Food52 Life

All the Butter (& Planning) That Went Into Shooting 15 Cakes in 1 Day

October 24, 2016

Every few weeks I head into the Food52 offices with bins full of baked goods. Normally, it’s in preparation for some of my articles, but sometimes, it’s for a special shoot. Such was the case when editors Ali and Sarah wrote to me about making 15 (!) cakes, each from a new fall cookbook release, for the month of October. It quickly became known in my email thread as the “Cake Parade”—and a parade it was. But for me, it actually started about a month ago.

Before we could parade anything around, these cakes had to be made! The first part was the easiest—scheduling a Saturday for our photo shoot and marking on our calendars to fast the day before so there could be maximum levels of cake enjoyment (or maybe that was just me).

Next, I went into planning mode. The week of our cake shoot, I had several other shoots happening, so I had to get creative to manage it all. I read all of the recipes and jotted down notes: things that could be made ahead of time (and how far in advance), specialty grocery items I’d need to purchase, and items from my cake supply arsenal I’d need to pack up to make it all happen.

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More: Erin's handy tool for multi-tasking baking.

Making a list, checking it twice.

I have a relatively particular method for making grocery lists. I write a lot of grocery lists and grocery-shop in some capacity almost every day of the week! My method is likely silly to most, but I’ve honed it over the years to streamline the process and double check that I don’t leave anything out.

I comb through each recipe and hand-write ingredients in a list, making dashes on common ingredients, like butter or flour, so that the measurements for each recipe appear all in one line. Then I add it all up and type that into a pre-set list I have on my computer that breaks things down based on aisles of my grocery store. That way, everything in my list is in order and my shopping goes smoother. (Yea. Told you I spend a lot of time doing grocery related activities!) This cake shoot took:

  • 12 pounds of butter
  • 13 pounds of all purpose flour
  • 4 pounds of sugar
  • 7 pounds of confectioners’ sugar
  • 2 bottles of vanilla extract
  • plus many more ingredients to pull this all together!

Occasionally while going through the recipes I came across questions: an ingredient I needed help sourcing or an optional technique that needed to be clarified. A quick email to the trusty editors took care of any queries, then it was time to make my prep lists. I consulted my recipe notes, and made myself a to-do list for each recipe. Since cakes are pretty stable, I was able to make several things ahead of time (I made Devil’s Food Cake layers a few days ahead and froze—stay tuned for that recipe!). Other items were more time sensitive, like the Gooey Butter Cake, which is yeast risen and would need to be made the same day as the shoot.

Scene from a peanut massacre.

A photo posted by Erin Jeanne McDowell (@emcdowell) on

Above: The making of the Sweet Potato Hummingbird Cake from Poole's.

Once I had all the ingredients and my list ready to go, all that was left was baking. Nearly all of the recipes were baked in the same kinds of pans: 8-inch round, 9-inch round, or 9-inch springform. I baked in rotations to free up pans for the next cakes. As I always do when I have a big baking job, I set up a series of cooling racks outside of my kitchen so I can keep the countertops free to keep baking. When cakes were cool, I wrapped them tightly in plastic wrap, labeled them, and stored them (usually as directed by the recipe, occasionally in the manner I thought was best for optimal good looks come shoot time).

The day of our shoot, I was up at 5:30 am. I loaded all the cakes and ingredients still to be mixed into bins (4 big ones!), and loaded them into my car. I pulled up to the Food52 offices just before 7:00 am, and unloaded. Once I was unpacked, I tied my apron on and got to work. I baked all the cakes that needed to be made the same day, and I lined up the cakes that were finished on the counter so the editors could see which shots were ready to go. Once all the cakes were in the oven, I started decorating the ones I’d prepared in advance. Some recipes had specific instructions, but for the rest, I’d chat about décor techniques with the editors to determine the look we’d like best. I’m all about the swoopy frosting, so I eagerly awaited them to tell me to swoop away!

Swoooooooooopin' today at @food52

A photo posted by Erin Jeanne McDowell (@emcdowell) on

Above: Swoopin' the School-Party Sheet Cake from Better Baking.

After each cake was shot, it still wasn’t time to grab our forks (yet). We used most of the cakes twice to make a variety of additional images. Finally, I was able to eat a few bites as we neared the end of the day. I loaded my now empty bins back into my car around 5:30 pm, and went home to eat dinner (okay, okay—it was cake I’d stashed in my purse).

A lot goes into every Food52 photo shoot! But if you ask me, it’s all a little sweeter when it’s all about cakes.

We're in our final week of The Fall Cookbook Cake Parade! Head here to see all the cakes that have paraded so far.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

I always have three kinds of hot sauce in my purse. I have a soft spot for making people their favorite dessert, especially if it's wrapped in a pastry crust. My newest cookbook, Savory Baking, came out in Fall of 2022 - is full of recipes to translate a love of baking into recipes for breakfast, dinner, and everything in between!