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.
Earlier this week, I came across StoryCorps, a non-profit organization dedicated in providing “Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share, and preserve the stories of our lives.” Its mission definitely intrigued me, so I decided to look through their animated interview archive on YouTube, and ended up finding a treasure—a beautiful, poignant story entitled, “Q&A.” Joshua Littman, a 12-year-old honors student with Asberger’s syndrome—a form of Autism—interviews his mother Sarah on animals, love, and life.
If you enjoyed “Q&A,” be sure to check out StoryCorps’ YouTube channel for more interviews and their site for more information.
Well, “meet” doesn’t quite work in this case. Most of you already know Nancy from her co-hosting gig at Entertainment Tonight, the red carpet at awards shows, or one of the many projects she has on the side. Now you can catch Nancy each month in the pages of Parents as our entertainment correspondent. We’re always excited to see which stars she snags, like one of our celeb crushes…a Mr. Johnny Depp. She scored him and two other famous dads for her debut column in the February issue. Check out the Q&A by clicking here. For March, her celeb mom might just keep you Up All Night. Can you guess the star? Click here to read the interview.
I just read Dirt, a novel written by Susan Senator, that centers on the life of Emmy, a suburban mom whose oldest of three sons, Nick, has severe autism. Susan’s oldest son, Nat, also has autism, and she’s written two other nonfiction books: The Autism Mom’s Survival Guide and Making Peace With Autism. Dirt is poignant and leaves an impression. Although the story as a whole is about how parents Emmy and Eric, and younger brothers Henry and Dan, cope with Nick’s autism, I came away feeling that the book has something for everyone—whether you have a child with autism, or enjoy gardening. I spoke to Susan about her writing process, family, and future plans.
I’ve read your blog and your novel Dirt, and couldn’t help but notice a lot of similarities between both worlds. Was it hard to differentiate or separate fact from fiction?
It was not at all, because Dirt is not my life. Certain characters are based on family members (some heavily, like Nick), but they are still made-up people. Writing my memoir, Making Peace With Autism, on the other hand, was much harder because it was nonfiction and I had to remember details of events and conversations. With fiction you can just make it all up, as long as it feels real.
What sparked your interest in writing Dirt?
Dirt began as a book I called Suburban Blue, which was about one stay-at-home mom’s miserable existence in an upscale suburb, and her only escape is gardening. Eventually I became more interested in her sons, and then more and more I was giving them voices that were like my own sons’.
Has anyone from your family read the book? How did they feel about it?
My husband and my middle son Max (19) have read some of it. My husband loves it, and helped me with plot issues. Max told me that it helped him imagine how his older brother Nat (22) might think. Max has written a screenplay for the book trailer for YouTube! He is a film major at NYU.
Which character did you have the most fun creating? Who did you struggle with?
Nick and Dan were the most fun, because I could so easily feel them and imagine them. While they are not my sons Nat and Ben, they are similar to them. The ways they are different were so much fun to write that sometimes I laughed while I was typing.
I struggled the most with Emmy, because in earlier versions I had been told by readers that she was not that likable or that her motivations were mysterious. I worked hard to make her innermost thoughts more explicit, and to assume less about what the reader already understood. Because Emmy and I have many things in common, it was hard work making her thoughts and voice different from mine. I did not want to write about myself, and yet my main character has a lot of similarities to me, so I had to constantly and consciously choose carefully everything she said and thought and did. I had to keep hooking in to her the way I hooked into Nick and Dan, but it was more of an effort.
Was it difficult at times to write from the perspective of Nick?
It was easy, somehow, because I just tried to dive deep into my son Nat’s head, based on what I knew of his behavior, and also based on what other autistic people have told me about their perception processes. Nick is based partly on research, partly on observation, and partly on my own wishes. For instance, I wish my own son Nat had a passion for orange paint, so that we could do that together.
How is Nat doing?
Nat is wonderful. He just finished school and will be moving into a nearby house shared by roommates and a caregiver. Since finishing school, his language ability has suddenly blossomed. We don’t know why, but we are thrilled.
Emmy’s garden serves as her center of relaxation and reflection. Where do you unwind?
I unwind on my bike. I ride in all weather, all winter. The hard exercise helps me focus on nothing but movement. I also bellydance. I do have a garden, but it is a mess.
Any plans for a future book?
Definitely. I loved these characters and I miss them! I have a draft of a prequel, actually.
A prequel sounds great! How far back would you start?
The draft I have has Nick as 4 and Henry as 2. Dan’s not even born yet! Emmy is struggling with OCD, and they’ve only just bought their fixer-upper Victorian house.
What message are you hoping people will get from Dirt?
I think the message of the book is that families are really, really not perfect, and that happiness is not perfect; that love is messy and family life sometimes doesn’t make sense but that’s okay.