Philip Moscovitch Reviews Happy Belly: The Cake Book
Happy Belly: The Cake Book
Aaron McInnis loves cakes. He wants you to love cakes too — baking them, frosting them, decorating them — and with Happy Belly: The Cake Book (Breakwater Books), he sets out to make that process as accessible as possible.
McInnis, who lives in Conception Bay South, Newfoundland and Labrador, is a certified nutritionist and “self-taught/mom-taught” baker who has been a finalist on several Food Network shows, winning one. Happy Belly brings together recipes for an array of cake styles. There are re-imagined classics, like German Chocolate Cake and Tiramisu Cake, plus classic pairings in cake form (think PB&J). Then there are the candy-bar cakes and the holiday-themed delights, like Witches’ Brew for Halloween and a Guinness and Bailey’s Cake featuring chocolate coins and candy ribbons for St. Patrick’s Day. The cakes are gorgeously photographed by Aimee Nicole.
In the final chapter, called “Out-of-the-box flavour pairings” McInnis really cuts loose, with creations including Lemon, Pepper and Parsley Cake, Beer and Cheese Cake, and Avocado and Coffee Cake.
The cake recipes in the book can be adapted for cupcakes too.
If you think this book is too fancy for you, think again. McInnis is committed to demystifying cakes. His approach in Happy Belly is to introduce what he calls “standard recipes.” These are the building blocks that are then mixed and matched to make all the rest of the recipes in the book.
The standard recipes include two base cakes — one chocolate and one vanilla — along with other basics like buttercream, frosting and ganache. He writes, “I wholeheartedly believe that with the right foundation recipes, you have a world of possibilities… We don’t need fifty different cake recipes.”
The basic chocolate and vanilla cakes both use oil instead of butter. That’s helpful for someone like me, who occasionally decides to bake a cake only to then realize the butter is still in the freezer.
The chocolate cake includes coffee, which McInnis says really helps to draw out the chocolate flavour. He doesn’t specify what kind of coffee to use, but I made a fairly strong cup of coffee using my Aeropress, and it still did not dominate. The chocolate definitely remained king.
Contrary to almost all cake-baking advice I’ve seen elsewhere, McInnis says there is no need to hurry to get the vanilla cake in the oven after combining wet and dry ingredients. In fact, he says you can leave the batter in the fridge for a couple of days before baking and it will still be fine. I do trust McInnis on this, but I have to confess that a lifetime of hurrying up at this final stage was too powerful for me to overcome. I planned to leave the cake in the fridge for a couple of days before baking, just to test it out, but I could not bring myself to do it.
There is something refreshingly direct about Happy Belly. With the widespread availability of recipes online, so many cookbooks strive to do more. They become travelogues, memoirs, histories.
Happy Belly, in contrast, is all about the cakes. There is a brief introduction in which McInnis tells us about himself, then we dive right into the techniques you’ll need to master, the equipment you should have and the standard recipes. For those who learn better by watching, McInnis has included a link to his YouTube channel, “Man versus Cake,” in which he demonstrates these techniques in some detail.
Of all foods, cake is perhaps the most gendered. In the popular imagination, baking cakes is women’s work. A 2019 doctoral thesis by Carmel Cedro of the Auckland University of Technology looks at how cake recipes in Australian cookbooks “tied together the practice of baking intrinsically to conceptions of femininity.” The same has surely been true in Canadian baking as well.
McInnis is very much aware of this stereotype, and committed to setting a positive example (for his three sons, among others) as a man who bakes cakes.
“I strongly and wholeheartedly believe in breaking the cake stereotypes and empowering men to get into the kitchen and to cake all the things,” McInnis writes. For those who want to take up the challenge, Happy Belly is a great place to start.