"Love to cook, hate to bake" is a commonly held sentiment among chefs. Why? Baking in general, and confection in particular, has a reputation for being tedious, inflexible, and focused on perfection. But baking blogger and cookbook author Amanda Rettke thinks that shouldn't be the case. She makes what she calls "Surprise-Inside" cakes, which when sliced into reveal three-dimensional, multilayered, rainbow-colored shapes and images. They may look complicated, but Rettke says the stakes with baking like this are actually pretty low. Her methods work just as well with boxed mixes (though she does encourage using homemade frosting) and she makes a very good point about the upside of screwing up when you bake: "You can always eat the evidence."
Rettke has a book signing and baking demonstration coming up this Friday at 5:30 p.m. at Kitchen in the Market at Midtown Global Market, where you can sample treats, drink bubbly, and see how, exactly, she gets cake inside of cake. We caught up with Rettke to chat about her most ambitious designs, the cons of writing a book about something new, and the best food dye for the job.
Hot Dish: How did you get started baking? What were some of your earliest baking memories?
Amanda Rettke: I grew up in a non-baking household, actually. My mom was kind of of the mindset that if there was a party or something that required a cake, you could just run out and buy one from the store. By the time I had young kids -- and anyone with little kids will probably relate -- it seemed like there were birthdays and events all the time. I couldn't afford to be buying cupcakes for everything so I started baking myself. The blog I had started, IAmMommy, was just kind of dull. I realized how much my baking projects starting seeping into it and decided to make a whole other offshoot just dedicated to that.
HD: And what inspired you to start doing these reveal cakes, specifically?
AR: We had this church event in the fall and I just knew everyone would be doing cakes in the shape of a pumpkin, or like, Jack-O-Lantern cakes. I just decided I would try to get that shape inside the cake instead. Once I started with those methods and playing with different ways to do it, it totally caught on. This British TV baking show actually had a challenge where they had to make a Surprise-Inside cake and they instructed contestants to start with my blog!
HD: It must be a lot of anticipation to get to that big reveal once you are finished with the whole cake and you've done all the steps. What is usually the reaction when people see the surprise part of the Surprise-Inside cake?
AR: The first reaction -- if it's people just commenting on pictures of my cakes on the internet -- is that the cakes are fakes. That they must be photoshopped. After they watch video of me actually doing it, or they somehow realize that it's real and I really made it, the next question I get is always, "You must be really good at math, right?"
HD: Does it help to be able to kind of work out figures when you are doing a new design or making a plan for a pattern?
AR (laughing): It might, but if that's true I would be an exception to that rule! Some people might plot it out more measured, but I do methods where you don't really have to be that exact. Anybody can make these cakes and make a good impression with them. You can use boxed mix or really any batter that works well for you. The important thing is that it is a cake with a good crumb -- not too wet, not too dry. But a lot of the stability of the cake comes from actually chilling them. Cold cake is easier to cut and sturdier when you're inserting shapes or building layers.
HD: Do you need really specific equipment to make these cakes? Are you loyal to any certain products for achieving the right colors and things of that nature?
AR: I use an offset spatula and a rotating cake stand for decorating with pretty much every cake I make. As far as food dye, if you want to get that really brilliant, saturated color you have to go for the McCormick ones. I did try using the fruit-and-vegetable derived India Tree dyes and I like the idea, but there is really no comparison if you're going for bright color.
HD: Do you ever have concepts that just totally fall flat? Do you ever cut into it and find something very different from what you expected?
AR: I did do a cowboy boot once that was a total disaster. It did not look like a boot and none of the spikes of the spurs turned out at all. I have method that would work better for it now, but even so I don't think I would do it again. When I was shooting images for my book there was one cake where we cut into it and my photographer was like, "Well they can't all be winners, can they?"
HD: Yes, tell us more about the book! What was that experience like for you?
AR: Overall it was really enjoyable, but I just had to do it fast. I think I developed, baked, tested, and photographed like 30 cakes in 50 days or something close to it. The publisher wanted all the text and the images together, but then once it was done it sat for a long time because they didn't have anyone to edit it. I guess that's the problem with writing a cookbook on something that doesn't really have a precedent. But I'm very excited that it's out now.
Here's a tutorial on one of Rettke's spring-inspired Surprise-Inside cakes.