If you want to become a formidable baker, plan to make one cake every month for a year.
When I decided to enroll in pastry school, I had (or thought I had) a pretty decent foundation of baking know-how. I could follow a recipe no problem, and I could always tell when my cake was finished—even without a timer. I was more than capable of assembling the layers, frosting the cake and using a piping bag to decorate it. But once I got to school, I realized just how much there was to baking that I hadn’t ever realized. I learned how temperature affects whether or not a frosting will stick to the side of a cake and what techniques to use in order to prevent sugar from crystallizing. I learned how gluten is created and all about the chemical reaction baking powder has when it meets a liquid. At the end of my two years in school, I emerged from the kitchen confident and informed. A lot of what I learned came from my instructors, who had years of hands-on experience and knowledge to impart. But a lot of it came from practice. In baking, as in life, things don’t always turn out right the first time, so it’s important to stick with it. Skill and confidence will come with practice.
If you want to become a formidable baker but pastry school isn’t in the cards for you, plan to make one cake every month for a year. Not only will you learn multiple techniques, but you’ll begin to feel more comfortable with baking. Bonus: You’ll have a different cake to eat every month for a year. Here, the 12 cakes to help you conquer your baking fears.
OCTOBER: Maple Pumpkin-Pecan Snacking Cake
For your first month, make these snack cakes, which are easily thrown together by mixing the dry ingredients with the wet. The Demerara sugar on top bakes into a deliciously crispy crust.
NOVEMBER: Caramelized Apple Upside-Down Spice Cake
While traditionally made with pineapple, this recipe uses crisp fall apples that get caramelized first and are baked with the cake batter on top. How do you turn it out without it breaking apart? After the cake has cooled until warm, place a large platter directly on top of the cake pan. Then, with one hand on the center of the platter and one on the bottom of the cake pan, carefully, yet confidently, invert the pan while still holding the platter. Then slowly remove the cake pan. Voilà!
The holidays call for a show-stopper of a cake, and this coconut cake will tower over your table. For a lesson in cutting even layers every time, check out F&W’s Justin Chapple’s Mad Genius Tip. From there, just spread the zingy passion fruit filling between each layer, stacking the cakes nice and tall. Cover it with whipped cream and toasted coconut and let your guests marvel at your handiwork.
JANUARY: Citrusy Angel Food Cake
This cake is great for satisfying that sweet tooth during resolution season, and it uses up the last of that tangy, winter citrus. Basically, it’s whipped egg whites and sugar combined with a few dry ingredients. It’s simple and airy—and did I mention it’s low fat?
FEBRUARY: Molten Chocolate Cake
With only six ingredients and less than an hour of your time, this decadent chocolate lava cake looks more difficult than it really is and will surely impress at the end of a romantic Valentine’s Day meal.
You could make this in any pan, but the Bundt is classic—and the cake comes out so beautifully that you don’t even need to frost it! With its porter-spiked batter and warm whiskey-caramel sauce, this is the perfect dessert for St. Paddy’s Day.
APRIL: Carrot Cake
This retro cake never seems to go out of style, and that’s fine by me. The secret to its tender and moist consistency is the use of oil and buttermilk instead of butter. In my opinion, it’s the best vehicle for eating cream cheese—other than with a bagel.
MAY: Tres Leches
This custardy cake is dense and slightly boozy. The eggs are whipped to create a sponge-like cake that the three milks (“tres leches”) can soak into after it’s baked.
The perfect layer cake for a big party, whether it's Father’s Day or a graduation party, vanilla cake with rich chocolate frosting will not disappoint. This cake uses the creaming method (like chocolate chip cookies): You beat the butter and sugar, mix in the eggs, and then alternate dry and wet ingredients. The layering is similar to the coconut cake, but with larger rectangle layers. Don’t be intimidated; you can do it!
While not a technique traditionally taught in baking schools, this is definitely one you should learn. Using those juicy summer peaches (or any seasonal fruit you have on hand) you can bake this cake in a cast-iron skillet, on the grill. It’s a clever way to avoid turning on the oven.
AUGUST: Icebox Chocolate Cheesecake
If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen—or, better yet, make this no-bake cheesecake. While it isn’t a traditional cheesecake, it is a delicious three-ingredient version to keep in your back pocket, especially during the sweltering summer heat.
SEPTEMBER: Apple Crumb Coffee Cakes
This recipe uses sour cream, which keeps the crumb cakes moist, and apples, which can easily be swapped out for berries or chocolate chips. The brown sugar streusel topping adds a sweet crunch and can also be used on top of pies and muffins.
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