Cakes can be an intimidating proposition, even for a fairly skilled baker. There's the layering and the crumb coat, the decorative icing...cakes should be pretty, but in the wrong hands they can be a disaster. With Vintage Cakes, the latest cookbook from Portland baker Julie Richardson however, I have been able to recalibrate my mind set of what a cake actually is, as well as tackle my fears of the layered beauties.
Richardson eases you into cake baking with chapters on hasty cakes and everyday cakes. These are one-pan wonders that are a nearly foolproof. That's not to say they're simpleton cakes by any means. There's a rhubarb pudding cake and a "not-for children" gingerbread Bundt cake with a cupful of coffee in the mix. The honeybee cake is tender from the addition of buttermilk, topped with a honey and brown sugar glaze and sprinkled with sliced almonds. This cake is beautiful enough to serve to guests, but simple enough to satisfy a weeknight cake craving.
The book's thorough introduction sets readers up for success with tips for stocking your pantry, in addition to seasoned advice for turning out great cakes. Richardson shares advice for the batter stage of making a cake--things like spraying nonstick spray into your measuring cups measuring sticky ingredients such as molasses and peanut butter so they release easier; and what it means to blend, whip, and fold ingredients. There are tips for the baking stage such as checking the cake 5 minutes before its supposed to be done, since baking times are guidelines. And for the frosting stage--which she cautions can be the coup de grâce or the coup de désastre--there are tips like popping the cake into the freezer for 15 minutes before attempting to halve, assemble, or frost the cake.
The inspiration and foundation of this cookbook were vintage recipes Richardson unearthed from the bakery that previously inhabited the space her Portland bakery Baker & Spice now inhabits. She retooled them for modern-day palates, pantries and ovens, and wrote them with more details than recipes written in 50-plus years ago. There's a champagne cake, red velvet, icebox cakes, and a cassata cake introduced to American by Italian immigrants in Cleveland. There are plenty of layer cakes and party cakes--like the one on the book's cover--that are show-stoppers too. And there are also chapters on little cakes and light cakes, flips & rolls, and fillings, frostings, & icings.
Throughout the book are sidebars and tips for things like making caramel and toasting nuts, so you don't get derailed during any step of the cake baking process. There are photos for about 2/3 of the cake recipes, but Richardson's detailed instructions in each recipe create great visuals as well. Her basic buttercream recipe includes lines like "at some point the buttercream will take on a curdled appearance, don't worry, this is normal." For a chocolate whipped cream topping, she advises, "it's best to err on the under-whipped side, since you can always give it a few strokes with a hand whisk if you need to thicken it up, but if it gets to stiff it can get grainy." The only thing better would be to have Richardson alongside you in the kitchen. This book however, represents her, and her experience and knowledge, very well.
Julie Richardson will be in Seattle promoting Vintage Cakes. Meet her at Book Larder in Fremont for a demonstration and tasting on September 12 from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m.