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F&W’s Masters Series: Lessons from Cake Experts Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito

“I have a love-hate relationship with my oven,” says cake whiz Renato Poliafito. Here, he and Baked partner Matt Lewis offer essential tips for home bakers to transcend every obstacle. Plus: their guide to all types of cake, frosting and equipment.

Bundt cakes, layer cakes, whoopee pies, brownies and chocolate chip cookies—classic American desserts never had advocates like Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito. The co-founders of widely beloved New York City bakery Baked have also authored two immensely popular baking books, with a third out this fall called Baked Elements: Our Ten Favorite Ingredients. A fourth is even in the works, inspired by—what else?—vintage American cake recipes. Here they talk everything cake-related: the ideal ratio of cake to icing, what defines a perfect icing and why our country would be better off with no more cupcake shops.

What are the main types of cake you make at Baked?

Vanilla cakes or butter sponge cakes. These are your classic layer cakes. A vanilla cake can be any flavored cake that’s not chocolate. Ones made with whole eggs are yellow cakes, while white cakes are usually just made with egg whites, though they could have one or two egg yolks for binding. But both are usually made with butter. Generally speaking, the more sugar you add, the more moist the sponge, which is not always a good thing because too much sugar overrides the natural flavor.

Chocolate cakes. Chocolate-flavored butter sponge cakes are very different because the crumb will change based on whether you’re using cocoa powder or chocolate. Cocoa powder acts like a drying agent, so you have to add more fat to compensate, be it oil or even something mild like a yogurt or sour cream. We always recommend you bloom the cocoa powder first in hot water or hot coffee to bring out the flavor. It also makes it easier to disperse it into the batter. Just make sure the water or coffee comes back to room temperature before you mix it in.

Angel food cakes. They’re egg-white-based, whipped to death, and there’s a ton of sugar usually in them, so they’re very sweet. They usually don’t have any fat, like butter or cream. Some recipes have a tiny bit of butter, but it’s very unusual. Usually you’re getting the rise or sponge from egg whites. You can make less sweet butter sponge cakes but not less sweet angel food cakes. I couldn’t speak to the chemical reaction, but we did a pistachio angel food cake in our newest book that was one of the most trying recipes. This recipe was going to be in each previous book, but we could never get it right. I don’t want to speak for Renato, but most angel food cakes are too sweet for me, and I don’t like the texture: They can taste like rubber. But I think we came up with an angel food cake that’s not too sweet but has a really pronounced flavor.

Bundt cakes. These come in many types, from chocolate to an olive oil bundt cake from Renato’s mother that’s in our second book. Bundt cakes are really forgiving, and that’s why we like them. You could make the best chocolate cake, but unless you ice it, it will still need a little jeuje. But a chocolate bundt cake, you can just put powdered sugar on it and it looks fantastic. You’re not worried about the center being underdone or your edges not cooking before the center, since bundt pans don’t really have a center. The pans we use are heavy-duty, so almost anything you bake in them turns out and looks great. Their number one issue, especially with these new pans that have so many nooks and crannies, you absolutely have to grease the pan heavily and flour it, or if it’s a chocolate bundt cake, sprinkle the inside of the pan with cocoa powder. You should almost overspray it, until you see the liquid dripping down. Or if you’re using butter, or if you flour it or cocoa-powder it, you literally have to see none of the metal of the pan shining through.—ML

What distinguishes an extraordinary cake from a mediocre one?

ML: For me, especially for layer cakes, I like a moister crumb that’s not too sweet. I like white cakes better than yellow cakes, because you can get a better flavor profile. The egg yolk in the yellow cake just tastes like a yellow cake, no matter what else you put in it. I love chocolate cakes, but I love playing around with some of the oil-based cakes too, like Renato’s olive-oil cake.

RP: I really do love dark chocolate cakes. I’m personally partial to devil’s food, where it’s practically black and spongelike. In terms of frostings and fillings, if there’s a filling, I’d love it to be as natural as possible, and I do love a buttercream frosting—but I’m very partial to our style of buttercream: fluffy, pillowy, soft, one that doesn’t harden in 20 minutes to a crust.

ML: He just described my lips.

Why do cakes sometimes rise and fall?

ML: Renato and I get emails trying to diagnose people’s cake issues, but they’re hard to diagnose because there are so many factors. It can have to do with what kind of leaven you put in—you may have used baking powder when the recipe called for baking soda. It could be that you overmixed your egg whites—egg whites are a leavener, so if you beat them to death, the cake could rise and fall. And it could be based on fluctuations in oven temperature.

How do you test a cake for doneness?

MP: I like to give the top of the cake a little push. If it gives a little push back, it’s done.

RP: I always second-guess myself. I have a love-hate relationship with my oven. It sometimes lies to me. I’ll usually do the toothpick method. Especially with my home desserts, I’d rather it be a little overdone around the edges than be completely liquid in the center.

What’s the best way to cool a cake?

ML: The theory is, if it stays in the pan, it will keep baking on the edges and bottom, but honestly I think that’s a very low-level worry. If you’re baking in a light aluminum pan and you let it cool in the pan, it’s not the end of the world. If you want to let it cool 10 minutes and then dump it out so the edges don’t continue baking, that’s fine too. You just have to make sure you really grease or flour the pan well (or both), because a hot cake will break up much easier than a cold cake. Meaning if you turn it out of the pan quickly, it’s got a much better chance of falling apart.

Best icing?

RP: There are a million frostings out there, some as simple as cream cheese mixed with powdered sugar. We also make a really funky buttercream icing, a mix of Swiss and Italian meringue thickened with a roux. I’m partial to the quicker frostings. I do love a cream cheese frosting, and we use that for our carrot cake, and occasionally for our red velvet cakes and pumpkin whoopee pies. I also love the frosting we use for our Diner Double Dark cake—basically a ganache with butter beaten into it. Whether it’s a chocolate frosting or chocolate ganache, I definitely want to taste chocolate before sugar. Same with vanilla. Matt and I have done blind taste tests at a number of bakeries of their chocolate and vanilla cupcakes; surprisingly, you often can’t tell what’s what because they both taste like sugar. Our goal has always been that if we’re creating something, the flavor of that dessert is what you should taste. If you’re eating the Bananas Cake in our new book, you’ll taste bananas, chocolate and peanut butter, and you’ll be able to differentiate all three of those flavors. Sugar plays a role, but it should never be the thing you taste. Chocolate and banana are naturally sweet in their own ways, so why add on to it?

What’s the difference between Swiss and Italian meringue buttercream?

ML: Swiss and Italian meringue buttercream frostings are almost identical; in both you’re adding a ton of butter to a meringue base. The difference is that when you’re making the Swiss meringue, you’re heating and whisking the egg whites and sugar all together, where with the Italian meringue basically you’re boiling a sugar syrup first, then whisking that in. Ours is strange. I don’t know if we invented it, but first we make a roux, then we heat the sugar up, then you add that roux base back into the sugar base before you whip that out, then add the butter. The roux makes it a little thicker. Swiss meringue buttercream icing can feel very light on the tongue and not always in a good way. Our buttercream has a more substantial taste.

Any encouragement for newbie bakers?

RP: Obviously, baking is different from cooking—making a cake is different from making a pasta dish, where you can sample as you go along. Baking is a commitment. You have to make sure you’re following the recipe perfectly. I have a little ADD and I’m anal-retentive, so watching me bake is an experience in itself. But I do very simple things, like reading through the recipe in its entirety, and making sure I have all the ingredients at hand and ready from start to finish. Then it’s just a matter of assembly. As you put everything together, just check things off as you’re going along. Don’t overmix. And read the recipe carefully, because everything that’s mentioned is usually pretty important. If they say, “Gently fold,” gently fold. Don’t be aggressive about it. Going with a soft hand into baking is usually more beneficial than going into it with a hard hand.

More Lessons from Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito

5 Secrets to Great Cake
Photo © Pernille Pedersen.

5 Secrets to Great Cake

Lewis explains how he and Poliafito perfect their exceptional cakes.
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Baked Owners Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito’s Favorite American Sweets Shops
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Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito’s Favorite American Sweets Shops

Upmarket Ho Hos, luscious banana cream pie and more of the best desserts in the country selected by Lewis and Poliafito. READ MORE »

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