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Food52 Community Book-Off Contest – Best Cake Cookbook


This review is part of our community-driven book tournament, The Big Community Book-Off. With your help, we’re finding the best books across categories (from bread to pasta, one-bowl to weeknight-friendly, cake to cookies, to name a few), and putting them through a series of rigorous reviews—considered, tested, and written by none other than you. And so, let’s hand it off to our community members Jen, Margaret, and Reba. Here are their reviews of your five most-loved cake books—and their nail-biting verdict on which one reigned supreme.

When you give three avid home bakers five cake books and tell them to have at it, a few things are guaranteed: They’ll start a spreadsheet within the hour to divvy up tables of contents. They’ll start stockpiling butter, flour, and sugar. They’ll rant over e-mail about decorative chocolate roses. And, most importantly, they’ll devote themselves to the project wholeheartedly.

We set out on this project with a few ground rules: We would choose one recipe from each book—usually the cake pictured on the cover—that we would all bake (so we could gauge the book’s overall trustworthiness). Beyond the all-bake recipe, we would each make two additional cakes** from every book; so as a group, we covered seven unique recipes from each contender.

F52er (and cake-book reviewer) Reba re-creating Maida’s iconic book cover.

Photo by Reba Toloday

We’re a trio of bakers who aren’t shy about having and sharing opinions, and while that’s essential in reviewing cookbooks, we wanted to give you more than just rants and raves. With that in mind, here are the themes we focused on in our reviews:

  • Reliability and Accuracy: Do the recipes work as written? In particular, we’re looking for books offering both weight and volumetric measurements, which can be used with equal success.
  • Stand-Out Factor: Why this book? When thousands of other cake recipes are available in books and online, why should this be the cake book I have on my shelf?
  • Accessibility: Are the required ingredients and equipment accessible to the average home baker? Some books, especially those written by professional bakers, call for specialized tools, ingredients, and multistep processes. More invested home bakers are often up for an involved project and are likely to have a well-stocked kitchen, but at least some recipes in the book should be doable with just the basics.
  • Decorative Technique: Does the book effectively show how to turn out cakes that are just as delectable as the ones in the photos? More generally, do the books illustrate decorative technique at all, e.g., offering tips and tricks for how to do a crumb coat, simple decorations like fresh flowers, or more complicated frosting techniques?

Clear eyes, full fridge, can’t lose! As a reminder, the five best books on cake, as nominated by you, were:

Each book is distinct in tone, personality, and technique, and all had elements that we loved. Odette WilliamsSimple Cake wowed us with its beautiful photos and delicious, easy, mix-and-match recipes. Stella Parks’ meticulous, thoroughly tested recipes in BraveTart taught us the why behind recipes. In Cakes, Maida Heatter’s conversational writing style and recipes—without any pictures— forced us to seek success while putting total faith in the written directions. Christina Tosi’s All About Cakes recipes are as advertised: whimsical and incredibly satisfying. Finally, Rose Levy Beranbaum’s The Cake Bible proved to be an endless tome of every single technique, flavor combo, and cake recipe imaginable: from an easy one-layer cake dusted with confectioners’ sugar to an elaborate wedding cake large enough to feed 100 people.

After 45 cakes, multiple e-mails, one extensive Google Sheet, a lengthy Zoom call, and more pounds of butter, sugar, chocolate, and flour than we care to admit, we declared one book the winner.

But first—here are our reviews on all five books.

Christina Tosi’s All About Cake

Photo by Amazon

Just thumbing through this book will get you pumped about cake! It’s full of the flavors, colors, and textures that fans of Milk Bar line up for, and Tosi’s personality and perspective radiate from each page. Because of her background in professional kitchens, this book is best for more experienced home bakers who are game for a project and willing to hunt for specialty equipment and ingredients.

The recipe we all baked from this book was the Dulce de Leche Layer Cake, a towering ode to milk and caramel, formed in an acetate-lined cake ring to achieve the classic naked, sharp look of Milk Bar’s layer cakes. Except for some variation in the darkness of our dulce de leche, this recipe yielded consistent results, and it ended up being a huge hit among friends and neighbors. And the hits kept coming!

Dulce de Leche Layer Cake—classic and mini (because why not).

Photo by Margaret Winchell

The White Album Cupcakes might be Jen’s new favorite vanilla cupake. The Arnold Palmer Sheet Cake was a punchy, summery treat perfect for a backyard barbecue, and surprisingly crowd-friendly given the intensity of the tea in the cake. Reba and Margaret each loved their Cake Truffles (one batch Creamsicle-inspired, one batch malty pretzel), and the Compost Pound Cake was one of the most pantry-friendly recipes in the book (and a junk-food lover’s paradise).

There were a few caveats to our love of this book. In particular, the section on mug cakes and Crock-Pot cakes felt a little misguided and gimmicky. If the point of a mug cake is to scratch the “need cake now!” itch, cutting a green apple into matchsticks, macerating them with lemon and brown sugar for 10 minutes, and reducing the residual liquid into a glaze feels a bit too involved.

Burnt Crock-Pot cake—with still-tasty middle (left) and White Album Cupcakes (right).

Photo by Jen Rose

Jen’s Creamsicle Crock-Pot Cake got unpleasantly dark around the edges (which Tosi acknowledges can happen in older Crock-Pots) and made us wonder if it might fare better in a standard cake pan and conventional oven. And considering that this book comes from a place where, presumably, kitchen scales are crucial, we were disappointed to find a few errors in volumetric conversions.

All that aside, this book got high marks for its curb appeal and flexibility. There were so many cakes we were excited to dive in to, and we all plan to continue baking from this book. Margaret’s already dreaming up ways to use that pretzel cake base again, maybe layered with vanilla ice cream and some milk crumbs, and Reba has capital-P Plans for that dulce de leche cake, albeit in a simpler form.

Yes, some of Tosi’s recipes are really fussy, and it may take three trips to find citric acid (hot tip: check the hardware store). But you’ll be able to make cakes just like ones you’d get at Milk Bar, plus wind up with all the building blocks necessary to create whatever your heart (and taste buds) desire.

Maida Heatter’s Cakes

Photo by Amazon

Despite this book being older (published in 1997), pastry legend Maida Heatter’s compilation of cake recipes was entirely new to all three of us. The book was a bit hard to track down, but once our copies arrived, we were amazed by the sheer number of recipes.

The book is broken up according to types of cakes, including cheesecakes (nine to choose from!), plain cakes, layer cakes, and an extensive section on cakes with fruits and vegetables, including an intriguing (but not intriguing enough to test) tomato soup cake. The biggest issue we had with Heatter’s book? Not a single photo. Compared to the rich, coffee-table cookbooks of today, where the visuals are just as important as the written recipes themselves, we struggled with imagining exactly what each cake was supposed to look like, and sometimes the names didn’t exactly help. (What is “Election Day Cake” supposed to look like?) Nevertheless, we persisted!

American Chocolate Layer Cake (left) and Lemon Buttermilk Cake #2 (right).

Photo by Margaret Winchell

We chose Heatter’s American Chocolate Layer Cake as our all-bake recipe. For this monster, which “will feed a very large party, or a small army,” four layers of butter cake get stacked with walnuts and a milk chocolate and sour cream ganache icing. It ended up being quite impressive (and surprisingly easy to assemble), but the recipe lacked tips for decorating, leveling the layers, or troubleshooting of any kind.

Once we checked off the shared recipe, we went on our own paths throughout the book. Heatter’s lemon cakes were hard to ignore in a month heavy on chocolate. Her Lemon Buttermilk Cake #2 was where we first got introduced to her “butter and then coat the pan with bread crumbs” trick that not only makes for an incredible crust but surefire unmoldings as well. The Best Damn Lemon Cake baked by Reba lived up to its name and was maybe her favorite of the whole month, chock-full of lemon, with a sticky, flavorful glaze. (Reba found herself passing through the kitchen again and again, slicing off just one more sliver to taste, which, in a month full of cakes, is really saying something). Jen tackled the White Pepper & Ginger Lemon Cake, which turned out perfectly and got high marks from her taste-tester husband.

White Pepper & Ginger Lemon Cake (left) and Paris-Brest (right).

Photo by Jen Rose , Reba Toloday

Jen also baked the Kansas City Chocolate Dream, a self-saucing chocolate-and-coffee upside-down cake that did not come out of the pan. Margaret made Heatter’s Old-Fashioned Coconut Cake, which was excellent, but likely only because Margaret omitted the coconut extract and succeeded in steering clear of suntan-lotion territory. Reba went for the Paris-Brest, an impressive-looking choux ring filled with pastry cream that was, surprisingly, one of the easiest recipes all month.

Overall, the cakes baked from this book were fairly pantry-friendly, and quite successful. Heatter is the “Queen of Cake” for a reason, and this book is good evidence of that. We loved her conversational tone and helpful tips throughout the recipes, her undying commitment to a lemon glaze, and that no special equipment was required. We’re dreaming of a reissue complete with modern photographs and metric measurements, but even without the pictures, this book is, without a doubt, one we will find ourselves turning to once we (eventually? maybe? hopefully?) are ready to make cakes again.

Rose Levy Beranbaum’s The Cake Bible

Photo by Rose Levy Beranbaum (via realbakingwithrose.com)

The oldest book of the five, The Cake Bible is a classic, often-referenced, and award-winning book. The book is written with a formal, serious tone, one that’s reminiscent of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Beranbaum clearly knows her cakes, and the recipes are solid. You will not bake a bad cake from this book. She opens with three different ways of measuring (including weight and volumetric), so that you can choose your preferred method. The book also has the most comprehensive section on decorating, though the hand-drawn illustrations do come off a bit dated. We all had pretty good results with the simpler recipes in the earlier sections of the book, with Jen’s Sour Cream Coffee Cake test being the envy of the group.

Sour Cream Cake (left) and La Porcelaine (right).

Photo by Jen Rose

The all-bake for this book was La Porcelaine, by far our biggest undertaking of this review project. It featured a delicious chocolate butter cake spread with raspberry ganache (which we would all be tempted to make again). It then got decorated with a rolled chocolate fondant that tasted like Tootsie Rolls (Beranbaum claims this is her proudest creation), red “porcelain” roses (made from modeling paste), and chocolate rose leaves (made by spreading melted chocolate onto the real thing, pulled from our gardens).

The decorations are where things came unstuck for us. Margaret compared it to being thrown into a technical challenge on Bake Off, a kooky one-off project that will never become integrated into her baking wheelhouse.

The average time to make the roses was four hours, and these had to be finished and dried several days in advance of porcelainizing (coating the petals in oil and syrup). Kneading the fondant—used to make the stems and sepals of the roses—left Jen feeling like she’d completed an intense upper-body workout. Reba chuckled at the thought that there were three people in the world making this cake at the same time, which possibly has never happened before (and may never again).

Beranbaum expects a lot from her reader, and does not simplify recipes for the average home baker. There are times where we had to turn to Google for help in deciphering terms like “summer coating” and “sepals,” and for instructional videos on shaping chocolate roses. That said, it truly is an encyclopedia (dare we say Bible) on cake, and if you are wanting a comprehensive reference book, The Cake Bible doesn’t disappoint.

Stella Parks’ BraveTart

Photo by W.W. Norton

Stella Parks is a hero to obsessive home cooks because she is one herself. Balance her scientific precision with a strong dose of nostalgia for America’s classic brands, and you get BraveTart, Parks’ first cookbook after years of slinging tips and tricks as the resident pastry wizard at Serious Eats.

That insider-nerd knowledge is definitely the best thing about this book (and one of the reasons why Reba nominated it). You’ll get some fabulous recipes out of it for sure, but what you’ll keep coming back to are Parks’ tips for rescuing buttercream, transporting a layer cake (use wine boxes!), and tempering chocolate, along with the many other hints left in the margins.

Red (Wine) Velvet Cake (left) and Hostess Cupcake (right).

Photo by Margaret Winchell

Another huge win is that Parks provides the weight of batter that should go into each pan for layer cakes—cookbook authors, take note! Even the math nerds among us would rather not have to do these calculations.

Parks also offers the histories behind favorite cakes, like how red velvet got its obnoxious hue and pathetically noncommittal flavor, followed by her modern-day interpretation (a dye-free recipe for Red (Wine) Velvet Cake that’s easy on the red, big on the velvet, and frosted with a newfangled custardy cream cheese icing). For those curious about the cultural origins of cream cheese, Parks provides the backstory and a recipe for Souffléd Cheesecake. Despite being project-sized commitments, these recipes both turned out exquisitely for us, with or without the history lesson.

Boston Cream Pie—slice and whole.

Photo by Margaret Winchell, Jen Rose

Our all-bake recipe was Parks’ Boston Cream Pie, a sponge cake layered with an egg white–based vanilla pudding and topped with chocolate ganache. We got some mixed results on this one. Everyone’s looked great, thanks to Parks’ note on the ideal ganache temperature for glazing.

But the pudding instructions were a bit unclear, and both Jen’s and Margaret’s cakes had pockets of flour because the instructions really seemed to emphasize not overmixing. Jen also noted that Parks’ technique of using a foil collar, while ingenious, doesn’t work quite as well as acetate, and that it might have been more helpful to offer both strategies in the recipe.

Odette Williams’ Simple Cake

Photo by Amazon

This book was nominated by both Jen and Margaret, and was new to Reba. A gorgeous book with natural styling and dreamy photography, it was easy to reach for when starting the project. The author of the book, Odette Williams, is an expat Australian apron designer based in Brooklyn, and the book consists of 10 base cakes and 15 toppings, inviting the reader to mix and match as desired.

Our all-bake recipe was cover star Big Ted’s Birthday Cake, which was an adorable six-inch vanilla cake baked tall and dressed with a thick citrus glaze. After reading the recipe, we discovered that Big Ted is (surprise!) actually a teddy bear, and that this cake was designed as the perfect rainy day project for small kids. It embodies the book’s title and ethos (that there is always an occasion for cake), and so we were all excited to bake it.

Big Ted’s Birthday Cake (left) and Ginger Milk & Honey Cake (right).

Photo by Reba Toloday, Margaret Winchell

We got to work, and each baker enjoyed the recipe, even if there were a few hiccups. Jen loved the finished product, but thought it was curious that precious, expensive vanilla beans are called for in a cake made for a teddy bear (and subsequently children), especially since the vanilla ends up getting somewhat drowned out by the citrus glaze. And Margaret wished there was a little more instruction on how to get that thick blanket of glaze just right, like on the cover.

We had great successes with other recipes from Williams’ book. Jen made the Diced Cinnamon Donut Cake, which, after her family inhaled it, she claimed was perhaps a little too simple and quick to make. Margaret opted for the Ginger Milk & Honey Cake, a single-layer affair that she will for sure make again—definitely a suitable-for-breakfast cake.

Meanwhile, Reba packed her spatulas and mixer for a week at the lake and leaned in to the aptly titled “Vacation Cakes” section. While there, she made the Summertime S’mores Cakes, which were adorable and delicious, albeit a little fussy. (Williams instructs that tiny round cakes be stamped out, and we realized, after discussing, that little squares would have worked just fine without creating any waste.) Jen raved about the Dining-In Cake, a chocolate tres leches cake that was borderline embarrassing for how delicious it was, despite how simple it was to put together.

To sum it up, this book lives up to its title. The cakes are straightforward, tasty, and easy to put together. The mix-and-match style of the cake bases and toppings gives this book a choose-your-own-adventure vibe, and it was hard to pick just three recipes to bake. It’s a no-brainer why this book was a favorite among the community, as any baker—newbies and old pros alike—will find it easy to reach for when the need for cake hits. This book is written by a home baker who loves cake, and it shows in the best possible way. The ingredients, equipment, and methods require little effort and yield big wins, meaning this one will stay on our shelves for a long time.

But, this is a cookbook tournament, and there can only be one winner. After much deliberation, re-tests, and re-tastes, we’ve come to the very difficult (and delicious) decision that the winner is…

The Winner: All About Cake

All of these books are winners in our hearts, but Christina Tosi’s dedication to cake ultimately pushed All About Cake to the top. Tosi’s commitment to flavor, fueled by her nostalgia and love of classic combinations, is infectious and left us feeling inspired and empowered to create. Tosi provides not only glimmers of stunning destinations, but detailed road maps so you can get wherever you want to go.

When we looked back at our self-selected guidelines, this book nailed almost everything, with only a few exceptions.

Do the recipes work as written? If you have a scale in your kitchen (and you really should!) then these recipes are certainly reliable. There were a few errors in the volumetric measurements, but they were glaringly obvious, and thus easy to avoid, even for the average home baker.

Why this book? Organizing this book by cake style made it simple to navigate. The photographs are not overly styled or fussy but rather informative to the home baker who likes the challenge of re-creating a beautiful image.

Are the required equipment and ingredients accessible to the average home baker? You can get by baking from many sections of this book with standard equipment: a quarter sheet, loaf tin, Bundt pan, and 12-cup cupcake tray. If you’d like to make layer cakes like the ones you can get at Milk Bar, you’ll need to purchase acetate and a six-inch cake ring. As you’d expect from a professional baker, Tosi calls for a few ingredients that are harder to come by, such as corn powder (for the iconic Crack Pie) and pectin NH (for gelling), but once you add them to your pantry you’ll find yourself reaching for them more often than you’d think.

Does the book effectively show how to turn out cakes that are just as delectable as the ones in the photos? Several chapters in this book begin with formulas and illustrations of assembly, and Tosi’s layering techniques have become a favorite way to decorate with minimal fuss. Once you get the method down, it’s a snap to apply that skill to any cake—whether from Tosi’s book or not.

All three of us agreed that this was the volume we would refer back to most. We had consistently good results over the seven recipes we made, apart from Jen’s Crock-Pot cake (though she does admit that the center part of the cake with the Creamsicle topping was spot-on). If you like to bake for family and friends, they will be thoroughly impressed by your creations from this book, and will probably request them again and again. Be prepared!

Which of these cake recipes are you trying next? Tell us about it in the comments!

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