Given the choice between a freshly baked cake—say, a Meyer lemon and poppyseed loaf—still warm from the oven and Claudia Flemming’s Guinness gingerbread cake that’s been lingering on the countertop, you’d be forgiven if you thought the former would always be the superior choice. There’s a holistic belief that, when it comes to baked goods, fresh is best. But that logic doesn’t always hold up, especially when you peer into the kitchens of experienced and professional bakers.
While some golden-domed beauties, like a galette des rois, seem to wilt the moment they come out of the oven, others get better with time. Much like the sauces and stews that taste better on day two, an overnight rest can allow a cake to relax, giving ingredients time to mingle and tightly baked crumbs a chance to unwind. While there are a number of cakes that are well known for their lengthy aging process (hello, fruitcake), there are others that, unless you’ve worked in a bakery or have a habit of close-reading baking cookbooks, you may not know would benefit from varying degrees of “aging.”
But how can you tell if a cake needs a little time to reach its highest self? I reached out to a handful of professional pastry chefs and cookbook authors to find out.
The cover star of Claire Saffitz’s best-selling cookbook, Dessert Person, is a Grand Marnier-spiked olive oil cake adorned with overlapping scales of thinly sliced blood oranges. The elegant but understated dessert is practically begging to be served at winter dinner parties—and it’s something most people would probably scramble to try and painstakingly assemble and bake the night of the big event. While the cake would undoubtedly be highly enjoyable fresh out of the oven, you’d be missing out on the subtler floral and berry flavors that seep out of the ruby red citrus shingles and sweetly infuse the cake as it rests.
As Saffitz shares in her detailed footnotes, while you can eat the cake on day one and it stays in great shape for up to five days, she prefers eating it on days two and three. When I asked her if she could elaborate on this phenomenon, she was honest. “This is because of the very vague, but very real, concept of ‘flavor melding.’ As a cake sits, flavors blend and become more harmonious. I couldn’t tell you the science, but I can tell you from experience, it happens.” To explain why this works so well for olive oil cakes in particular, she pointed out that oils are in a liquid state at room temperature, whereas butter is solid. “Oil-based cakes that sit on the counter—provided that they’re very well wrapped so there’s no additional moisture loss—stay supple, while the flavor improves.”
When I asked her if she could elaborate on this phenomenon, she was honest. “This is because of the very vague, but very real, concept of ‘flavor melding.’”
Secretly hoping to unlock some cake secret, I pressed Saffitz on whether we should all be baking things like Funfetti cake ahead of time. While she wasn’t ready to cosign that statement, she explained that, while layer cakes don’t necessarily improve the longer they sit, once frosted, the cake layers are essentially sealed—preventing the crumb from drying out. “Making a layer cake is a process, and few people have hours to spend in the kitchen leading up to the point at which a layer cake is going to be eaten, so making it in advance is good for the cake and good for your time management.” For those of us who are prone to volunteering for dessert duty and inevitably decide to take on overly ambitious projects that lead to moments of utter chaos and occasional despair—this is good news.
Seeking to understand more about why some cakes age gracefully, I reached out to Melissa Weller, a chemical engineer turned professional baker. The author of the recently published A Good Bake has spent the last fifteen years working in some of New York’s most celebrated kitchens, and in the new book, she has demystified the convergence of art and science in baking.
Expanding on Saffitz’s point about butter versus oil, Weller explained that because oil is 100 percent fat, while butter is about 80 percent butterfat and 20 percent water and milk solids, they behave differently in the oven. “When butter melts, its water content evaporates as steam,” she says. “Oil doesn’t change.” Additionally, Weller hypothesized that, considering the fats’ different states at room temperature, they impact mouthfeel, giving oil cakes a leg up on achieving a tender crumb. She also raised the point that butter-based cakes typically require butter and sugar to be creamed together in the mixing process—this step incorporates air, which is valuable for contributing to the rise of the baked good, but its presence in the final product actually causes things to go stale faster.
Of course, one of the best ways to lock in moisture is to start with a moist cake to begin with. The reason why something like a carrot or apple cake holds up well is partially because fruits and vegetables embody a high water content. After baking, water continues to seep out of the produce, adding moisture to its surroundings. Other methods that can increase longevity are incorporating tenderizing ingredients like buttermilk, sour cream, and yogurt in the batter; fillings like pastry cream, curds, jam, and fresh fruit; and, finally, taking care not to overbake your cake and to use proper storage techniques, like plastic wrap and cake domes.
Sasha Piligian is the one-woman show behind May Provisions, a pandemic-born microbakery based in Los Angeles that’s known for its innovative flavor combinations—like citrus supreme (lemon spelt cake, coriander lime curd, olive oil buttercream) and carrot and toasted coconut (rye, carrot, and coconut cake, sweet woodruff cream, labne buttercream)—and whimsical botanical decorations. How well something will age is not Piligian’s primary consideration, but it is part of the equation.
One of the perks of running a smaller operation is that she’s able to provide intimate customer service and guide folks toward cakes best suited for their particular occasion. “If I know someone is going to be transporting the cake on a long car ride or not eating it on the day they’re picking it up, I can make adjustments.” One of the techniques she uses to enhance chiffon cakes, which are light and airy by nature, is adding a soak. You may be familiar with “soaks,” thanks to The Great British Bake Off: the technique in which you drizzle a few tablespoons of (often flavored) simple syrup over a cake while it’s still warm to deeply infuse the layers with flavor and moisture. While Piligian isn’t advertising her cakes’ shelf life, a customer recently reported that she was happily cutting off slivers of a still-moist chocolate rye olive oil cake more than a week later.
Of course, even the oiliest cakes have an expiration date—and if the cake is any good, chances are, it’s not going to stick around on your counter long enough for you to find out. But there is a family of cake that actually lasts arguably forever. Enter the fruitcake. Brigid Washington, journalist and author of Coconut. Ginger. Shrimp. Rum., grew up in Trinidad and Tobago, and she watched her mother start steeping pounds of raisins, dried cherries, currants, and prunes in local rum and brandy for her annual black cake operation the moment hurricane season ended. Black cake, a ubiquitous holiday (and wedding) dessert throughout the English-speaking Caribbean, is a descendent of plum pudding. Alcohol-preserved cakes were introduced by the British during colonial rule, but black cake really took on a life of its own after Emancipation.
As Washington put it: “Plum pudding was one of those souvenirs. It was one of those things that they left, and Island folks adapted it throughout the Caribbean.” Featuring local ingredients and spices, the cake consists of dried fruits that have been soaked in rum for anywhere from weeks to years, which are then pulverized and mixed with flour, eggs, butter, burnt sugar or molasses, and spices, baked at a very low temperature, and then aged again for anywhere from a week to a year.
While the exact ingredients vary from family to family, the spirit of black cake remains intact—a rich, complex cake that Washington describes as “more earth than sand.” When I asked Washington what prevents the cakes from molding, she laughed and pointed out that not only does alcohol-preserved fruit make up more than 50 percent of the cake, but weekly rum “feedings”—that is, brushing a tablespoon or two over the cake—prevent it from drying out and add an additional layer of preservation. Lest you think you’d get tipsy after a slice, the cake does not taste incredibly boozy—the alcohol dissipates and mellows over time, adding an additional dimension of flavor.
Another cake that’s known for aging gracefully is the ever-polarizing panettone. Those who adore it sing of its crisp, delicate, sugar-dusted crust, which gives way to a rich, yeasty, saffron-hued interior, typically dotted with dried fruits, candied citron, chocolate, and nuts. Those with less kind words for it often compare it to eggy cardboard. Industrial panettone production has become big business, and due to its now-global reach, there are a lot of preservative-packed, shriveled-up loaves lining the shelves of grocery stores and even CVS, with expiration dates that stretch into the Kamala Harris administration.
Fortunately, you no longer have to live in Milan, the aged cake’s ancestral home, to get your hands on an artisanal loaf. Roy Shvartzapel has been obsessively baking panettones in the traditional Italian method for the past five years at his San Francisco bakery From Roy. The three-day baking process starts with a perfectly pH-balanced stiff sourdough starter—or “lievito madre” in Italian—and ends with carefully suspending each loaf upside down to cool. The cakes contain so much butter that they would collapse under their own weight if they were cooled right side up.
Overall, baking panettone is an extremely long, temperamental, and arduous process, but the reward for all that work is that it lasts a pretty long time. Shvartzapel suggests consuming his cakes within thirty days for the best experience, but they last for months without spoiling. I can personally guarantee you’ll have a hard time resisting demolishing the loaf within a day, however, once you slice it open and get a whiff of its citrusy and buttery perfume.
The holidays are undoubtedly going to be really weird this year, but for those who’ve been regularly topping off their cakes with booze, at least there’s a little something to look forward to. Saffitz is eagerly anticipating cutting into the fruitcake she started 14 months ago, long before words like “social distancing” were part of our collective consciousness. Slathered in raspberry jam and sealed with marzipan and royal icing, her cake could safely be served five years from now, but there’s no reason to delay any joy this year. For Washington, she’s looking forward to sharing a black cake over the holidays that is a fusion of her mother’s recipe, her Jamaican mother-in-law’s recipe, and a little of her and her husband’s own ingenuity.
But for those of us who did not have the foresight to prepare for 2020 with a homemade, rum-soaked confection, we can still minimize day-of holiday stress by baking a jewel-toned olive oil cake in advance or giving homemade panettone a shot—in fact, Weller has a cherry and pistachio panettone recipe in her new book, designed for the home baker—which can hang out and see us through the end of this terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year. If you’re missing friends and family that you usually spend the holidays with, you can always mail them a parcel of cake that will not only be safe to eat when it arrives but that will actually taste better than when you handed it over to USPS. Now, that’s what I call a small victory.