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THE PERFECT CAKE 
Local bakers share hacks that make their creations so popular.

Written by Jane K. Callahan

Brown-sugar-salted-caramel naked cake with fresh seasonal fruits and herbs by Delicious Designs in Reno. Photo courtesy of Leigh Anne Page, owner of Delicious Designs
Brown-sugar-salted-caramel naked cake with fresh seasonal fruits and herbs by Delicious Designs in Reno. Photo courtesy of Leigh Anne Page, owner of Delicious Designs

It’s said that cooking is an art, but baking is a science. Anyone who has watched Nailed It knows it’s hard to cross that bridge between hobby baker and baking pro — especially when it comes to cakes. Luckily, the Reno-Tahoe baking scene is a growing amalgam of creative bakers carving out niches of all types, from cake pops to 100-percent-organic wedding cakes. As any of them will tell you, producing an outstanding cake requires patience, attention to detail, and plenty of trial and error. 

We asked a few of them to share their hard-learned lessons and secrets for baking a better cake (as well as tempting recipes, which this author fears will set her back months into bikini season readiness).

Sugar Pine Cakery & Café 
In business since 2013, baker Allison Sayles loved baking as a teenager alongside her Portuguese grandmother. After graduating culinary school and working for prominent local restaurants in North Lake Tahoe, Sugar Pine Cakery & Café was born in Tahoe City. The café’s menu items include a vanilla sponge cake with fresh berries, sourced from local farmers’ markets, and a Swiss meringue buttercream frosting.

Sayles’ cakes are allergy friendly, and include gluten-free, grain-free, and vegan options. 

“For baking gluten free, stick as closely to the original recipe as possible,” she advises. “Any time you use substitutes, remain true to the traditional recipe.”

She says her favorite butter substitute to use in buttercream frostings is Earth Balance, and she also has started creating a meringue from the juice of unsalted chickpeas, which is called aquafaba. 

“Bring it to room temperature and use it as if it were your egg whites, and it behaves exactly like meringue!” she says.

Sayles stresses the three Ts of baking: time, temperature, and taste. For example, amateur bakers often don’t let all of their ingredients warm to room temperature before diving in. 

“When it comes to time, baking a cake is a two-day process — you have to let your cake rest and cool before frosting it,” she says. “For taste, bakers should be tasting every step of the way; they should even taste the butter.”

Rebel Pioneer Limited Co.
Mollie Connell is in her third year of running a cottage-industry baking business, Rebel Pioneer Limited Co., that sees high demand for her totally organic, locally sourced cakes that are free of bleached or enriched flours. Living on a homestead in Reno, where she raises her own meat, eggs, and milk, the health-conscious baker brings her all-natural mindset to her menu, which includes a spice cake with brown-butter frosting, a red velvet cake with soured vanilla frosting, and sour cream coconut pound cake.

Mollie Connell, owner of Rebel Pioneer Limited Co. in Reno, prepares her banana smash cake in her Reno homestead kitchen. Photo by Digiman Studios
Mollie Connell, owner of Rebel Pioneer Limited Co. in Reno, prepares her banana smash cake in her Reno homestead kitchen. Photo by Digiman Studios

Living at such a high altitude, she learned a lot over time about how to alter recipes for mountain life (it took her two years to perfect her macarons).

“When I was trying new recipes, I was hitting walls — I’d bake a cake and it was terrible!” Connell says, adding that her experiments went to her pig troughs. “My biggest piece of advice (to high-altitude bakers) is to use less leavening. For example, if a recipe says to use eight teaspoons of baking powder, I’d reduce it to two.” 

To figure out how to alter your recipe, Connell advises finding your altitude on your phone’s GPS and researching what others at similar altitudes say online. Shoot for an average of a quarter of the required leavener, and move up or down from there, one-quarter teaspoon at a time. (She ended up switching all her recipes to grams because they were easier to work with.)

Another trick she swears by is using animal-friendly ingredients. The butter most people typically buy in the store has little resemblance to small-dairy, all-organic butters made by happy cows, which is much heavier and creamier and is quite yellow in color.

“Don’t just source your dairy for organic, but also for quality. For example, buy local, organic eggs from farmers who give their chickens a rest, and from chickens that aren’t producing all year long,” she says, adding that chickens naturally rest for portions of the year.

Delicious Designs 

 

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Blackberry-lemon zested cake with fresh citrus fruits frosted in a rustic vanilla buttercream icing. Photo courtesy of Leigh Anne Page, owner of Delicious Designs

Aside from having degrees and certifications across the culinary arts, Leigh Anne Page also describes herself as a baker who can “think outside the pink box” and constantly is experimenting with new flavors. The distinctive cake flavors she makes for her business, Delicious Designs in Reno, include carrot l’orange, berry Champagne, mojito, hazelnut toast, and tropical breeze — a lime-zested cake with toasted coconut buttercream filling. A cake baker for all occasions, Page says her tiramisu-inspired cake is extremely popular for birthdays, while other occasions often call for her lemon-zested cake, made with lemon cream cheese and a blueberry compote. 

For Page, it’s all about the liquids. 

“If you’re making something with chocolate, swap out a quarter of the liquid (such as milk) with a strong premade coffee instead. It will really bring out the chocolate flavor,” she shares. 

When baking something with vanilla, ditch the extract and work with a vanilla bean paste instead, as it will enhance the flavor’s intensity.

She says that if bakers find their cakes sinking inexplicably, they might want to check the oven’s temperature with a thermometer, as sometimes the digital reads can be off enough to cause problems.

Flour Girl Wedding Cakes
Sarah Lofgren’s mother made a family recipe carrot cake that was so good, Lofgren decided it would be the first type of cake she sold — and it was what launched her South Lake Tahoe cake business to success 15 years ago. But she’s added many flavors to her repertoire since then, including her London fog cake, made with an Earl Grey cream. She also lists her strawberry shortcake as a fan favorite, along with a caramelized pineapple coconut cake.

Lofgren limits the number of orders Flour Girl takes each week to keep quality high; the details are important to her. First, she advises, invest in quality equipment.

“If you’re doing this at home, the first thing you need is a cake wheel — it doesn’t have to be an expensive one,” Lofgren says. “It is so important, and is the only tool we use to get a cake to perfect.”

She also advises at-home bakers to make room in their fridges to freeze their cakes overnight before icing, cutting, or decorating them.

“It won’t ruin the quality, and that’s the only way to get a smooth coat on a cake. Ice it when it’s super chilled and cold,” she says.

Finally, she says a true home buttercream icing will make (or break) your cake, and to up the wow factor, make a Swiss meringue buttercream without powdered sugar to avoid an overly sweet cake.

Jane K. Callahan is a Reno-based writer who has eaten her way around the world (and lived to tell about it).

Resources

Delicious Designs 
5390 Riggins Court, Ste. B, Reno
775-409-3397 • Deliciousdesignsreno.com 

Flour Girl Wedding Cakes
2093 James Ave., South Lake Tahoe
530-573-1138 • Flourgirlweddingcakes.com 

Rebel Pioneer Limited Co. 
By appointment only. 
775-225-1788 • Rebelpioneer.com 
Sugar Pine Cakery & Café 
2923 Lake Forest Road, Tahoe City
530-583-2253 • Sugarpinecakery.com 

 

Banana Smash Cake
(courtesy of Mollie Connell, owner, Rebel Pioneer Limited Co. in Reno. Serves 8)

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Ingredients for Mollie Connell’s banana smash cake. Photo by Digiman Studios

2 to 3 ripe, organic bananas (if you don’t have ripe bananas, preheat your oven to 250 degrees F and place whole bananas on a baking tray in oven for 20 minutes or until brown)

¼ cup organic, melted coconut oil or other oil
½ cup organic coconut milk (homemade, canned, or boxed)
1 teaspoon organic vanilla extract
½ cup organic sugar
1½ cups organic flour
1¼ teaspoons non-GMO, aluminum-free baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon organic Ceylon cinnamon
1 pinch of organic mace (or nutmeg)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (or 325 degrees F for a convection oven).

Prep 2, 6-inch round cake pans. Coat the inside of each pan in vegan shortening or oil and dust with flour. Add parchment paper rounds to bottom of each pan.

In 1 bowl, mash bananas with a fork. Add oil, coconut milk, and vanilla extract and stir. Add organic sugar and stir until combined. In a separate bowl, combine and sift flour, baking powder, cinnamon, and mace. While whisking, add dry ingredients to wet ingredients. Stir as little as needed to incorporate all ingredients. Distribute batter between 2 prepared pans and place in oven. Bake 45 minutes or until toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean and sides of cake pull away from pan.

Fill and wrap with your favorite vegan buttercream or top with fruit! 

 

Gluten-free and Vegan Chocolate Cake with Vegan Vanilla Frosting
(courtesy of Allison Sayles, owner, Sugar Pine Cakery & Café in Tahoe City. Serves 12 to 15)

3 cups gluten-free baking flour
2 cups sugar
⅔ cup unsweetened cocoa powder, sifted
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups hot water or coffee
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 teaspoons vinegar
⅔ cup expeller pressed canola oil

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Spray or grease 3, 8-inch round cake pans and line with parchment, then dust with gluten-free flour.

Combine all dry ingredients in large bowl; whisk to combine. Combine all wet ingredients in another bowl, then whisk to combine. Pour wet ingredients over dry ingredients, and whisk to combine.

Pour batter evenly into the 3 cake pans. Spread batter with small offset spatula to make it even. Bake cakes about 30 minutes or until cake springs back when touched. Let cool.

Once cakes have cooled, place 1 cake layer on a cake plate, top with vegan vanilla frosting (recipe below) and smooth out to edges of cake. Lay second cake layer on first frosted layer and repeat process, then do the same with the third layer (reserving some frosting for the top), this time also frosting the sides of the cake with a thin layer of frosting to create a crumb coat. Refrigerate cake until it’s cold and frosting is set. Once this happens, frost the outside of your cake with the remaining frosting and serve or refrigerate until needed. Cake will stay fresh up to 2 days in refrigerator. 

For Vegan Vanilla Frosting

1 cup Earth Balance butter (room temperature)
1 cup Spectrum shortening (room temperature)
6 cups powdered sugar, sifted
½ cup milk alternative of choice (room temperature)
2 teaspoons high-quality vanilla extract

Place Earth Balance and Spectrum shortening in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix on low speed until thoroughly combined. Add ½ of sifted powdered sugar, and mix on low until combined. Add rest of powdered sugar, and mix on low until combined. Add milk alternative slowly until combined, then add vanilla extract. Turn mixer up to medium speed and beat until frosting is smooth, adding a bit more liquid if frosting is stiff. 

 

Carrot Cake
(courtesy of Sarah Lofgren, owner, Flour Girl Wedding Cakes in South Lake Tahoe. Serves 20)

2½ cups all-purpose flour
2 cups brown sugar, packed
¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
½ teaspoon baking soda
4 eggs, lightly beaten
2½ cups canola oil
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 pound (about 6 large) carrots, washed, peeled, and coarsely grated 
1 cup golden raisins
1 cups walnuts, chopped

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. 

Whisk together flour, brown sugar, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg, and baking soda in large bowl and place in stand mixer with paddle attachment. Add to flour mixture, on low speed, the eggs, canola oil, and vanilla extract. Once combined, stir in carrots, golden raisins, and walnuts.

Grease 2, 9-inch round pans and line the bottoms with parchment paper rounds. Divide batter evenly between the pans and bake about 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Let cool completely in pans before removing. For best results, freeze overnight before frosting. Fill and frost with cream cheese frosting (recipe below).

For Cream Cheese Frosting

1 pound cream cheese, softened
1 pound unsalted butter, softened
2 pounds powdered sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Beat all ingredients in mixer with paddle attachment for 5 minutes until light and fluffy. 

 

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