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Big or Small, Four Easy Cakes for Gift Giving or Entertaining

Photo: Scott Phillips
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I love cakes. I love to eat them, I love to make them, and I love to give them away to friends and family. If you so much as pass by my house around the holidays, I am likely to rush out and offer you one. Not just any type of cake, mind you, but a dense, moist, flavorful cake with a hearty crumb.  

Why cake, you wonder, and not cookies or pie? The shameful truth is that I find making these cakes isn’t nearly as fussy as baking batch after batch of cookies or pies. With a stand mixer or an electric hand mixer, you’ll find that these cakes are easy to throw together—just add the ingredients to the bowl at the proper intervals and watch the silky, fluffy cake batter come together.  

Not all cake batters are created equal. Layer cakes have a lot of moisture in the batter, and when confined to a deep pan, like a bundt, they don’t bake properly. By the time the liquid evaporates and the batter sets, the edges of the cake are dried out or, worse, the cake has fallen. My holiday cakes are different. The batters have a relatively low liquid content that does well in deep pans, and they contain an ample amount of eggs and butter to keep the cakes moist.  

For foolproof tenderness, I first aerate the batter by thoroughly creaming the butter with the sugar as I would to make an old-fashioned pound cake. I also use chemical leavens—baking soda or baking powder—to open the crumb. Technically, chemical leavens only expand the air bubbles already present in batters, and I use them here to create a little lift and to change the crumb from springy to tender.  

The result is a cake somewhere between a rich, dense pound cake and a tender, fluffy layer cake—what we commonly call bundt cake these days. There’s no tedious assembly of cake layers or finicky buttercreams required. In fact, this type of cake is perfectly elegant with a dusting of confectioners’ sugar or a simple glaze.  

These cakes are designed to let you vary the shapes and sizes. The results are amazingly festive. For example, the chocolate stout cake recipe will yield one big, beautiful bundt cake (perfect for entertaining) or a dozen irresistible miniature bundt cakes (perfect for giving).  

Bold flavors and special ingredients are the hallmarks of holiday baking, a way of letting people know that this is a special occasion. Old classics are made more interesting here by pairing chocolate with stout, or the flavor of gingerbread with espresso, or almond paste with tart cranberries. Most of the cakes come with flavorful glazes that are optional. If you don’t make the glaze, lightly sift confectioners’ sugar over the cakes right before serving for a finishing touch.  

Made to last. There’s also a perfectly practical justification for why I love to make these cakes for the holidays: stamina. The high amount of butter, sugar, and eggs ensures that the cakes have some staying power. Wrapped tightly in plastic, I’ve found that these cakes will hold up for as long as a week. You can also bake them up to a month ahead and freeze them, giving you the same smug feeling as getting your Christmas shopping done in July.

Fit the cake to your mold

Although each cake recipe here comes with directions for specific pan sizes, you can use whatever shape or size pan you like—just follow these four simple guidelines.

Never fill the pan more than two-thirds of the way with batter. For full-size loaf or bundt pans, leave over an inch of space at the top. For mini pans, divide the batter evenly so the cakes bake at the same rate.
Big or small, these cakes do well at 350ºF. Keep the oven temperature the same for any size pan.
Adjust your timing to fit the pan. Full-size bundts take 40 to 50 minutes. Standard loaves take 45 to 50 minutes. Mini bundts and mini loaves take anywhere from 20 to 35 minutes.
Know the signs of doneness. The chocolate stout cake and poppyseed pound cake are done when a wooden skewer inserted in the center comes out with only a few moist crumbs clinging to it. For the gingerbread cake and cherry-almond bundt cake, the skewer should come out clean. (For mini cakes, use a toothpick instead of a skewer.)


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