Few things top off a family celebration better than sharing a delicious cake. It’s a relatively easy to make dessert, and once you have a few classic cakes in your repertoire, you can get creative and add your own personal touches.
There are hundreds of cake options out there, from fluffy sponge to fudgy chocolate gateau to creamy cheesecake. These are our 10 favourites that will please all tastes and can be adapted for any occasion.
You can make decadent chocolate cake with either melted chocolate or unsweetened cocoa powder. Use natural cocoa powder unless a recipe specifically calls for Dutch process, which will react differently with the other batter ingredients. When it comes to finishing your cake, try a chocolate buttercream or fudge icing. Prefer something dairy-free? Believe it or not, puréed avocado adds creaminess and silky texture to frosting without the need for butter.
A favourite treat among home cooks during World War II—when sugar was rationed—the carrot cake is still enjoyed today. Carrots are naturally sweet, and when shredded, they bring incredible moistness to cakes. You might want to add pineapple chunks, plump raisins or walnuts for extra flavour and texture. And the topping of choice is a thick layer of decadent cream cheese icing, which can be sprinkled with toasted walnuts, toasted coconut or slivered almonds.
Red velvet cake
With its dramatic scarlet colouring, red velvet cake is a gorgeous treat with chocolate flavour thanks to cocoa powder. While the cake’s origin is contested, rumour has it that it was first served in the 1930s at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York. It was later featured at Eaton’s department store in Toronto and was a favourite of Lady Eaton herself. Food colouring or beet juice can be used to turn your batter the right shade of red. Then frost this cake with white cream cheese or ricotta icing. The blood-red hue of red velvet cake is a natural fit for Halloween-themed desserts.
While it’s traditionally made with nine eggs plus one pound each of butter, flour and sugar, modern takes on pound cake are typically lighter than the original, but no less delicious. You can easily make this dessert your own by adding in berries or citrus zest, or even marbling the batter with a different colour or flavour. The trick to creating incredible volume is to cream the eggs and butter really well, with both ingredients starting at room temperature. Pound cake is so rich that you don’t need to bother with frosting, but you can apply a light glaze if you’re showing it off.
For mousse-like consistency and intensely chocolatey results, nothing beats a flourless cake—plus, it’s gluten-free! To create a pretty presentation and interesting texture, you can encrust the outside with toasted nuts or coconut, or candied fruit. Another decadent option: Top it off with chocolate sauce or whipped cream and a dusting of cocoa powder. Berries or orange zest make a beautiful garnish and a sweet contrast to the slightly bitter chocolate flavour. If you’re also looking for a dairy-free dessert, you could substitute the butter typically used in this cake with coconut oil.
Olive oil cake
Moist in the centre with a beautiful crust, this cake uses no butter and takes on the subtle fruitiness of the oil. You can even push this dessert over to the savoury side by adding fresh herbs like rosemary or thyme. Semolina flour gives a satisfying texture and sturdy crumb, and in some recipes it’s combined with all-purpose flour. Add a subtly sweet finish to this Italian-style cake with a citrus glaze or dusting of icing sugar.
Rosemary Lemon Olive Oil Cake
Banana cake can be prettied up for celebrations or kept as a simple loaf to be sliced and served with coffee. It gets its moistness—and much of its sweetness—from overripe bananas. Let your bananas turn nearly black with speckled skin for the best results. This cake is a mouthwatering solution for fruit past its prime, but if your bananas are not quite there yet, you can ripen them faster by keeping them in a brown paper bag. Play around with frostings made with chocolate, coconut or rum—or any combination of the three—to find your favourite.
Classic cheesecake consists of a graham cracker base and a filling made of whipped cream cheese, sugar and eggs. It’s easy to customize this rich dessert by topping it with almost any combination of fruits, chocolate and nuts. The cheesecake base is also open to creativity: Try ginger or chocolate cookies in place of graham crackers. As for the creamy centre, some recipes incorporate ricotta or sour cream for extra lightness. While most cheesecakes are oven-baked in a water bath, some are simply set in the fridge. Mini cheesecakes make charming personalized desserts—your guests will love them!
Black Forest cake
This German dessert is made of thin layers of chocolate cake doused in brandy and spread with sour cherry filling and buttercream icing. A whipped cream topping is sprinkled with chocolate flakes or curls and decorated with whole cherries. Why not mix things up—and get festive—with a tart cranberry filling for the holidays?
This comforting dessert uses applesauce or chunks to add fragrant, fruity notes to a simple sponge cake. It’s often spiced with cinnamon, cardamom or just a pinch of cloves, but you can adjust the amount of spice to suit your tastes. Top it off with apple slices or a crunchy crumble layer, or simply brush it with honey when it’s fresh out of the oven. Your guests will love this cake at coffee time.
You can make the most beautiful cakes with the right equipment. Some of these pieces are must-haves, while others are more advanced and will help take your artistry to the next level.
- For mixing: A stand mixer is the best tool for fully incorporating and aerating cake ingredients. Use the paddle attachment for batter and the wire whisk for beating egg whites or whipping cream. You can also get amazing results with a more economical hand-held electric mixer. It will do a fine job of mixing, beating and whipping, and will give you a lot of control. However, in a pinch, a hand-held wire whisk or a large wooden spoon (and a strong arm) will do the job.
- For measuring: Dry measuring cups, used for ingredients like flour and sugar, are essential, as are liquid measuring cups for oils and milk. You’ll also need a set of measuring spoons. If you love to bake often, an electric scale with a tare function (a button that resets the scale to zero, eliminating the weight of the bowl) is a great investment for recipes that list weights rather than volume measures.
- For scraping batter: Having flexible silicone spatulas in a few sizes makes it easy to scrape down the side of any bowl so you can mix in every last bit.
- For holding ingredients and mixes: Small glass, ceramic or metal bowls are good for pre-measuring ingredients and cracking eggs into; larger bowls made for mixing are great for beating and whisking batters, and holding wet ingredients.
- For baking: Buy a few different sizes of springform pans for making basic cakes; if you’re branching out, add a rectangular baking pan, a bundt pan and a loaf pan to your collection. Silicone and non-stick surfaces (or parchment paper for lining regular pans) make it easier to remove cakes. Light metal or glass is better for cake baking, as darker metal can cause the exterior to overbrown.
- For testing: To be sure your cake is cooked, insert a few long wooden toothpicks or a thin metal skewer into the centre. If the tester comes out clean, your cake is done.
- For removing cake from a pan: Running a skinny paring knife along the edges of your pan will help release the cake so you can tip it out onto a clean surface. With non-stick pans, use an offset silicone spatula to avoid scratching the surface.
- For cooling: Invest in a couple of wire racks to cool cupcakes or multiple cake layers at once.
- For frosting and piping: Offset and flexible spatulas, and palette knives are the right tools for applying icing, fruity fillings or whipped cream to cake. Buy a piping bag and nozzles for next-level decorative work.
When it comes to choosing cake ingredients, keeping things simple is often the best approach.
- Flours: Most cakes bake up beautifully with all-purpose flour, so unless you’re making angel food cake, don’t worry about buying special cake flour, which is meant to deliver a lighter texture. Only use self-rising flour if that’s what the recipe calls for—it already contains baking powder and salt. Finally, avoid using bread flour, as it’s higher in gluten and will make your cake chewy.
Tip: If a recipe calls for whole-wheat flour, let the batter rest for 10 minutes before baking for softer and moister results.
- Sugars: White (or refined) sugar is the go-to for light cakes. Sometimes brown sugar is added to chocolate or spiced cakes for amazingly soft and slightly denser results. Since different types of sugars give very different outcomes, try not to substitute white and brown sugars for each other in cake recipes.
- Eggs: Most cakes are made with large eggs, unless the recipe states otherwise. Going vegan? Replace each egg with 2½ tbsp (40 mL) ground flaxseeds whisked with 3 tbsp (45 mL) water, and then let the mix sit for 10 to 15 minutes, until it becomes gel-like.
- Fats: Vegetable or olive oil creates tender and moist cakes, while butter makes them rich. If your recipe calls for butter, choose the unsalted variety so you can control the salt content by adding it to the flour mixture.
- Baking powder: Never keep baking powder past its best-before date, or your heart will sink—just like your cake—when you pull the pan from the oven. You can test whether your baking powder’s still active by dropping 1 tsp (5 mL) in a glass of warm water. If it becomes frothy, you’re good, but if there’s no reaction, it’s time to buy a fresh container.
To prevent your cake batter from curdling or splitting (which means the fats in the butter, oil or eggs haven’t been able to incorporate properly), start with all room-temperature ingredients and add eggs gradually. Patience is everything! If your batter splits, despite your best efforts, don’t panic: Just add a spoonful of warm water and beat it in quickly. To prevent lumpy batter, sift all your dry ingredients together and repeatedly scrape down the side of the bowl while mixing. Once the wet and dry ingredients are combined, get the batter straight into a greased pan; over-mixing risks over-activating the gluten, which will make for chewy results.
People describe baking as a precise science, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun playing around with recipes.
- Walnuts and pecans are interchangeable—both taste delicious with chocolate or maple.
- Replace allspice with a blend of equal parts cinnamon and cloves.
- Switch out half the butter or oil for applesauce.
- Buttermilk is interchangeable with full-fat sour cream or yogourt when you add a little vinegar or lemon juice.
- White, dark and milk chocolate can be exchanged for one another to suit your taste—just bear in mind that if the chocolate is very dark, you might need to compensate with a little extra sugar.
- Lemon, lime, grapefruit and orange zest can be subbed in for one another so the flavour, sweetness and tartness are just the way you like them.
- Try parsnips or beets as alternative root vegetables in carrot cake—they’re also sweet, and each adds its own earthy flavours.
The baking process
A well-baked cake means your oven temperature and timing is just right. If your cakes are sometimes a little disappointing, try using an oven thermometer for an accurate reading of the heat level. And it’s best not to rely on just the time stated in a recipe—take charge! You should check the cake’s colour and insert a toothpick or metal skewer into its centre to see if it comes out dry.
Cool your cakes on a wire rack, removing them from their pans after they have firmed up. If you’re making a layer cake, cool the slabs upside down so they end up with flat tops for easy stacking.
Icing and decorating
To make icing cake a cinch, pop it on a stand or Lazy Susan. If you put a dab of frosting underneath the bottom layer, it will stay firmly put. Be sure your cake has had enough time to cool before frosting, and use generous amounts—this will keep crumbs from breaking off and give clean, finished results. To even out your layers, just use a serrated knife to slice off the domes from the cake tops. You can also measure the height of the layers with a ruler and trim them all to the same size.
To begin frosting, add at least 1 cup (250 mL) icing to the centre of your cake layer; then, with a palette knife or spatula, gradually spread it out to the edges. Be sure the whole cake is evenly covered before you go back to smooth things out.
When it comes to tinting frosting, colouring gels give you the most control. Using a toothpick, apply a small amount of colour at a time to your bowl of icing, blending it fully until you have the perfect shade. For a pretty and colourful effect, try this ombré finish from our video tutorial.
Glazes, a combination of icing sugar and liquid (juice, milk or water), are runnier than frosting. Keep mess to a minimum by setting your cooled cake on a wire rack—inside a baking tray to catch the drips—and then pour over the glaze. You can tap the tray gently to help move the glaze further down the cake and glaze over bare spots with an offset palette knife. Check your recipe for any specific glazing instructions: Some cakes are pricked all over with a toothpick before being glazed so the liquid seeps in deeply.
Exceptionally rich cakes (or simple ones baked for everyday snacking) often don’t need frosting at all—try a simple dusting of cocoa powder or icing sugar.
- Candy-covered chocolates
- Fresh fruits or herbs, such as strawberries, ground cherries, mint or rosemary
- Candied citrus peel
- Nuts, such as walnuts, pecans or hazelnuts
- Chocolate curls, buttons or shapes
- Ready-made royal icing decorations
- Modelled marzipan
- Edible flowers
Your cake is baked to perfection, and now you want to store it. Cool unfrosted cakes completely before placing them in a clean, dry airtight container or tightly seal them with plastic wrap. If you’ve already piped, slathered or coated your cake with buttercream, cream cheese frosting or fondant, it can be refrigerated for up to four days. Bring the cake to room temperature gradually to avoid any cracks or running colours.
Loving cake leftovers
There’s no need to throw away cake trimmings or leftover pieces. Instead, incorporate them into cake pops or trifle, or serve cubes for dipping in warm chocolate or caramel fondue.