You’ll remember this day as being one of the “today years old” moments when you learned something so simple, yet so mind-blowing. Namely, that you’ve been cutting cake wrong your whole life. There’s a better way; in fact there are better ways to do it than the standard wedge method. Cake is not pie.
Now, it isn’t necessarily your fault that you’ve been making this error. I spoke to Chef Tracy Wilk, Lead Recreational Chef for the Institute of Culinary Education, (and recent creator of the quarantine-inspired #bakeitforward initiative,) who has a theory about why more people don’t know about this: “I think because cake is mostly used as a vessel of celebration, most commonly birthday cake,” she explains, which is a once-in-a-while dessert. Basically, you probably haven’t confronted cake-cutting enough to have even realized you needed a better method. Practice makes perfect, and so on.
But if you’ve ever been the “Office Space” Milton in the room, watching in horror as someone over-estimated the size of cake wedges needed to make sure everyone got one, then you will acknowledge the need for an alternative that maximizes the number of portions available from a single, round cake.
Pastry chefs, either in bakeries or in restaurants, have different goals for serving cake. “When I put on my pastry chef hat,” says Wilk, “not only is our goal is to have clean and concise slices, but goal number two is getting the most out of your cake.” Goals that you don’t need to be a pastry chef to appreciate. Wilk explained the various methods you can employ to approach cake-cutting with a professional mindset, whether or not you are one.
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A pedestal for your beautiful cake, AND to show off your cake-cutting skills.
The Right Tool for the Job
But before we discuss the various methods, Wilk has an initial suggestion: “Use a sharp, hot knife—so run it under hot water and dry it off after every slice, especially for chocolate,” which keeps your knife from literally losing its edge by getting clogged with icing.
Note that it’s a sharp knife that’s needed. Just because cake is typically soft doesn’t mean you should bludgeon it with a dinner knife or a wedge-shaped pie server. Also the longer the blade, the more even and elegant your slices will turn out.
Fat Daddio's 14-inch Bread and Cake Knife, $18.99 on Amazon
Slice your cake, don't bludgeon it.
Method 1: The Grid
Consider that most standard round cake pans are eight or nine inches in diameter. According to the grid method, anything larger than a six-inch cake should be cut into rectangles, not wedges. Wilk explains one of the common pitfalls of the wedge method: “I used to work at a restaurant where we had to get wedges out of a 12-inch cake, and if you didn’t hit the exact center when you started cutting, then the whole cake was off.”
Rather than trying to eyeball the centerpoint of the cake and cut radiuses, with the grid method you need only estimate about two inches from the edge of the cake to start cutting slices. “This way you get the most slices and it’s also the easiest,” explains Wilk. You’ll benefit from slices with varying icing-to-cake ratios, so pieces can be distributed according to individual taste.
The grid method is also helpful if your cake has gotten warmer than you intended; if it’s been sitting out for too long, or has been outside in the heat for any length of time. The warmer the cake the less structural integrity it maintains. “Cake should be served [at] room temperature,” says Wilk, “not warm. If the cake is a little ‘wiggly’ you’re not going to get clean slices if you do wedges.”
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Cakes of all sizes to practice your clean slices.
Method 2: Concentric Circles
“The grid method is the easiest,” says Wilk, “but then your slices are rectangular, and if you’re having an elegant occasion, it might not work as well.” Some occasions call for uniform slices, and the tidy look of the classic wedge on a plate.
This method does rely on your ability to cut circles within circles, which is no easy task, though you can use a guide, even a smaller cake pan to trace around. You cut slices from each of the outer rings until you’re down to a six-inch round, and from there you can cut wedges.
I asked Wilk whether she’d had the same “aha!” moment I’d had when I first learned to approach cake-cutting in this way: “I don’t remember the first time I saw it,” she said, “but I do remember never cutting cake the same again.”
Header image by Chowhound