Sarah McClellan-Brandt: It’s celebration season. Let’s talk cake.

🕐 6 min read

What’s your favorite cake memory? Mine is my 8th birthday, when my mom made me a teddy bear cake out of cupcakes. It was different than any cake we’d ever had and it was perfect. There is something very special about someone making a cake for you. It’s a memory you’ll always have and associate with whatever flavors were baked into it. To this day when I bite into a spongy and perfectly dense Betty Crocker cupcake, I remember the Barbie Doll with a record player I received at my party that day and I think about the time I spent trying to figure out why Barbies are good toys. I never figured that part out, but I still enjoy a cupcake with the taste buds of an eight-year-old being celebrated by friends and family.

When it comes to cake, it’s almost always eaten for a celebration, and there is nothing like the first bite of that spongy sweetness, layered with the pure sugar of frosting or glaze.

Second to that memory is my wedding cake – a white chocolate layer with some kind of raspberry cream filling and hot pink fondant. I would give up manicures for a year for another slice of that cake (ok, maybe not a year but a couple of months at least). When we opened the frozen topper of that cake a year later, not only was it perfectly preserved, but the memories of all our friends and family gathering to celebrate came flooding back.

In my house, May is very holiday-heavy. We have several birthdays in the family, graduations of nieces and nephews, weddings, Mother’s Day, and Memorial Day (yes, I have a cake for Memorial Day – more on that later). So, cake is always on the mind. Cake is to a celebration like coffee is to breakfast: essential – and when you don’t have it, you want it.

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There is the traditional sheet cake, purchased from a grocery store and decorated in whipped frosting in any color of the rainbow (or several colors of the rainbow). Superheroes, cartoon characters, unicorns, sprinkles, frosting roses, photos printed in frosting and more adorn these cakes, to the delight of the recipient. I am a big fan of the grocery store sheet cake. They are consistent, they usually have the perfect amount of moisture and sweetness, and are perfectly nostalgic. I bought one with a Spiderman theme for my son’s fifth birthday this year, and I can only say the reaction was one of pure joy. I wish I had a photo of the cake, which was one of Kroger’s finest works, but if you’ve ever thrown a party for a five-year-old, you understand.

Then there’s the homemade boxed cake, made with love, and made even better if you add an extra egg, sub the oil for butter, sub the water for whole milk and add a box of pudding mix. Nix the canned frosting for homemade and it’s even better (I made the mistake of using canned frosting on a child’s birthday cake recently and was harshly admonished by my mother despite the fact that the above mentioned teddy bear cake was covered with chocolate Duncan Hines). I always make my kids’ birthday cakes with box mix, but I make them extra large and extra … extra, by covering them in their favorite candy or drizzling them with chocolate ganache.

This method works for birthdays and other holidays – like Memorial Day. One of my favorite cakes is a plain white cake covered in homemade whipped cream and decorated with berries in the form of the American flag. This one is a crowd pleaser and a favorite at my house.

If you are feeling like more of a sophisticated flavor, you can throw together an upside down cake from scratch. This lemon upside-down cake from my blog, ModernHippieKitchen.com, is a favorite at my house and is gorgeous for “the gram.” Here’s how to make it:

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Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup gluten-free flour (I used Pillsbury)
  • 1/2 cup almond flour finely ground
  • 1/8 tsp sea salt
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/4 cup simple syrup (maple syrup will also work)
  • 1/4 cup goat cheese
  • 4 tbsp full-fat Greek yogurt
  • 1/2 stick butter (4 tablespoons)
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1.5 tsp lemon extract
  • 1 tsp. butter extract
  • 1 tbsp. lemon zest

For the caramel

  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 6 tbsp water
  • 4 tbsp butter
  • 1/8 tsp sea salt

For the citrus topping

  • 1 large Cara Cara orange
  • 1 large lemon

Instructions

  • Start by beating the eggs with a hand mixer and slowly pour in the simple syrup, beating until creamy. While still mixing add the goat cheese, yogurt and butter (softened).
  • Once that mixture is creamy, add in vanilla, lemon and butter extracts.
  • Mix together all of the dry ingredients.
  • Fold the dry mixture into the wet mixture gently and stir until just blended.
  • Preheat your oven to 350 Fahrenheit. Follow the directions below, adding the caramel, lemons and oranges to the pan before baking for 30 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.

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For the caramel

  • Place the sugar and water in a small sauce pan and stir on medium heat for about ten minutes, or until it is a little thicker and coats a spoon. Take it off the heat and add the salt and butter, stirring to combine.

To combine it

  • Lightly butter an 8-inch nonstick round pan, and pour the caramel into the pan. Layer the citrus slices how you want them to look. I chose a round pattern, alternating Cara Cara oranges and lemon slices.

  • Pour the cake over the citrus slices. Bake at 350 for 30 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.
  • Wait for the pan to cool.

To plate the cake

  • Invert the well-cooled plate over the cake pan, then flip it over to let it pop out onto the plate.

Last but not least: the fancy cake. The special cake you buy from a special place for a special occasion. I surveyed a group of friends who buy easily as many cakes as I do (or more), and in no particular order, here are the results:

  1. Stir Crazy Bakery’s chocolate almond cake. I have a soft spot for anything with almond flavor, and Stir Crazy’s does not disappoint. The Southside mainstay customizes cakes that are beautiful and unique in any flavor. Find them at stircrazybakedgoods.com.
  2. The chocolate or vanilla cake and cupcakes from Back Home Bakery in Weatherford: the choice of many Aledo, Weatherford and Willow Park residents for birthdays and more. Order at backhomebakerytx.com.
  3. Central Market’s Italian cream cake. It’s the perfect blend of cakeyness and cream cheese frosting. Nothing else needs to be said.
  4. The lemon cake at Creme de la Creme. Really, all of the cakes here are amazing. This is one of the best places to get a wedding cake, but they do all kinds of custom projects. Lemon tartness in a cake perfectly balances the sweet. Find them at cremedelacremecakecompany.com.
  5. The Black Forest Cake at Swiss Pastry Shop. I’ve written about this one before, and I’ll write about it again. This gluten-free, German delight is a crunchy, creamy, delicious treat. You have to order it in advance, as it sells out. 

I hope this list helps you choose your next perfect party confection! I love to see people’s cake photos, so if you make one or buy one this month tag us in your Instagram photos at @ModernHippieKitchen or @FWBusinessPress!

Sarah McClellan-Brandt
Sarah McClellan-Brandt first wrote for the Business Press in 2003-2006 as her first job out of TCU, and it only took her a decade and a half to figure out that food writing might be her calling. She created the recipe blog Modern Hippie Kitchen in 2020 for the same reason many new food bloggers did – to quell pandemic boredom and share the cooking lessons she’d been teaching herself and learning from poring over dozens of cookbooks.

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