In the world of food and cooking, when pairing wine with cheese or food, you generally shoot for one of two things: either a flavor that acts as a complement, or one that acts as a contrast.
Could this technique work for pairing cake flavors with fillings and frostings?
Turns out, it actually works quite well! Many of the cakes we consider classic actually (inadvertently, we suppose) adhere to the “complement or contrast” guide. It’s a fun way to consider the success of classic pairings, and ponder new flavors to try.
Illustration via CakeSpy
Yellow or vanilla cake
A fluffy, delicate and mild vanilla-scented cake is often used as the base of decorating cakes and is well suited to a number of flavor pairings.
Photo via Bluprint instructor Jenny McCoy
Since vanilla comes from a flower, it makes sense that it sings in harmony with floral herbs or extracts, such as lavender, mint, rose or rosemary. Vanilla cakes with violet buttercream, for instance, are dainty, delicate, and sweet.
If it works in a vanilla latte, it probably works in a cake filling or frosting. Cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves are some examples of sweet spices that might work.
Mild fruit flavors, such as fig, pear, and strawberries, will act as a complement to vanilla. Lady Baltimore cake, for instance, is made with a light vanilla cake paired with a fig and fruit filling topped with a fluffy cloud of meringue buttercream.
Photo via Beth Somers
Deep, dark chocolate is probably the most famous contrast to this light vanilla cake — there’s a reason why yellow cake with fudge frosting is a classic. Too much contrast? It’s also good as a filling, as in the recipe featured in Craftsy course The Wilton Method: Baking Basics.
Photo via Jenny McCoy
Tart, strong-flavored fruits can also work a pleasant contrast with mild vanilla. Tart cherries or blueberries, bright citruses such as lemon or limes. A vanilla cake filled with a lemon-thyme curd, as taught in Creative Flavors for Cakes, Fillings & Frostings, is a study in beautiful contrast.
A rich, chocolate cake calls for a topping that will show respect to its main ingredient.
Photo via Craftsy member Ayen
Chocolate works in perfect harmony with…well, chocolate. Pairing a chocolate cake with a chocolate filling and/or frosting is never a bad decision.
Espresso or coffee can bring out a wonderful depth of flavor in chocolate. This harmonious duo can work together in contrast, too — consider how coffee and chocolate flavors contrast the creamy vanilla and sponge cake flavors in tiramisu.
Sometimes you feel like a nut. Just about any type you can think of works well with chocolate, from almonds to macadamias to pecans. German chocolate cake, for instance, features chocolate, pecan, and coconut, which all come together with delicious results.
Photo via Craftsy instructor Jenny McCoy
Just as vanilla cake with chocolate frosting is a classic, the same concept works when the flavors are flipped. A chocolatey cake is wonderfully met with a sweet, mild vanilla filling or frosting.
Tart, bright fruits such as orange, lemon, or raspberry can work a wonderful contrast with chocolate.
Very salty flavors, such as salted caramel, pretzels, peanuts, or perhaps all three, will act as a fine counterpart to the rich sweetness of chocolate. It’s an addictive combination to be sure.
A sweet, spice-rich cake which is earthy and homey can play well with a variety of different flavors.
Photo via Craftsy member Bwithani
Sweet fruits, such as pineapple and raisins, work well with carrot cake; they’re even added to the batter fairly frequently. Why not consider incorporating them into a filling or frosting, too?
Nutty flavors work well with the spicy sweetness of carrot cake. You can add a buttercream infused with the nut of your choice, or create a buttercream or filling with browned butter, which has a naturally nutty flavor.
Photo via CakeSpy
There’s a reason why carrot cake is so frequently paired with cream cheese frosting: the slightly sour quality of the cheese works wonderfully against the mild sweet and spiciness of the cake. Sour cream-infused fillings and frostings are also a good choice.
Upping the spice quotient can be a pleasing contrast with carrot cake. For instance, ginger’s strong and assertive flavor adds a new dimension to the sweetness of the carrots.
Bright and zippy, lemon cake enlivens the taste buds. But what enlivens lemon?
Photo via Pâtisserie Natalie
Bright fruit flavors, such as tart berries, work well with lemon, adding flavors and colors that look pretty and meld well with lemon. Lemon-blackberry cupcakes are pretty and delicious.
Assertive spices and herbs, such as lemongrass, ginger or mint, can stand up to the lively lemon flavor and give it a new dimension.
Chocolate and lemon? Believe it. The dark sweetness of chocolate works surprisingly well with the light sweetness of lemon.< p>Earthy spices and herbs can act in contrast to lemon’s brightness to add an earthy element to cakes: thyme and basil are some good examples.
Vanilla flavors can mellow out lemon’s assertiveness, but also make a sweet-tart combination that keeps you coming back for more. Lemon-poppy-seed cake with vanilla buttercream or glaze, for instance, can be an exquisite combination.
As you’ll learn in the Craftsy course Creative Flavors for Cakes, Fillings & Frostings, the sky’s the limit when it comes to delicious and interesting flavor combinations. Instructor Jenny McCoy is a pastry chef who has learned to transform classic techniques into inventive and exceptional desserts.
Sign up today to learn how and when to incorporate different flavors into cakes, including techniques for how to coax the most flavor out of ingredients, such as nuts and coconut, and when and how to mix them into a cake batter, filling or a frosting.
Come back to the Craftsy blog tomorrow to learn how to use sugar sheets!