Friday, April 25th, 2014
Self-taught baker, blogger, and mother of five Amanda Rettke created her first surprise-inside cake four years ago. Since then, she has crafted countless confections that reveal rainbow hearts, butterflies, balloons, and even houses (!). The busy baker also homeschools her children, writes for FoodNetwork.com, and recently released her debut book, Surprise-Inside Cakes. Amanda’s recipes range from simple to intricate, so you can recreate her inventive designs no matter your level of kitchen experience. Read on for her tips for whipping up better-than-the-bakery desserts—it’s a piece of cake!
You were first inspired to bake a surprise-inside cake while preparing for a potluck. Where in the world did this idea come from?
To put it simply, I wanted to bring something completely different. It was Halloween and I knew everyone would have run-of-the-mill seasonal desserts. I knew I could make a pumpkin-shaped cake, but that wasn’t unique enough. When I saw a few white cupcakes sitting on my counter, the idea just hit me: pop them inside, in the shape of a candle. Honestly, I was shocked that it worked. And, ironically, that cake never made it to the potluck—we ate the entire thing at home!
And you had never done this before?
That’s right. In the kitchen, I had no formal—or even informal—training whatsoever. In fact, my husband did all the cooking when we first got married. So I had to teach myself everything. I was so terrible that the first time I tried to make a cake that I forgot to add some of the wet ingredients. Whoops!
So what’s the process like in creating one of these confections?
I use three general techniques. The first is deconstruction, when I stack multiple layers, cut shapes out, and fill in the holes with another piece of cake or a cake mixture [Rainbow Cake, page 41]. The second is batter manipulation, where I place different colored batters into the pan in a specific pattern [Leopard Cake, page 109]. And then there’s the twice-bake method [Candle Rose Cake, page 131], where I stick hand-molded cake shapes into new batter.
Okay, you’ve got me hooked. How do I begin?
Twice-baked is where to start. Cut a design from a sheet cake (like the hearts in my Candle Rose Cake) and place it in a clean cake pan. Then surround your shapes with cake batter, which acts as insulation and keeps everything moist.
And once I’ve mastered the twice-baked method, what’s next?
Move on to a layer cake. It seems simple, but it really does challenge your cutting, leveling, and frosting skills. Plus you’ll learn how to physically handle a cake and, in turn, build a strong comfort level required to move forward with other designs.
That’s easy enough. But with the other, more intricate cakes, it seems there is a lot of measuring and geometry involved…
Actually, there are only a few cakes that I’ve measured beforehand. Most others require such a trial and error process that I typically just get right into it: I dig in, cut out shapes, and add new colors and textures. To me, cake is a form of art.
With all this creativity, do your kids like to join in on the fun?
This is one of the best things you can with your kids. For my kids, the idea of making a cake and then playing with it is thrilling. I’ve also found ways to incorporate baking into home-school lessons: measuring, cutting, and building three-dimensional designs.
I can see beginners (like myself) getting frustrated when their cakes aren’t executed perfectly. Did this happen to you? How did you overcome it?
I’ve had more failures than successes by far, yet we’ve always found a way to hide the evidence … haha. But in all seriousness, I had more than 60 cakes that didn’t make it into the book. Because I’ll have an idea that I then try to create and it turns out nothing like it’s supposed to. For an important event, practice making your cake at least once ahead of time. Get a sense of what you need to improve on when you go to polish the final product before the big day. The plus side is that no matter what the result, you get to eat cake!
One of my favorite lines from the introduction is: “It doesn’t have to be perfect to be appreciated.” What does this mean to you?
You know, I really believe that mantra applies to all avenues of life, but especially with baking. There is a great debate between using boxed mixes and from-scratch recipes, but I just can’t embrace choosing sides. In my opinion the same amount of love goes into both. No one cares if you jazzed-up a store-bought treat or if your homemade cake slides halfway off in the car on the way there. When people bake and share their creations, they are simply spreading joy.
Where do you find the time to “practice, practice, practice,” as you advise, while balancing a high-traffic blog and busy family life?
The truth is everything doesn’t stay balanced. A typical day for me: We eat breakfast together as a family, and then the kids and I start school—sometimes that includes me holding a screaming baby, or changing a dirty diaper. Each day can be a struggle just as much as it can be a blessing. I can’t strive for perfection, but I do strive to make it through my day with peace. To us, the things that matter most are learning something at the end of every day, and figuring out how to be better the next.
Interview has been edited and condensed.
Images by Susan Powers; published with permission from William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publisher.
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