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How to make the perfect cake

“It’s a cake! It’s a frivolous thing, it’s about celebration. Yes, you’re making a sculpture, but then you eat it. Everyone gets to look at it, smell it, taste it, watch it go down to the bones. It’s about appreciating and remembering a moment and the people you want to share it with.”

That’s Natalie Sideserf, Ohio State graduate and pastry star, with a reminder: It’s just a cake.

Still, you want yours to be perfect, right?

Sideserf — who founded Austin's Sideserf Cake Studio in 2013 and appeared with her husband and business partner, Dave, for two seasons on Food Network's “Texas Cake House” — draws on her fine arts background to create pastries that transcend traditional cake-making. 

Take a minute to see for yourself (you won't want to miss Willie Nelson's head), and keep reading as the Sideserfs share industry secrets easy enough for at-home bakers.

The Ohio State University
An Austin screening of “The Garbage Pail Kids Movie” inspired this treat.
The Ohio State University
Not a real elephant. Still a cake.
The Ohio State University
Conference attendees got a taste of Austin with this showpiece that served more than 1,000.
The Ohio State University
A Fabulous Food Show audience in Cleveland feasted on this 5-by-3-foot porker.
The Ohio State University
This work of art doubled as dessert at a 50th wedding anniversary celebration.
The Ohio State University
Avid fans of “The Office,” the Sideserfs created Michael Scott’s alter-ego Prison Mike in cake.
The Ohio State University
This Best in Show winner was Natalie’s first attempt at a bust made of cake.

Ready to up your own cake game? Here's where to start. 

  1. Picture it

    When you’re seeking a concept for your cake, “use reference photos like crazy,” Natalie Sideserf said, “and not of cakes!” She suggests something from home that you already know is beloved: “a pattern from a blanket, a book jacket, some cool object on your table.”

  2. Take to the internet

    “There is a lot of quality free stuff out there,” Natalie Sideserf said. “We just posted a how-to-make a poop emoji cake, and it is so simple it’s ridiculous. We put it in our archive so anyone can try it, right there, start to finish.”

  3. Look back

    “Play on nostalgia,” Dave Sideserf said. “Think back to the sweets you had when you were a kid.” If that was Hostess cupcakes, for example, you can probably make a big one with good ingredients. Or line up Oreos vertically around the sides; spell the person’s name in Twizzlers.

  4. Destroy cake clichés

    Try to let go of your idea of what a perfect cake should look like. “The colors do not have to be pastel,” Natalie Sideserf said. “Consider something like rustic colors, if that’s what speaks to you, and right there you have an original creation.”

  5. Take it out of context

    A heart-shaped cake can take many forms. “You can go really sweet and traditional,” Natalie Sideserf said, “or you can go human heart.”

  6. Keep it fresh

    It’s surprisingly simple to avoid extracts and artificial flavors and instead make basic syrups using fresh ingredients — with a huge payoff in flavor. “If you’re putting that much time and care into how a cake looks,” Natalie Sideserf said, “it better taste good.”

  7. Experiment with savory

    The Sideserfs swear by this: Counter any sweet with a little bit of salt. Bakers use basic table salt (skip the fancy, artisanal sea salts) because it disperses more evenly. Small amounts of other savory ingredients can take an easy sweet sensation deeper. “There can even be a place for spinach in your cake,” Natalie Sideserf said. “Try it, experiment.”

  8. No peeking!

    It may seem obvious, but the Sideserfs say it might be the most common home baker mistake they see: “Whatever you do,” Dave Sideserf said, “do not open the oven door while you’re baking.”

Natalie Sideserf talks about her favorite cake-decorating tools.