Listen, I’m going to be honest: I’m a writer first, a foodie second. I’m not a chef and I should never be on Chopped—I would always just throw everything into an omelet. When it comes to cooking and baking, I’m never in the kitchen just winging it. I get nervous without a recipe—it feels like driving without a map. I don’t know how to just “head north,” and I don’t know how much baking powder should go into a batch of muffins.
That said, I am happy to take direction in the kitchen from anyone who knows better than I—Ina Garten, anyone’s grandma, the Taste of Home Test Kitchen…or my friend’s eight-year-old daughter. Recently, this daughter sent me a handwritten note—well, more like a short story—titled “How to Make a Cake.”
Photo: via Amanda Kippert
Looking over her letter, I thought, I need to make this. And also, how does she have such nice handwriting? But before I started in on Isabel’s recipe, I wanted to poll a few other kiddos to see how they think cakes are made. After all, who’s more of an authority on cake than kids? My own three-year-old is what I would call a cake aficionado, so I began by chatting her up for some cake advice.
Layla, age 3
How do you make a cake?
OK, what do you mix in a bowl to make a cake?
L: Butter, marshmallows, chocolate chips, yogurt, cereal.
How would you decorate the cake?
L: With frosting. Pink frosting. And Christmas trees.
What would you call that cake?
L: M&M cake.
There are no bad ideas in my test kitchen. After talking with my daughter, I asked some more kids, “How do you think you bake a cake?” Read their valuable input below!
Devyn, age 4
“Eggs, milk, peanut butter, flour—a little—and you need to stir the eggs. Three eggs. Then put flour in it. Then frosting. Pink frosting. Then you can put some smilies on it. And sprinkles. Pink sprinkles. And a rainbow. You can put little candles on it. And you can put little people on it. And that’s it.”
Sarah, age 4
“Put in flour and butter and eggs and milk and eggs and milk and sugar and then put it in the oven.”
Ace, age 6
“First you get some batter. And then you can add some stuff to the batter. Or, like, a flavor. Then you bake it. Then you can make layers, and if you want to, you can frost it.”
Gigi, age 6
“You make a cake by using eggs, sugar, flour, butter, icing, cake—that’s all. After you do it, you get the birthday party set up. You could make somebody a cake if they’re sad. If they’re lonely, you could give them a cake and say, ‘Here.'”
Xander, age 3
How do you make a cake?
Xander: With frosting. But I don’t know what you make the big part with
What goes into the cake?
Grace, age 8
“First, you put the dry—flour and sugar—in one bowl. Then, the other bowl, you put things like milk and eggs, in a bowl, wet. Then you stir them, mix them and stir them again with the electric mixer. Pour them in a tin—wait, stop. Spray under the tin, get it nice so it doesn’t stick, then put it in the oven and bake it for about an hour or so.”
Evan, age 3
Noah, age 9
“You could just buy cake from the store.”
I felt confident that I had acquired enough data to make this cake amazing. Since the recipe author lived in another time zone many states away, I employed the help of my three-year-old to assist me in interpreting the instructions, and we set off to create something that would surely floor Martha Stewart.
Photo: via Amanda Kippert
Step 1: Combine flour and sugar. Lots of sugar.
Isabel’s first instruction is, “Frist you get a bowl. Next you pour 3 or 2 or 5 cups of flower and suger.” I asked Layla to interpret these nonspecific instructions for me and she clarified that Isabel meant 3 cups of flour and 5 cups of sugar. I asked her if she was sure. That seemed like a lot of sugar. She responded with a confident, “Yes, mama.” I trusted her. This was my first mistake.
Step 2: Add the eggs and ‘buder’
Next, the recipe said to add three eggs and two sticks of melted butter. Excuse me, “buder.” Done. I noticed the batter was looking a little thick at this point, like perhaps we were making bread…or Play-Doh.
Step 3: Give it some flavor
I wasn’t sure about “vnilla oil”—was that some sort of fancy infused oil they only sell at Whole Foods? I decided to add vanilla and oil separately and hope they combined as the recipe clearly implied they should.
Step 4: Put in the extra elbow grease
Next, we measured out the 3 teaspoons of “backing soda” and 1 teaspoon of “backing poter” and mixed those in. The batter was so stiff at this point that Layla handed the spoon over to me and declared it my turn.
“Good job using your muscles, Mama,” she said. Were we flipping tires or baking? It was a good workout either way.
Step 5: Add “cindens” milk
Luckily, the next instruction was to “Pour a small carten of cindens milk then ster it up.” I guessed that she meant “a small carton of children’s milk.” I didn’t have any cafeteria-sized cartons of milk in the fridge, so I poured in as much milk as I thought one would hold. It’s not like baking is about precision…right? The milk turned the sugar, flour and butter mixture into a glue-like substance. This wasn’t looking promising.
Step 6: Stir in a cup of water…if you can!
The next step was to “fill up a pot or a cup of water but only hafe way and pour it in.” I asked Layla—definitely cup, she said. Good, because I couldn’t fit a half-pot’s worth of water in the mixing bowl. I filled a coffee cup halfway and added it. The more we stirred, the more the batter seemed promising. However, this was a lot of batter. I mean, we’d started with 8 cups of dry ingredients. The bowl was almost overflowing…and I still needed to incorporate the ingredients the other kids said should go into a cake.
Step 7: Go crazy with mix-ins
We added chocolate chips and a scoop of peanut butter. I decided to nix Xander’s suggestion of putting candles in the cake. A creative idea, yes—but it seemed to spell disaster.
I realized that Isabel’s illustration at the end of her recipe showed a three-tiered cake, but that wasn’t going to happen. I poured the gooey batter into a 13×9″ pan and it came three-quarters of the way up the sides. I put it in the oven for 30 minutes, per her instructions, but I felt like this beast was going to need more time than that.
…and I was right. After 30 minutes, there was a sort of floating island of what appeared to be caramelized sugar in the center of a still-liquid sea of batter. It took 45 more minutes to stop jiggling. By this time, the center had sunk like a valley, and the sides had risen up like jagged sugar rocks. Maybe I should have read up on preventing common cake mistakes. Or maybe this was part of the method—I continued to trust.
Layla and I frosted the cake once it cooled. Since there were two votes for pink frosting, that’s what we chose. I liked Devyn’s suggestion of pink sprinkles and “smilies.” We added those. At this point, I thought it had enough decoration without adding Christmas trees, as Layla had initially suggested.
After presenting our final product to the family, I can’t say they lined up to try it. When I cut into it, I found some parts were still quite uncooked. It was like a hidden surprise: Liquid or solid? Who knows what you’ll get! Further, all that sugar fused the cake to the bottom of the pan.
Photo: via Amanda KippertPhoto: via Amanda Kippert
I insisted everyone participate in the taste test.
My husband snapped off a piece of the edge and took a mouse-sized bite. “This is…sugary,” he said.
My dad dug in with a fork and declared it great.
“He likes sugar,” explained my mom, who politely declined.
My three-year-old was all about it…because it was cake. Does it matter what form it takes? I cut her off after a few bites, fearing the sugar rush would punish us all later.
Overall, would I say this recipe has promise. Perhaps I went wrong with my interpretation? To be fair, it was a bit like a multiple-choice quiz. Did I choose the wrong answer? Only Isabel knows. And perhaps that’s part of the joy in the experiment—it’s like a video game and cake, combined. Either way, I had fun, I learned something (measurements are important) and I got to spend time in the kitchen with my kid. I’d say that’s a successful bake.