By Krystina Castella

A World of Cake is available for purchase through our online store or at local book stores. For more information on this cookbook please visit Storey Publishing.


Cookbook review written and photographed by contributing writer Helena McMurdo

Krystina Castella, an art college professor, was inspired to begin work on A World of Cake following a bake sale she helped organize on her college campus. She asked her students to bring various cakes to sell and was surprised by the array of baked goods that her international students brought to the table. She became aware of just how narrow her definition of cake was and thought it would be an interesting project to explore this further. The result? A World of Cake.

Published by Storey Publishing, LLC($24.95 USD), this book is a 320+ page comprehensive look at cakes from around the world. It explores the subject matter through recipes, along with the various traditions and history that surround cake.

Some of the interesting and helpful features of this book include:

The world tour of cake holidays – in this introductory section, the author lists cakes under months of the year and pairs them with well-known and some lesser-known holidays. This is a great feature to inspire you if you are unsure of what to make or if you just need an excuse to bake a cake. Why not consider a French Opera Gateau for Bastille Day? Or perhaps some Zeppole for the Feast of St Gennaro?

The author lists traditional cakes for specific holidays, as well as other cakes whose suggested serving occasions are a bit more of a stretch. For example; I’m not exactly sure what Scottish Dundee Guinness Cake has to do with Super Bowl Sunday but I suppose any excuse for cake is a good one!

An international tour of cakes – the book is organized into geographic regions with several cakes being selected from each region and identified by their country of origin.  If when you think of cakes you think of France, Germany, Austria you will indeed find some of the well-known and famous cakes from these countries. I was much less familiar with the cakes of a host of countries from Asia and Africa, and some of the techniques used like steaming and frying. Most of all, I enjoyed the thoughtful excerpts at the top of each recipe that provided a better understanding of the traditions associated with each cake. There are also informative pages called ‘World Tours’ that focus on individual themes. For example; Christmas Cakes or Street Cakes which look at the traditions from various countries within that genre.

Layout and directions – for the most part I like the organization, layout and directions of the book. The recipes are well typeset with subheadings for cake, icing, filling, as well as preparation and assembly. Because many of the recipes have several steps, I found this to be a helpful feature. One thing I would have liked to see called out separately was the pan type. I often found myself digging through a recipe to find out what pan to use. The book also contains helpful sections about general baking and cake making tips, which as an infrequent baker, I found helpful as a reference.  Occasionally I found the specific details of the process to be lacking but for the most part the instructions were clear.

If you love to bake and are looking for new inspiration, this is the book for you. I was amazed by the sheer multitude of cakes, many of which were entirely new to me. But I was also very happy to find familiar favourites for which I had been lacking recipes.

Battenberg Cake

RATING: 4 out 5 (ahhh the memories!)

THE TEST: I have fond memories of Battenberg cake from when I was a very small foodie, visiting my grandma in England. She always had a Battenberg cake, presumably from Marks & Spencer. My initial disappointment, upon discovering that this pink and white checkerboard square was not in fact Neapolitan ice cream, soon wore off and many years later while living in Ireland, store-bought Battenberg cakes were a guilty pleasure.  So imagine my delight to find that I could actually make this treat myself!

To make this cake, you actually need two cakes (one pink, one yellow) as well as apricot glaze and marzipan. The rich butter cakes are cut and assembled in the trademark checkerboard pattern, using the apricot glaze as a sweet mortar, and then wrapped in marzipan (which in my opinion is what makes the cake).

The recipe is somewhat involved and because of the number of steps required you want to make sure you set aside enough time in one day or do this over a two day period which is what I did, making the cakes on one day and assembling them the next.

Normally the pink cake is made by adding a few drops of red food colouring to half of the cake batter, but I opted for and appreciated the author’s suggestion to use cherry juice instead.  This does not provide for as vibrant a pink but does give the cake an additional if somewhat subtle flavour.

The marzipan itself was easy enough to make, and although there was a brief moment of panic when I started kneading and became convinced this was never going to work, the paste came together beautifully.

The apricot glaze was less successful. I used the variation for dried apricots and found it would simply not break down to the extent indicated by the recipe. I ended up cooking it for much longer than suggested and finally had to take the hand blender to it to make it smooth. (I think in future, I might take the easy way out on this step and just thin some apricot jam with water).

The trickiest part of this cake making process is definitely the assembly; cutting the individual pieces of cake to the same size and wrapping the whole thing in marzipan. Although not called for in the recipe, I used a bit of the apricot glaze to help the marzipan stick to the cake.

THE RESULTS: The use of the cherry juice did alter the texture of the pink cake and made the batter a bit runnier which affected the cooking time as compared to the yellow cake. (This was not indicated in the recipe). When making cakes you sure get to know your oven and I found the cooking times provided were not adequate so I had to cook them for longer. But that’s mea culpa or should I say my oven’s culpa.

The recipe says this will make two, finished Battenberg cakes but I ended up making two plus a smaller one with the bits of cake I had left. Even at that, I still had additional cake scraps left over (which I promptly repurposed a few days later into 3 mini bread puddings – Score!)

In terms of the finished product, except for the less pink colour, this was exactly as I remembered. In particular, the recipe for the marzipan was a home run. Fragrant, sweet, delicious. I brought the cakes round to my parents’ house and they were quickly consumed with several family members having seconds and thirds. Sounds like a success to me!

Pistachio-Rosewater Cake

RATING: 4 out of 5 (delightful if perhaps a little bit too rosey?)

For a copy of the recipe for Pistachio-Rosewater Cake, please click here

THE TEST: This cake comes from Iran. I know next to nothing about Iranian food and desserts so this was a tasty way to find out more. I was immediately attracted by the pistachios (love them!) and intrigued by the rosewater.  Plus this cake called for cumin aka my-all-time-favourite-spice.

I found the rosewater easily enough in a local store specializing in foods from far off lands. When I opened the bottle to take a sniff I was reminded instantly of my first bottle of body lotion which I received as a Christmas present when I was eight years-old. It was from Yardley and I remember I was quite impressed with the whole ‘By Appointment to the Queen’ thing. So while the rosewater brought back a not altogether unpleasant memory, I was not sure I wanted to eat this in a cake.  But I pressed on.

The first step was to toast and chop some pistachios. Then to the usual dry ingredients, cumin and allspice powder are added.

This cake uses a total of six – yes, count’em – six eggs. The egg yolks are separated from their whites, and are added to a creamed butter/sugar mixture along with honey, rosewater and lime juice. Dry and wet ingredients are then mixed together.

Then the egg whites are whipped up separately and folded into the main batter, along with the pistachios.  This gives the batter a very airy texture.

While the cake was baking, I made the rosewater icing which was a mixture of milk, confectioners sugar and rosewater. So far so good.  The cake looked lovely coming out of the oven and after letting it cool for a while, it was time to ice.

The top and sides of the cake are iced with the rosewater icing and then you are faced with the tricky task of getting some chopped pistachio nuts onto the side of the cake.  I did this by holding the cake over a baking sheet filled with chopped pistachios and gathering the nuts to the side of the cake and letting the excess fall back into the baking sheet.  Seemed to work fairly well although my cake wasn’t as perfect looking as I might like.

THE RESULTS: This cake has an amazing and unique texture. It is dense and fluffy (if that’s even possible) and the pistachios provide an element of crunch. The flavours are delicate and subtle, and the cake itself is not overly sweet. I found that the rosewater came through a bit too strongly in the icing, and I would probably cut down on the amount used next time. But yes, there will be a next time. I really liked this cake because of its unique flavours which were quite new to me in cake format, and although the ingredients are a bit on the expensive side I felt this was the most special of the cakes I made from this book.


Tamale Corn Cakes

RATING: 3 out of 5 (really wanted to love these)

THE TEST: I was so excited to make these cakes. They are definitely outside what I would have considered to be the ‘normal’ cake realm, but I was really intrigued by the technique.

The cakes are made with a corn flour batter (masa) and a fruit filling comprised of dried pineapple, apricots, golden raisins, pecans and chocolate, wrapped in a corn husk and then steamed.

The masa contains butter, sugar, corn flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg. The masa can be made with either corn flour or masa harina which is available in Latin American grocery stores. I opted to go with corn flour as it was what I had on hand, but I’m curious to know how my results would have differed if I had used masa harina.

Once I had made the masa and the filling, it was time to make tamales. I felt the recipe could have provided a little more instruction for this part. My interpretation of spreading two tablespoons of the masa “into a rectangle” and topping with two teaspoons of the filling is below.

Next came folding the tamales. The instructions were something along the lines of “fold the husk over the filling” and “tie together with the ends of the husks”. I wasn’t sure if I was to fold up or down or side-to-side so I kind of winged it.

As for tying it together with the ends of the corn husk, that proved somewhat elusive to me so I used butcher’s twine to secure my little packages. This is what I came up with.  How cute is that?

The author recommends making the wrapping of the tamales part of the fun and inviting to people to help you prepare them. A very good idea that I foolishly ignored. Still, I enjoyed the process, but it was definitely labour intensive. Once the packages were assembled, they went straight into the steamer basket where they steamed covered over simmering water for one hour.

THE RESULTS: I’m a bit heartbroken over these because I really enjoyed making them. I had a good time and I learned something new. But truth be told, I liked making these way more than I enjoyed eating them. The cinnamon, nutmeg and fruit flavours were lovely but I just felt the corn cake texture was too dry. I’m not sure if I steamed them for too long but given that there is not that much butter in these cakes it makes sense that it would turn out dry. Maybe I just don’t like tamales? It’s such a shame because they are so pretty aren’t they? That being said, my partner LOVED these cakes. (Well he has to say that doesn’t he?!) Like LOVED them. Go figure. (I just read this out loud to him and he said he really did like them, that he doesn’t HAVE to say that, and that you should ignore my disappointment and give them a try).