Recently, I was chatting over the phone to a friend about cakes. Not a baker or even one to indulge in baked treats, she had purchased an Instagram-worthy layer cake from a local bakery to celebrate a milestone. The cake, with its bright frosting piped to perfection, topped with beautiful macarons, left something to be desired in the flavour department. The cake was entirely for the ‘gram. She described the first few bites — the cake was flavourless save for the excruciating sweetness of the frosting. Thinking about what she said, cake should be worth the trouble to eat. It should be beautiful in all things — appearance, texture, and flavour. And, with many cake recipes, vanilla becomes the mono-flavour. But as I’ve come to understand with Benjamina Ebuehi‘s The New Way to Cake, flavour is necessary and not that difficult to accomplish in a cake recipe.
Published late in 2019, The New Way to Cake arrived in my kitchen during the pandemic. In talking to another mate, I received a ringer of a recommendation for a cake cookbook. This friend — not a baker — raved about Ebuehi’s book and since I found I was using my time at home during the lockdown to bake, I didn’t think it could hurt if I invested in this cookbook. And, over the past year I’ve come to realize that this cookbook is exactly as it’s advertised on the cover: “Simple recipes with exceptional flavor.” Ebuehi, a quarter finalist in the 2016 cycle of The Great British Bake Off, grew as a baker during her run on the show and with her book, The New Way to Cake, she developed recipes by looking at combinations of flavours, ingredients, and textures. As I bake from The New Way to Cake, I see that the recipes are simple to bake but are in no way simplistic. Most of what I’ve baked has been as an afternoon treat for when my daughter arrives home from school. While being exceptionally flavourful, these bakes feel steadfast and comforting. Each bite is scrumptious, and one is never left feeling like something is missing.
Getting back to my friend with the tasteless cake, I am reminded of her favourite saying — “Is the juice worth the squeeze?” And, in many cases, cakes aren’t worth “the squeeze” (the effort to make). Beautiful, but tasteless, the effort of baking a cake is overshadowed by lackluster results. What I’ve come to realize with the almost half-dozen cakes I’ve baked from Ebuehi’s book, her cake recipes are totally worth the squeeze. No need for a kitchen full of baking equipment, I found that each recipe could be mixed up in a single bowl using an electric hand mixer. Along with the recipes, the minimally styled photographs throughout the book show each cake in their own state of natural beauty.
The 60 cake recipes are organized into 6 chapters: Nuts & Caramel, Spices, Chocolate, Citrus, Floral, and Fruit. And, when I first read through the book, I couldn’t decide what to bake first because it all sounded so delicious! There are also cakes for every mood and occasion: after school, breakfast, birthdays — even a wedding cake — Ebuehi has created beautiful cake recipes for all the moments from quiet occasions to the notable ones.
The Nutmeg Custard Cake Doughnuts was the first recipe I tried. Saturday mornings are my favourite time to bake up something delicious and it was a late-winter Saturday morning in March that I pulled out my doughnut pan. What is better than enjoying a weekend morning with a coffee and a doughnut? Custard powder and nutmeg in the batter, followed by a gorgeous glaze made with custard powder, these doughnuts — unsurprisingly — were extremely delicious! The cake doughnuts had a soft crumb and I appreciated that these were baked, rather than fried. For my daughter I added some colourful sprinkles too. They were so good that I boxed up some and dropped them off on my neighbour’s doorstep — a great bake should be shared!
From there I chose a few of the loaf cakes to bake as afterschool treats for my daughter. The Cinnamon Loaf w/ Espresso Butter is incredible! Ebuehi’s recipe doesn’t just rely on adding the cinnamon powder to the batter but, instead, cinnamon sticks and vanilla extract are put into warmed milk and left to steep for a quarter-hour. This simple technique of steeping ingredients in milk increases the end flavour of the cake 10-fold and, a slice of this flavourful cake is complimented with a generous slather of a lightly honeyed espresso butter. The Date & Rooibos Loaf is equally as delicious. I love the idea of using tea (or tisanes) in baking and the date/rooibos pairing is particularly tasty here. Both ingredients have an earthy sweetness, and we took Ebuehi’s advice of lightly toasting slices then serving with a generous swipe of salted butter. The last loaf recipe I tried was one that I enjoyed as a child — the lemon-poppy seed cake. But here, Ebuehi has taken a familiar cake and developed the flavour even further in her Citrus Poppy Seed Cake. She combines orange, grapefruit, and lemon, along with sour cream to create a wonderfully bright zing. The sweet-tart flavour of this tender-crumbed cake is another loaf that was great to have on the counter, ready for my daughter to get home from school.
Recently, I was gifted a box full of New York Shuk pantry goods — the jar full of their Kafe Hawaij (a Yemeni spice blend full of cardamom, ginger, cinnamon, and clove) smelled so good that it filled me with a yearning to bake with it. So, when I came across Ebuehi’s recipe for Hawaij Coffee Cake, I wanted to give it a try. While Ebuehi gives instructions on how to make your own Hawaij spice mix, I opted to use the NY Shuk version. Not to be confused with the American version of a coffee cake, the batter for this coffee-flavoured sponge cake included a good tablespoon of the Hawaij which creates such a lovely warm flavour when paired with the espresso powder. This light cake is then topped with a luscious mix of mascarpone, espresso powder, coffee-flavoured liqueur, and heavy cream. I took the extra step of adding cacao nibs, as Ebuehi suggests, along with a light sprinkling of Kafe Hawaij powder over the topping. The cake is rich and spicy, and the topping is tangy, cool, and creamy.
There is a certain kind of genius to the way Benjamina Ebuehi approaches baking and, as it’s pointed out in the June 2021 Food52 Genius Recipe post on Ebuehi’s Hot Chocolate & Halva Pudding (another recipe from The New Way to Cake), that her cakes combine ingredients in uncommon ways (here it is chocolate, tahini, and halva) that are unfussy and delicious. While I haven’t given this recipe a try yet, if you watch the video demonstration by Kristen Miglore, you can see how rich and lush this self-saucing cake bakes up (it’s mind-blowing that pouring boiling water over a cake batter filled pan can create such results!). Yet another example of how Ebuehi has shown us that her cakes are worth the effort to bake — a delicious comfort to be found in a beautifully textured, exceptionally flavourful cake.
As Ebuehi says in the introduction to The New Way to Cake, “You can’t go wrong with cake” and I would further this sentiment by telling you that you certainly couldn’t go wrong if you had this book in your cookbook library. Over the past year since I bought this wonderful cookbook on the recommendation of my friend, I’ve found many delicious cake recipes to bake and, it’s a book I continue to reach for when I just want to have a little cake to enjoy with an afternoon tea or coffee (or glass of milk in my daughter’s case).
I used my own personal copy to happily write this review. Also, many thanks to New York Shuk for generously gifting me their Kafe Hawaij spice mix.