5 Things I Learned Watching Stella Parks Bake a Cake

July 19, 2018

I have mentioned once, okay, twice, about my deep love for Zingerman’s, a family of food-related businesses in my town of Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Non-Michiganders don’t have to miss out, as they ship delicious foods anywhere in America. But one Zingerman’s experience that requires an in-person visit is its BAKE! classes and demonstrations, like this past weekend’s with baking wizard Stella Parks.

The class was titled “BraveTart with Stella Parks,” so as you might expect, we got to see her make favorites from her book, BraveTart. Parks made a red wine velvet cake with cream cheese German buttercream frosting and homemade chocolate sprinkles. It was as delicious as you’d expect, and it was even sweeter to personally thank Parks for her ongoing participation in our Baking Club, long after the month her book was featured. But my very favorite part of the day was how much I learned. And because it would be selfish to keep that all to myself, here are my top five takeaways:

Shop the Story

1. Make the frosting first. I’ve always made the cake first and then frosting, without any thought to the excess wait time. But Parks suggests making the frosting first to better maximize downtimes between the two recipes.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“Visited Zingerman's for the first time last year. Loved it. You are so lucky to attend Stella's class. Thank you for sharing what you learned - wonderful tips!”
— mcs3000

2. We already know from Parks that proper creaming is really, really important. Equally important might be adding in the salt and leavener(s) called for in the recipe, when creaming sugar and butter, too. Not only does this do a better job of homogenizing the ingredients (it’s hard to evenly whisk salt and baking soda into flour when they’re all the same color!), but it also coats the leavener in butter, giving it a little barrier against prematurely reacting with the liquid ingredients before the batter goes into the oven.

3. Alternating small amounts of wet and dry ingredients into the batter serves an important purpose. It ensures you won’t crush all of the air bubbles you just created by properly creaming (by adding all of the dry ingredients at once), flood the batter (by adding all of the wet ingredients at once), or get a lumpy batter (by dumping all of both of them in at once).

4. If you battle with cake layers that dome, you likely need taller cake pans. Parks explained that when the batter has more room, it will rise flatter, and even brought along her preferred non-reactive, 3-inch tall ones for us to see. On Serious Eats she explains further why the 3-inch depth is important, saying:

If using a pan that's only two inches deep or less, you cakes will still be pretty tasty, but bear in mind they'll rise less, which will give them a denser texture, a more pronounced dome on top, and deeper surface browning. In a great cake, those aren't make-or-break defects, but a cake that bakes up thick, flat, and pale (indicative of a more delicate crust) is the ideal.

5. If something goes wrong with your buttercream, it can almost always be fixed. Parks had an opportunity to walk us through this, as her buttercream prepared in advance was very soft and almost soupy at 60° F. She quickly diagnosed the problem, the custard (the first part of the German buttercream recipe) hadn’t cooked long enough to denature a starch-dissolving enzyme found in egg yolks, which resulted in an excessively soft texture—she countered it by adding in more cold butter. Parks also shared that buttercream’s ideal temperature range is between 70 and 74° F and its weight should be around 6 ounces per cup. That all sounds finicky, but really they’re just helpful troubleshooting tools—if your buttercream is too thick to spread, perhaps it’s a little too cold or wasn’t whipped quite long enough.

You can find the recipe for the cake we watched her bake, her Red Wine Velvet Cake, here, or try one of these variations on the classic:

or maybe you're feeling chocolate

Fill us in on your best baking tips below.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • judy
  • jenniebgood
  • Karen
  • mcs3000
  • Smaug
I like esoteric facts about vegetables. Author of the IACP Award-nominated cookbook, Cooking with Scraps.


judy April 10, 2021
Thank you for sharing for those of us who will probably never have the opportunity to attend a Stella Parks seminar. I have learned many valuable tricks and techniques from watching actual cooking shows, more from the easier days when there were fewer competitions and more cooking. Anyway. I am a much better cook for having done so (after almost committing Joy of Cooking 1960's edition to memory growing up and as a new bride in the late 70's). My favorite takeaway from this article is the explanation for the use of 3" deep pans. I recently bought some Fat Daddio's at 3" deep instead of two, and did notice a difference, but certainly had no idea why? Most helpful? Putting the learners in with the fat instead of the dry ingredients. I use a whisk to mix them in, but always wonder if I mixed them well. My best trick for that is putting in some dark spice as well. If the spice is well distributed, then I guess the learners are as well. But one never knows. But there are other good reasons listed as well. Thanks again for sharing.
jenniebgood August 1, 2018
Stella/Bravetarts tips are not only always fantastic (e.g., use/re-use sugar as a pie weight and - bonus! - get some caramelized sugar for future use), but her thought process/reasoning always makes such perfect sense.
Karen July 23, 2018
I don't understand the first tip. Maximise downtime for frosting? Are you saying it's good to let the frosting rest for a long time before using?
Lindsay-Jean H. July 23, 2018
It could depend on your frosting and cake recipes for sure. In this case, she made a cream cheese German buttercream frosting that required cooling time for a custard, so it made sense to get that going, and then get the cake going, rather than waiting to do the frosting at the end. So it's just about reading the recipes first and figuring out how to maximize the inactive times of cooling/baking/etc.
mcs3000 July 20, 2018
Visited Zingerman's for the first time last year. Loved it. You are so lucky to attend Stella's class. Thank you for sharing what you learned - wonderful tips!
Lindsay-Jean H. July 20, 2018
Aren't they great?! I did indeed feel very lucky.
Smaug July 19, 2018
Never understood the idea of whisking together flour and other dry ingredients together. A sifter will do an infinitely better job and remove lumps, which baking soda etc. is likely to develop in an amateur kitchen, where turnover is irregular and storage conditions not as well controlled.
Lindsay-Jean H. July 20, 2018