How do I get a caramelized crust on my cake?

Aerial shot of bundt cake and a bowl of strawberries
Photo: istetiana (Getty Images)

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Good morning! I am a novice baker, however I bake pretty well. A friend of mine recently made a cake and the edges all the way around had almost like this paper thin “crust” on it. It was almost like a bark per se. I was wondering if you guys could maybe point me in the direction of how this can be produced on a cake. I asked my friend and he won’t tell me his secret.

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I love that your friend is keeping this a secret, because achieving such a crust is so unbelievably simple, and yet practically no one does it when baking cakes. It’s not printed on the back of cake mix boxes, and it’s rarely recommended in cookbooks. As a professional recipe developer who’s actually written a cake cookbook, I can attest that the reason for this industry-wide obfuscation is that this trick makes those of us “in the know” feel special. It makes our cakes far more impressive to our friends and neighbors, who then say things like, “I don’t know, Allison—I keep making that cake recipe you gave me, but it never comes out as good as yours. Guess you’re just the best!” Alas, I now need to reveal this, my most treasured secret, because you emailed us looking for answers and I’m contractually obligated to provide them.

Often, cake recipes will instruct you to grease and flour the cake pan to prevent sticking. But, if you want to get a paper thin, caramelized crust around the sides of your cake, after you grease your pan with butter, oil, or cooking spray, coat the inside of your pan with sugar instead of flour. Put a heaping spoonful of sugar on the bottom of the pan and gently shake it back and forth to coat. Next, working directly over your sink or trashcan, tilt the pan to the side and rotate it like a steering wheel, repeating as needed until fully covered. Turn the pan upside down, giving the bottom a few firm taps to knock out any excess, and you’re all ready to bake. While in the oven all those individual granules of sugar will melt, and as the cake cools, that sugar will reset into a paper-thin layer of crispy, caramelized goodness. Now you, too, are in the possession of the secret. Hold it close to your heart, and use it wisely.

Allison Robicelli is a writer, recipe czar, former professional chef, author of four (quite good) books, and The People's Hot Pocket Princess. Tweet me for recipe help: @Robicellis.

DISCUSSION

People are weird about sharing cooking tips and recipes. Years ago I heard of something called a “grandma recipe.” A grandma recipe is a bullshit recipe you give to someone who wants to recreate your signature dish that is close but it leaves out the technique/timing/ingredient/tool/whatever that makes your dish standout.

My wife recently asked a colleague for his salsa recipe and we got a grandma recipe instead. I tinkered with it and my version 4.0 turned out better than his. Passive/aggressive F@#%r!  All he had to say is, “It’s a family recipe and my mother would kill me if I shared it. Sorry.”