Since late July 2019, a small club in Austin, Texas, has been choosing cookbooks and web galleries and making every single cake recipe on the list. Now, they’ve turned to Country Living’s own recipes, and they are baking their way through the giant 70-recipe cake gallery that includes nearly every cake in our archives.
We were so touched (and impressed!) that we had to find out more. We spoke to member Kathy Nicklebur about breaking out the flour, what got them started, what’s kept them going, and what they’ve learned so far.
Country Living: So, who all is in this club?
Kathy Nicklebur: There are six women in our group: Kim Vidrine, Kelly Gin, Ro Suarez, Yadi McCarter, Rachel Woodall, and myself.
And how did Cake Club get started?
It was Kim’s idea. We’re all in the same running club (Rogue Running in Cedar Park).
Kim had seen a list floating around on social media, something like “50 cakes that are dying out, but shouldn’t.” She sent a message out to other members of the club who she knew loved to bake. And she just said, “Let’s divvy up this list and go through and try them all. Maybe we can find out whether they should be dying out or not!”
The other five joined right then. We met for the first time at the end of July 2019, and we started out with that list.
It was a lot of basic, old-fashioned cakes: carrot cake, hummingbird cake, etc. We baked a few of the recipes and met—and then quickly realized we needed some rules, so we formalized things and made it into a club!
What are the Cake Club rules?
In the beginning, I thought this would be kind of relaxed—like whomever wanted to could just sign up: Maybe one meeting we’ll have four people, and at another, there’ll be 10 of us. But others thought we needed to be more formal, and that turned out to be much smarter. So, we’re fixed at six people. And honestly, it’s tough to get through even six cakes.
Another rule: You have to follow the recipe to the letter. You can’t make any changes. We have one baker who, for instance, likes to pour in vanilla by sight. She can do that for her own recipes, but for Cake Club, everything has to be measured out as written. In fact, we did a book where everything was measured by weight, so we all had to get scales so we could do it.
We even try to use pans that are as close as possible to the ones called for (without incurring a bunch of extra expenses). One firm rule: You have to get all the ingredients that are called for. No omissions or substitutions. We’ve ended up having to source a lot of ingredients online when things aren’t available locally.
We have had to let bakers adjust the bake time on occasion. If a cake isn’t done in the recommended time, obviously you can leave it in. But the temperatures we still follow. One collection we did, the oven temperatures were very strange, like 335°F. We had to adhere to it.
Also, we always sit in the same seats, and there’s always a bottle of Champagne, a bottle of wine, and a jug of water on the table. And you have to try every cake, so you can contribute to the conversation.
Are you all pretty experienced bakers?
Most of us are just avid home bakers, but one of our members was actually a semiprofessional. Ro sold and decorated cakes for birthdays and events for a while before switching careers. The rest of us will ask her a lot of questions about what recipes are calling for, or what a certain technique is. And then thank God for the internet, too. We usually end up with a lot of questions!
So you have a ringer in the mix!
Ha! Yes. Ro is a teacher now, but she’s a trained architect, so she’s incredibly precise. She insists on cutting all our cakes. We’re too messy, and it stresses her out. Her cakes also always look the most like the photographs. It’s been really helpful having her! For Christmas, she gave us all rotating cake stands so our cakes won’t look so wonky after we decorate them!
You first met in 2019. How did the pandemic affect Cake Club?
Originally, we were once a month, and we’re only now getting back to that cadence. Everyone’s comfort level was a little different, especially in the early days. There was a six-month period or so where we just didn’t meet at all. Then, well, I have this giant barn behind my house. So, for a while we’d meet there, because it’s outside and wide-open.
It’s not just the pandemic; there’s all sorts of life stuff. When we started, one of our members was pregnant. We’ve also had pretty serious illness in our group. And we try not to ever meet if we can’t all be there. It’s taken us a bit to get through some of these lists.
How many lists have you made it through?
Country Living’s is our third set of cakes so far.
Do you judge the cakes, or rate them? Or are you simply baking them to enjoy them?
No, it’s not a contest. We don’t pick a winner. When we post about it on our club’s Instagram or on our own social feeds, people even ask, “Which one was the winner?” Sometimes there are definitely no winners. We have made some really bad cakes. Sometimes that’s baker error!
The purpose is that we want to try and evaluate each recipe and the cake it produces. Was there missing information? Was there stuff called for that wasn’t in the recipe or that you can’t taste? Did it work the way it was supposed to?
When we talk about the baking, we may say, “This would have been better if it had just been baked about 10 minutes less,” or, “The batter was just over-mixed.” We ask: Did it work the way it was supposed to? For instance, when it said, “Whip for seven minutes,” did it double in volume? Or fall flat? And sometimes that’s the instructions, and sometimes it’s our fault!
We discuss all those things, and then we say, “I would make this again,” or, “Gosh, I don’t think I’d make this again.” And then we all try it, and sometimes even if the recipe wasn’t a hit, we might decide the cake is still delicious!
Where are you on our list?
We’re 12 cakes in so far. We’ve had two meetings. The way it works is that when we start, we get to pick and choose the cakes we want to make. We don’t go in order.
After we get about halfway through the list, we start a drawing system. We all draw for cakes, and then Kim—who came up with this idea—will set up a schedule for the remaining cakes.
This is because, otherwise, everyone would leave certain cakes for the end. And those last four meetings would be awful, just full of cakes no one is excited about. So, the schedule ensures there will be at least three cakes we’re excited about, every meeting, and there can be no more than three we’re unsure about.
How’s it going so far?
Well, we’re just at the beginning of the Country Living list. But we noticed that, for some of the cakes, the point is less the recipe and more the decorating.
For example, there’s a really intimidating haunted house cake. And we’re trying to decide if we should wait until Halloween to make it and someone just draws the short straw and has to do all that work, or are we going to go for it earlier?
To be honest, I tried to get Ro to do it, and she wouldn’t. I’m really worried I’m going to get stuck with it! Technically, I don’t have a job at the moment, so the others will say, “Well, you do this one, Kathy.” We had this one recipe for an 18-layer cake! It was huge. And the other members basically said, “You don’t have a job, so you have to do this one.” I did, and it actually turned out pretty well.
You’re going to end up a professional baker by the time you’re done!
I don’t know about that. But I will have baked a lot of interesting cakes!
I see you even have a logo! Who developed that?
My daughter. She’s really talented and studies graphic design. I asked her to make the logo and for Christmas I gave everyone cake carriers with the stickers.
Then we went all out. Now we have aprons and mitts and spatulas. There’s a whole line of stuff now that only six people care about!
We even started a social media account on Instagram (@therealcakeclub). So many people were asking us how to start a club that we thought it would be an easy way to spread the word. It’s not difficult. All you need is a group of friends who like to bake and are willing to meet on an uneven schedule, and you, too, can have a cake club!
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You could start chapters! The rules you have feel really important.
That definitely helps, yes, because it does give us purpose and structure. It’s more than just eating some cake and socializing. When we meet, we get right down to business. And though I wanted to invite more people at the beginning, I’m really glad now that we didn’t. There is just no way that I could consume a seventh slice of cake each time.
Even six is a lot. My cake usually comes up last, and I said last time that I want to mix up the order. It doesn’t matter how good a cake is, by the final slice, you’re like oof. We’ve been cutting slices smaller and smaller, and that’s been helping. I honestly think we need to throw in a salty snack, too.
Have you had any truly terrible cakes?
Oh, sure! There was this one cake—it was so expensive. It was a fruitcake, and it was just packed with tons of different kinds of dried fruit and soaked in alcohol, so it was very expensive to make. And this thing was just hard as a rock. I don’t know if it was the baking or just all the booze and fruit.
At the end, nobody wanted to take any of it home. I live on a large property, and we have deer that come. We give them cattle feed and sometimes if I have extra muffins or whatnot, I’ll throw those in. Deer will eat anything. So, I took the cake home and put it in the deer bowl.
But even the deer wouldn’t eat it! They knocked the bowl over, and I found it off to the side, almost entirely intact. It looked like one deer took a nibble and told the rest of the deer, “Don’t eat that cake. It’s horrible.” When you’re baking every single cake from a list, they’re not all going to be ones you want to eat.
Have there been any all-time winners?
Actually, the one I made from our first Country Living list meeting! It’s the Heath Bar one, with the coating pressed into the side?
The Toffee Crunch Cake!
Yes! I made that one, and we all loved it. We split it up so everyone could take some home, and even everyone’s husbands and kids were like, “Yeah. This one is great.”
Well, it makes sense. It’s basically a zhooshed up yellow cake with chocolate frosting. Who doesn’t love that? The cakes that are the biggest hits, I feel, are the old-fashioned ones: a good spice cake or a good carrot cake. This last time, Rachel made your pistachio bundt cake.
The Pistachio-Lemon Bundt, with the glaze on it?
Yes! Everyone loved that one, because we haven’t had a pistachio cake in any of our lists so far! And Ro loves a citrus cake.
She’s good at making a chiffon cake, too, and chiffon is one of those things—it’s an extra place where something can go wrong, so I tend to avoid them if I can. But when she makes them, they’re so good and so light. It’s made us all see the value in trying something different.
Is there anything you’ve learned after making all these cakes?
One thing is that it really does make a difference following all the steps. You might think, “Eh, that chiffon is not that big a deal,” or, “I’ll just use a mix for this.” But making all these cakes from scratch, I’m realizing, makes a huge difference.
A box mix is great. I love it. But it’s something special when you make even just an old-fashioned plain cake from scratch. It tastes better. It’s an accomplishment! Everyone should bake a cake from scratch at least once.
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