Flavor Holiday Hack: A Holiday Cake without the Stress

Holiday cake

Holiday Cake

Taking the stress out of the holidays by baking a homemade cake sounds counterintuitive, right? Not according to Michelle Heston, Regional Director of Public Relations for the Fairmont Hotels. As you can imagine, Michelle’s business life is, well, busy. To reduce the stress of her work life, Michelle bakes and decorates cakes, which she calls her “passion work” and is a perfect way to gift her friends and family. Her specialty is a Naked Cake. “A naked cake is a cake in which you can see through the frosting to the sides of the cake,” she explains. “You can truly taste the cake, with just a hint of frosting. [Naked cakes] are so elegant – with minimal frosting and maximum style…slightly indulgent, slightly naughty, and always delicious.”

And, for mere mortals, here is the good news: While Michelle often makes her cakes from scratch, she doesn’t shy away from using a boxed cake mix. She advises choosing a national boxed brand and not a grocery store brand. “There are all kinds of tricks for taking a boxed cakes from BLAH to WOW!” she insists. “Add a couple extra eggs, sub water for milk (or better yet, half milk, half liquor….  Kahlua, brandy), use melted butter instead of vegetable oil and add an extra teaspoon of vanilla (or almond) extract.”


Triple Chocolate Cake with Whiskey Spiked Frosting, Sugar-kissed Cranberries, and Pomegranate Arils


Makes one (6-inch) mini-cake (for a larger cake, double the recipe)


For the cake:

1. Buy a national brand cake mix. Follow the directions on the cake mix, but make these substitutions for a more decadent cake:

Replace the oil with melted butter (salted or unsalted).
Add an extra egg to the amount specified in the box recipe.
Replace the water in the recipe for whole milk or buttermilk.
Add 1 tablespoon of instant espresso to the batter.
Add 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract.

2. Divide the batter between 3 (6-inch) cake pans (buttered and lined with parchment). Bake according to the box recipe instructions.


For the frosting:

1 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 (2 pound) package powdered sugar
1/2 cup whole milk
3 tablespoons whiskey
2 tablespoons vanilla bean paste
1/8 teaspoon salt


Beat the butter at medium speed in the bowl of an electric mixer until creamy. Gradually add the sugar, alternating with the milk and whiskey, beating at low speed just until incorporated before the next addition. Mix in the vanilla bean paste and salt.


For the candied cranberries:

2 cups sugar, divided
1 (12-ounce) bag fresh cranberries


1. Combine 1/2 cup sugar and 1/2 cup water in a medium saucepan over medium heat, stirring until sugar is dissolved, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the cranberries and stir until well coated. Using a slotted spoon, transfer to wire rack; let dry for at least 1 hour.

2. Working in batches, roll the cranberries in the remaining 1 1/2 cups sugar until well coated; let dry for at least 1 hour.



1. Place a dollop of frosting in the center of a cake stand or serving plate (to keep the cake from sliding) and place 1 cake layer on top of frosting. Spoon frosting directly on top of first layer; using an offset spatula, spread the frosting evenly over the top and just past the edges of the first layer. Place the second cake layer upside-down directly on top of the first layer; repeat frosting process. Place the third cake layer on top of the second layer. Spoon more frosting directly on top of third layer, and lightly frost the entire cake, starting with the top and moving down the sides, leaving the layers largely exposed.

2. Place the assembled cake in the refrigerator for 20 minutes to allow the icing to set. Before serving, decorate with the candied cranberries and pomegranate arils.


Lynda Balslev

Lynda Balslev is an award-winning food writer, editor and recipe developer based in the San Francisco Bay area. She authors the nationally syndicated column and blog TasteFood, and co-authored the cookbook Almonds: Recipes, History, Culture (2015 Silver Medal Winner Independent Publisher Awards). She is the 2011 recipient of the Chronicle Books Award (Recipe Writing) to the Symposium for Professional Food Writers, and a 2018 Fellowship Award recipient to the Symposium for Wine Writers at Meadowood, Napa Valley. Lynda’s writing and photography have been recognized by the New York Times Diners Journal, the Los Angeles Times, The Huffington Post and more.