the Temperature of Your Ingredients
Similar to having ingredients pre-measured, the ingredients should be the correct temperature before getting started as well.  You will find the temperature when you read over the recipe (see #10).  Why does temperature matter?  Using room temperature butter, eggs, and dairy will create a more homogenous, smooth cake batter.  Butter needs to be softened in order to cream with sugar properly (see #2) and combine with butter or meringue to create luscious frostings.  In other recipes like pie dough, butter must be very cold in order to for it to stay “chunky” and not totally combine with the flour.  This way, when the pie dough hits the oven, the butter melts, steams, and creates air pockets as it bakes, resulting in tender, flakey crusts.

8.  Be Mindful of the ACTUAL Temperature of Your Oven
Speaking of temperature, get to know the ACTUAL temperature of your oven.  Unless your oven is calibrated often or you just happen to have the best oven ever (we are all super jealous), then there is a good chance that the temperature gauge on the outside does not accurately reflect what’s really going on inside.  For me, my oven runs ridiculously cold and takes forever to pre-heat.  How do I know this?  I keep an internal thermometer in my oven at all times and adjust accordingly.  My thermometer is nothing fancy - something I quickly picked up just at the grocery store when we moved.  My last oven was an inferno!  Your oven might also have hot/cold spots, so it’s wise to get to know it.  Either adjust the temperature dial or bake times to fit your needs.

7.  Properly Prepare Your Cake Pans
Is there anything worse than preparing a cake from scratch, patiently waiting for it to bake and cool, then being so frustrated because you can’t get the cake out of the pan?  Heartbreaking, I tell you.  I’ve been there too many times myself.  A good cake recipe will tell you how to properly prepare your pans, but I usually stick to grease and flour with most of my butter cakes.  Using either baking spray or vegetable oil and a pastry brush, coat the inside of your baking pan.  Add a few tablespoons of flour and shake around until the bottom and sides of the pan are covered.  Turn the pan upside down and tap out the excess.  Some cake recipes call for uncreased pans (like Angel food cake), but when in doubt, just line the bottom with parchment!

6.  Checking for Doneness Beyond the Clock
Since all ovens operate differently (see #8) and there are a multitude of other variables that can alter baking times, it best to know what a cake looks/feels like when it is done instead of solely relying on the clock.  For most layer cakes and cupcakes, I use the toothpick test.  Within the bake time (there should still be a window given), insert a toothpick or wooden skewer into the center of the cake.  If it comes out clean or with just a few crumbs, then the cake/cupcake is typically done baking.  Here are a few other clues to looks for to indicate that a cake is done:  A yellow or butter cake should be slightly browned on top when done; a sponge cake should spring back if gently pressed with a fingertip; the sides of the cake will start to pull away from the sides of the pan.

5.  Completely Cool Before Cutting
Want to know a secret for creating perfectly smooth frosting and even cake layers?  Never frost or cut a cake that isn’t completely cool!  I know how tempting a warm cake fresh from the oven can be, but trying to cut a warm cake may result in tears, cracks, and lots of crumbs.  Try to ice it too soon?  The heat from a warm cake can even melt the frosting right off the top.  So, have some patience, my dears!  And if you have the time, chill the cake wrapped well in plastic for even fewer crumbs and an easier cake-cutting experience.  In the fridge, the cake will firm up a bit, making it a little sturdier to slice!

4.  Use the Correct Consistency for Frosting Success
You might see a range of confectioner’s sugar and milk/cream in recipes for American Buttercream and fudge frosting.  Why, you ask?  For one, everyone’s room temperature butter may be a different temperature - making some frosting firmer or softer.  Second, a person’s desired consistency may very.  While some might like their cream cheese frosting super thick and others might want to keep it less sweet, be mindful of the consistency when trying to fill and frost a cake.  As you can imagine, a too runny frosting will slip and slide out from between the layers and down the edge of the cake, while a too stiff frosting will be difficult to spread and may cause the cake to tear and crumble.  So what do you look for?  With meringue-based buttercream, I look for thick, mayonnaise texture (just keep beating until you get there).  Ganache usually works as soon at is spreadable and stays on the offset spatula when you go to apply it, like a really soft peanut butter.  For American buttercream, I like to really whip it to add in some air to make it nice and fluffy.  I like it soft, airy, not to sweet, and not at all runny.

3.  Know When to Splurge on High Quality Ingredients
I try to keep organic dairy and eggs in the house at all times for my toddler, but I understand that high quality ingredients can add up fast.  In my humble opinion, there are certain times to splurge and other times you can totally get away with generic brands.  Thankfully, my regular grocery store's cake and all-purpose flour is even more awesome than anything I can find at a specialty store and Costco sugar bakes up wonderfully.  As a rule of thumb, I tend to splurge on unbaked items (think real vanilla bean in buttercream and high quality chocolate and cocoa in fudge frosting) where the flavours will really shine and keep conservative when I know some of the flavours will be baked away or muted by buttercream.  Plain but pure vanilla extract is always good idea in my book when it comes to chocolate or red velvet cake, but if you want a superior butter cake, go for the bean!  Likewise a culinary-grade matcha is just fine for being baked in a cake compared to premium brands used for sipping.  There’s usually no need to splurge on spices, just make sure they are fresh!

2.  Understand that Cream is More Than Just a Dairy Product
In my humble opinion, one of the most important steps to making a tender cake is in the cream.  Not the dairy product, but the act of mixing butter with sugar!  This step is usually first or second when it comes to baking a butter cake and shouldn’t be ignored, rushed, or skimped.  Using an electric mixer, beat softened butter with sugar until it is fluffy and pale in color.  This usually takes about 3 to 5 minutes.  During this process, the sugar granules cut into the butter to incorporate small pockets of air.  The friction helps the sugar start dissolving and the butter to soften even more.  Creamed butter and sugar distribute throughout the batter more evenly for a smooth batter.  Most importantly, the batter is more aerated and provides lift resulting in a tender crumb. Lastly, once you move on and add the next ingredient, you can’t go back, so be sure not to rush!

1.  Respect but Don’t Fear the Science Part of Baking
Baking doesn’t have to be scary, but there must be some amount of order and organization.  Unlike cooking, where recipes are likely more flexible and tossing in different ingredients now and then is more forgiving, there is some science involved with baking.  Too much sugar and your cake may crumble, not enough and it won’t be tender.  Likewise, things like flour are responsible for structure, but too much gluten formation will result in tough, dry baked goods.  That being said, respect but don’t fear the science part.  Once you begin to understand how different ingredients behave and what doughs/batters are supposed to look/feel/smell like, you start to figure out where you need to stick straight to the recipe and where you can change things up.  Cake recipes typically follow a ratio of ingredients (I like this explanation), but you can push those limits and change things up a bit.  Push too far, and you might have a baking flop, but keep within a certain distance and you can start to adapt a recipe to your own personal liking.  



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Today’s mini lesson is all about CHOCOLATE.  Specifically, let’s talk about the difference between natural cocoa powder, Dutch-process, and unsweetened baking chocolate in cake recipes.  First, the difference between cocoa powder and unsweetened baking chocolate.  The most important thing to learn about both is, don’t eat them alone!  You might be having the biggest chocolate craving ever, but don’t think that reaching for the spare cubes of baking chocolate in the back of the pantry will satisfy you the same way as a candy bar. 

Now that we’ve got that cleared up, let’s dive a bit deeper.  So what’s the difference anyways?  At first glance, one is a powder while the other is a solid.  Both are made up from cocoa butter and cocoa solids, but in drastically different amounts.  Cocoa powder has very little cocoa butter (sometimes as low as 10%) while with pure unsweetened chocolate it’s about 50/50.  Cocoa butter accounts for the rich, creamy texture while the cocoa solids pack in the flavor.  Due to its convenience and powdery properties, cocoa powder might seem like a lesser chocolate but this isn’t true at all.  In fact, when looked at ounce for ounce, the flavor is actually much more intense!

Cocoa powder is convenient, cost-effcient, easy to use and generally preferred in cakes and bakes for its intense flavor.  These types of recipes typically call for fats in other forms (regular butter or oil vs cocoa butter) and don’t rely on those from unsweetened baking chocolate.  However, in creamy desserts that depend on the silkiness that cocoa butter provides, then unsweetened baking chocolate is recommended.  

Due to the difference in flavor and texture (fats), it can be difficult to substitute cocoa powder for unsweetened baking chocolate in a recipe, and vice versa.  If you are in pinch, check out this article for conversion tips.  

Natural vs Dutch-process Cocoa Powder:  Surely you’ve seen both in the baking aisle, but how are you to know which to buy?  And what is the difference anyways?  Acidity.

Natural cocoa powder, is well, natural.  It has not been treated to balance the natural acidity of the cocoa powder.  It is usually lighter in color because of this.  To balance the taste, recipes that use natural cocoa powder also call for baking soda.  Think Hershey’s Cocoa Powder.

Dutch-process is cocoa powder that has been processed to neutralize its acidity.  It is much darker in color and paired with baking powder rather than baking soda to leaven baked goods.  If given the option, I usually favour dutch-process in frostings and glazes for its deeper, fudgier yet mellow taste. 

Which is better?  Well that’s up to you, but you should probably stick to what the recipe calls for.  Still not sure?  If the cake/cookie/quick bread is primarily leavened with baking powder, then grab the Dutched.  If it uses more baking soda, then stick with natural.  If the recipe has both, then there might another acidic element like buttermilk that accounts for the use of baking soda.

What about chocolate cake recipes that begin with dissolving cocoa in boiling water versus those that sift the cocoa powder right in with the dry ingredients?  There’s probably not that big of a notable difference, but if you were to do a side-by-side taste test, the boiling water one would probably win.  “Blooming” the cocoa in the boiling water first allows the flavours to intensify.  Using strong coffee instead of water or adding in a bit of instant espresso powder also brings out more chocolate flavor.  A lot of people ask about substitutions for the coffee in my chocolate cake recipes.  You can always go back to hot water, but the coffee is there to enhance the chocolate.  You can’t even taste the coffee.

And since we are talking about chocolate, let's take a look back at what I refer to as The BEST Devil's Food Chocolate Cupcakes:

The BEST Devil's Food Chocolate Cupcake Recipe

The Best Devil’s Food Cupcake Recipe
4 ounces dark chocolate (about 70%), chopped
¼ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 ¼ cup boing water
1 ½ cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon instant espresso
1 cup unsalted butter, very soft – slightly melty
1 cup granulated sugar
6 tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon almond extract
3 large eggs
½ cup milk 

1.     Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.  Line a cupcake pan and set aside.

2.     Combine the chopped chocolate, cocoa powder, and boiling water together.  Stir to combine and set aside.

3.     Sift together the dry ingredients and set aside.

4.     Using an electric mixer, combine the super soft butter with the sugars.  Mix for a couple minutes until thoroughly combined.

5.     Add the vanilla, almond, and eggs – one at a time, making sure each in incorporated before adding in the next.  Stop mixing and scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl.

6.     With the mixer on low, stream in the chocolate mixture until combined.

7.     Slowly add in half of the dry ingredients and mix until combined.  Stream in the milk.  Stop the mixer and scrape down the bowl.

8.     Add in the remaining dry ingredients and mix until combined.

9.     Evenly divide the batter into the cupcake pans and bake until done, about 22 to 24 minutes.

10. Let cool on a cooling rack before frosting.


Fudge Frosting Recipe
1 ½ cups unsalted butter, softened
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon espresso powder
5 1/2 cups powdered sugar, sifted
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 to 4 tablespoons milk
8 ounces semi or bittersweet chocolate, melted and cooled

Using an electric mixer, cream the butter until soft and smooth.  With the mixer on low, gradually add in the salt, espresso powder, sugar, cocoa, vanilla, and milk until incorporated. Mix on medium until soft and silky, yet not runny, adding more milk as needed.  Stop the mixer and scrape down the bowl.  Add in the melted chocolate and mix until combined.

And last, but certainly not least, enter for a chance to win a copy of my book!!  Happy Baking =)

Classic Vanilla Cupcakes with Whipped Vanilla Frosting

Classic Vanilla Cupcakes with Whipped Vanilla Frosting

Grandma's Lemon Chess Pie