3 Showstopping Holiday Cakes That Taste As Good As They Look

Including this three-tiered gingerbread Bundt cake.

December 18, 2018
Photo by Rocky Luten

I don’t have that many winter holiday traditions. My family sticks firmly to their Thanksgiving feast plans, but we tend to go rogue come December. I remember one self-created tradition from my childhood, when we used to celebrate Christmas Day at my grandma’s house out in the country. I’d run inside, hug my grandma, then rush upstairs. Her bedroom had a balcony that overlooked the living room, where the tree was. I’d look at it from a bird’s-eye view. I’d try to spot my favorite ornaments, see how she hung the other decorations, and look for the biggest present so I could announce to everyone later who it was for. But that tradition died off as I got older, and as schedules shifted and we moved away from home, we started to do the holidays a little differently each year.

Now that I’m all grown up, and my brothers have kids of their own, we do the bulk of our celebrating on Christmas Eve, leaving Christmas Day a more casual, free-form day. How exactly we celebrate that day is always up for grabs. One year, it was just a handful of adults at my parents' house, wearing PJs all day, playing board games, and eating breakfast for dinner. Another year, we ended up with a full house—kids, grown-ups, neighbors, the whole lot. A few times my fiancé Derek, my mom, and I have cooked a fancy, multi-course meal for whomever’s still around—and this is a new tradition I’m growing to love. I like to have a few showstopping desserts up my sleeve that will be sure to wow at the end of the feast. So this year, I've created three holiday cakes that are perfect for any soirée, big or small.

First up, I decided to make a giant, sliceable version of one of my favorite cupcake recipes: the Peppermint Hi-Hat Cupcakes from my book, The Fearless Baker. I bake a single, tall devil’s food cake (this recipe is my favorite chocolate cake ever, plus it works with any cocoa powder, especially black cocoa). The tall cake is made even taller by an impressive mound of light and airy peppermint 7-minute frosting. Then, I chill the cake for a few minutes so that when I douse it with an all-over coating of thin milk chocolate glaze, it will firm up (think magic shell here). I garnish the base with some crushed peppermints to give a tiny hint at what’s going on inside—but the true beauty of this cake is when you slice it (seriously, I’ve heard gasps).

Next up: a delightful combination of chocolate and cranberry. This yummy chocolate cake is easy, and can be made without even hauling out the stand mixer, because it uses melted butter as a base and can be mixed by hand. The filling is a creamy mascarpone cream, with a homemade cranberry jam gently folded in, so it’s streaked with bright red. I keep this cake a "naked cake," for those who aren’t as crazy about frosting (plus, it looks gorgeous). But the filling itself is a perfect tart, creamy pairing with the dense chocolate cake. Piping the filling with a star tip between the layers makes for a beautiful ruffled effect. And finishing it with a beautiful pile of pink spun sugar launches it to holiday showstopper territory—and serves as a fun, impressive party trick to boot. (Learn how to make it in the recipe below!) In case the spun sugar seems like more than you want to tackle, it’s totally optional (and perfectly delicious without).

Last (but certainly not least!), I turn to one of my favorite kinds of cake: the classic Bundt. If you haven’t seen the amazing 3-tiered Bundt set from Nordic Ware (this post is unsponsored, by the way), add it to your Christmas list. It makes a beautiful, towering, tiered cake that’s easy to throw together with any of your favorite Bundt recipes. I used my set to make an impressive (but surprisingly easy) gingerbread Bundt—times three! The cakes are easy to stack, and can be finished with a simple glaze that looks like a million bucks. I make my glaze using powdered sugar and eggnog, then decorate it with candied cranberries and fresh herbs.

Whatever sort of holiday plans you have dreamt up, there’s a fancy and festive cake for you. What kind of sweets will appear on your holiday table this year?

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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!


Martin December 20, 2018
Oh Erin, how I wish I was part of your family. You'd get sick of seeing me around!
Aditi December 19, 2018
They all look absolutely gorgeous!