Why some cakes taste better as they age

A black forest cake in all its boozy glory – think cherry schnapps, whipped cream and glace cherries – tastes even better on day two. 

A trifle, with yellow custard, fresh Aussie pineapples and jelly can be easily prepared and left untouched for a day without losing its lustre. And a tiramisu, although seemingly easy and whipped up in a flash, is in my Italian friend’s honest opinion best made a day in advance to make sure all the flavours develop. 

There is a common belief in the cake baking world that fresh is absolutely best, hot out of the oven and into our salivating mouths. 

But much like a gruyere from Switzerland and even our very own Aussie Shiraz, which ages beautifully past the 10-year mark, some cakes are best served after a bit of time. 

The belief is just like a great prime rib, ageing allows the flavours to develop which results in a stronger and intense flavour profile. For all of us who go through the labour-intensive process of making traditional fruit cake during Christmas, you surely would agree that the best one you have made was done at least 3 months in advance – macerating the sultanas and apricots in a sterile jar before actually baking the cake in October and ‘feeding’ the cake with lots of booze on a weekly basis – exasperating but well worth the adventure for that special occasion. 

“But much like a gruyere from Switzerland and even our very own Aussie Shiraz, some cakes are best served after a bit of time.” 

From my own experiences, I’ve noticed that oil-based cakes do better with time. My science background as a geeky research and development physical chemist, comes in handy in the kitchen, telling me that oil is 100 per cent fat, whereas butter is approximately 85 per cent fat, which means there is some water evaporating in the oven as the cake bakes. So that Italian olive oil cake and the Turkish gluten-free cake does stay moist and supple, especially when you drizzle orange liquor or juice.  Nadine Ingram, a baker for the last 43 years, believes the lemon drizzle cake is the perfect example of a cake that does better with age. “The joy of this cake is that it can sit in a cake tin on the bench for about a week. It doesn’t have much flour in it. In fact, we could probably use gluten-free flour to substitute and the cake will peak on day 3 or 4 after baking,” says Nadine.

My obsession with adding fruit to cakes like a German apple cake and pineapple to an apple cake, adds a definite moistness to the cake, and I have found that the cake lasts well past its third day in a cake stand. Obviously, scientifically speaking, as a cake sits, the fruits release some moisture and allow it to stay fresher. But of course, mould will come into play if not kept in a cool, dry and dark place. Let’s be honest, cake doesn’t last too long in my home so it’s not something I worry about too much. 

For Philippa Grogan, cakes, like her bestseller fruit cake, improve with time. “Ageing cakes is about planning when they will be consumed and baking them so that they will be enjoyed at their best,” says the baker who has been at it since she was 12.

While her Christmas fruit cake is a signature in the bakery, there are also other ‘aged’ cakes in her range. Grogan adds, “We focus on using premium ingredients and on the flavour which depends on the balance of the flavouring ingredients.

“We bake a rich ginger cake which is very moist and spicy, made with golden syrup and fresh ginger. The other popular cake is Toscaner, a Swedish almond honey cake. Both of these cakes last well for six weeks.”

Other tips from the Melbourne-based bakery include keeping it stored in an airtight container and in a cool dark place, with the crumb being tender with a chewy texture. “Rather than a crumbly cake, the honey, golden syrup, sugar and spices all help to preserve the cake,” adds Grogan.

For Maurice Hylton, owner of Goodies Jamaican Patties in Sydney, Jamaican rum cake is ‘arguably the best cake out there’ and is different to the regular Christmas cake we all know so well. Not just for Christmas, the Caribbean fruit cake is enjoyed for birthdays and celebrations like weddings.

“Mellow and moist, dark and delicious, the recipe has been passed on from my great grandmother to my grandmother, to my father. My mother took over the recipe and put her family’s spin on it. The fruits soaked and aged all year round, the smooth, moist batter, the infectious rum aroma… it brings me right back home. A cake can’t last a day in my household now,” says Hylton, who has been in Australia for the last 15 years.

“Mellow and moist, dark and delicious, the recipe has been passed on from my great grandmother, to my grandmother, to my father.

As a child, Maurice remembers being surrounded by fruit cake, literally.

“Cake preparation was embedded in my childhood home! Our kitchen was flooded with 10-gallon (38-litre) tubs filled with soaking fruit. I remember my father bringing home bags of raisins and having to pick out the stems and the seeds, wash, chop and soak them for months, along with other fruits, in rum and wine. I would open the lids when my parents weren’t watching and steal a glazed cherry,” says Hylton.

He adds, “My mother tells stories of her childhood in Kingston, she would take a little soaked fruit, put it in a cup, douse it with condensed milk and hide somewhere to take her time and sip on it!.”

Despite the recipe being kept close and remaining a family secret, Maurice recommends feeding the cake for a week to allow the cake to ‘mellow’ out for a richer and moist cake, as difficult as that may be. “People can’t wait for it to get out of the oven,” he confides. “A cake can’t last a day in my household now!”