Hello, Non-Bakers: This Cranberry-Frosted Chocolate Cake is Your Starting Point

November 17, 2016

I've said this so many times I'm starting to bore myself: I am not a baker. Sometimes I bake. But it's not the kind of cooking I do to blow off steam; for that I need stews and sauces, roasts and lasagnas. Biscuits are an exception: I have such a deep love for them that I chose the simplest recipe I could find that gave great results and made it enough times that I don't have to think about it anymore.

But cake is not biscuits. I have made plenty of cakes in my life. In fact, I have a couple of standbys (like this applesauce cake) and I've even made wedding cakes for a couple friends—and lived to suffer the resulting PTSD.

I consider the prospect of buttering and flouring cake pans, assembling all my ingredients, stirring together batter, pouring it into said cake pans, nervously monitoring the oven so it doesn't over-bake, then coaxing it out of the hot pans without it tearing and waiting some more for the cakes to cool before finally making and applying the icing... and I feel dread.

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Some find baking meditative, but I find it tedious and frustrating. I want to see the progress as I gradually build out a dish. I find my groove in the kitchen by surrendering myself to a fluid, dynamic rhythm of multitasking and constant adaptation. When you try to do that with cake, the results are rarely pretty.

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Top Comment:
“Looks so good <3 Do you guys think I can substitute the cranberries with cherries? Reaaalllly want to bake a chocolate cherry cake for bf'a birthday~”
— Sofie L.

I counted, and of the 215 recipes I have added to this site, a grand total of five are cakes. That's a measly 2 percent.

But once in a while I come across a cake so compelling I feel a strange impulse to replicate it myself. This happened with the carrot zucchini muffins from my favorite neighborhood cafe (which I turned into a loaf cake) and my friend Betsy's blueberry lemon cake. I'm usually tempted by a cake I know I can pull off pretty easily—meaning I'm not going to need to beat egg whites separately and then fold them into the batter, or something crazy like that.

A few weeks ago I met with temptation at Gather, my morning coffee stop on the way to the subway. They always have great-looking cakes on display, but this one was a stunner: a chocolate layer cake (layers!) embellished with the most beautiful pink frosting. When my pal Everett (who makes excellent coffee) told me it was cranberry frosting, I had to try a slice. The frosting was buttery and rich, with a discernible tang from the cranberries that kind of blew my mind paired with the chocolate.

I can do this, I thought, swiping up the last bit of pink icing: I just have to purée cranberries and fold them into my go-to buttercream (used for the aforementioned wedding cakes), then make Amanda's Chocolate Dump-it-Cake in two cake pans instead of a tube pan, put it all together and that's that! And let's be honest: My husband's birthday was that weekend, so I was going to be making cake anyway.

And it wasn't so bad after all. I skipped sifting together the dry ingredients for the cake (it turned out just fine), and I had to actively restrain myself from simultaneously pan-frying brussels sprouts and starting a risotto while the buttercream was doing its thing in the mixer. But in the end, it was all pretty painless. And two Food52 team members called it "the best cake of their lives." So there's that.

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Sheila Ann Spottswood
    Sheila Ann Spottswood
  • kate a
    kate a
  • April
  • Sofie Lee
    Sofie Lee
  • Kenzi Wilbur
    Kenzi Wilbur
I'm a native New Yorker, Le Cordon Bleu graduate, former food writer/editor turned entrepreneur, mother of two, and unapologetic lover of cheese.


Sheila A. February 5, 2017
why make 2 cups cranberry puree if only using 1/4 cup?
kate A. December 29, 2016
Do you think I could use thawed frozen cranberries?
d W. November 15, 2019
I don't see where it would make a difference...I freeze many bags of cranberries in the fall so I have them for relish and sauce all spring and summer and use them as I would fresh. Have done it for many decades. No problems
April November 17, 2016
The recipe says bake for 20 minutes in the tube pan, so is the time the same for the two round pans? Thanks for the clarification.
Merrill S. November 17, 2016
It should say to bake the cake in the two round pans for 20 minutes. (The tube pan takes longer.) Sorry for the mistake!
Sofie L. November 17, 2016
Looks so good <3 Do you guys think I can substitute the cranberries with cherries? Reaaalllly want to bake a chocolate cherry cake for bf'a birthday~
Merrill S. November 17, 2016
Yes, but keep in mind you won't need to use as much sugar!
Kenzi W. November 17, 2016
From a fellow non-baker: I can't wait to try this!