Cookbooks are manuals. Some are more sparse than others, trusting you, the cook, to make decisions about how to prep this and season that based upon presumed prior kitchen experience. Others take a more technical approach, giving detailed instructions down to the 1/1000 gram of salt a recipe calls for. Both are great. Cake Magic! is neither.
I didn’t want to like Caroline Wright’s new book (on sale July 12th). The words “cake” and “magic” followed by an “!” would, normally, be enough for me to take one look, decide I don’t like exclamation points, and toss it aside, content in my punctuation snarkery. If I’d done this, though, you wouldn’t be reading this now. There wouldn’t be a review. There would be far less layer cakes and sheet cakes and bundt cakes and buttercream frosting and simple syrups in this world and everyone would be less happy.
But, to back up, Cake Magic! is not a scant nor painstakingly detailed cookbook. It’s more of a blueprint. Cake Magic! is like one of those paper dolls you used to play with as a kid, where you could try on different clothes until you dressed the doll to your liking. Except, here, the doll is cake.
Wright’s concept is simple, yet not (otherwise, more books would be structured like it). Cake Magic! provides a host of versatile frostings, cakes, simple syrups, and what she calls “the extra-somethings” (like graham cracker crumble and salted caramel) for you to mix-and-match and create whatever cake you want. Almost every recipe has multiple variations, so apple cake can easily be carrot-lime cake or pumpkin cake with a few substitutions.
This doesn’t mean Cake Magic! doesn’t offer suggestions, though. The first eight chapters are devoted to numerous ideas for cake-syrup-frosting combinations along with accompanying recipe page numbers. The chapters are divided by cake flavor: vanilla, chocolate, citrus, brown sugar, fruit and veggie, nutty, coconut, and mocha. And the suggestions themselves are, literally, formulaic in their approach, as in Peanut Butter Cake + Chocolate Syrup + Malted Milk Chocolate Frosting= Peanut Butter Cup Cake. Cake Magic! is a blueprint, after all, and blueprints don’t let you go rogue, offering structure to reign in the madness.
Although Cake Magic! is suggestive rather than “you must do this,” it’s one of the most user-friendly baking books out there. Here’s why: each of the 8 basic cakes starts with the same Cake Magic! Cake Mix (there’s a gluten-free version, too). Starting with one base and building, so only the flavorings are different, makes things a whole lot better in terms of time and general ease. The cakes can be adapted to different pan shapes, too, as per Wright’s instructions, involving little more than a difference in baking times.
Once you’ve made and assembled one Cake Magic! cake, you can make all 100 of them. It’s the same process:
1.) Bake: Simple as that.
2.) Syrup: After removing the hot cake layers from the oven, you pierce them all over and pour or brush a flavored (to make your specific cake) simple syrup over them. “While the layers cool, the syrup settles into the cake, changing the crumb and flavor with minimal work on the part of the baker,” Wright says. It’s a surefire way to ensure moistness.
3.) Make the frosting: There’s information on crumb coats and how to make swirled or marbled frostings, should you feel so fancy.
4.) Frost: Do a layer, then frost the rest.
5.) Top it and eat.
Cake Magic! has no surprises or time-consuming sub-recipes. There are pictures that make you want reach to through the page. There are straight-forward recipes for cake batters, flavoring syrups, and frostings. It’s exactly how baking a cake should be: With a little bit of know-how you can make something that seems a bit like (cake) magic.