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5 Things I Learned Watching Stella Parks Bake a Cake

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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.

Why BraveTart Should Be Your New Go-To Baking Book
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Why BraveTart Should Be Your New Go-To Baking Book

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:

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.

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.

Why Your Blondies Are Raw In the Middle (+ The Stella Parks Cure)
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Why Your Blondies Are Raw In the Middle (+ The Stella Parks Cure)

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.

All About Buttercream & How to Make 6 Different Types
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All About Buttercream & How to Make 6 Different Types

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:

Naturally-Dyed Red Velvet Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting

Naturally-Dyed Red Velvet Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting by Yossy Arefi

Red Velvet Icebox Cake

Red Velvet Icebox Cake by Anna Hezel

or maybe you're feeling chocolate

Fill us in on your best baking tips below.

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Tags: Bake, Baking Club