The God of Cake: an interview with Ryan, baker extraordinaire

I’m setting out to make the most delicious Rice Krispy Treats the world has ever tasted. You can follow my pursuits at Treatified.

Why am I doing this, you might ask. For one, Rice Krispy Treats were my go-to for birthday gifts throughout high school and college, where I’d melt the butter and marshmallows in a microwave in my dorm room (it’s a miracle I never started a fire). I’m well out of school, but why stop now?

I also find myself constantly inspired by people who are virtuosos of specific kinds of food – Eric Ehler of Seoul Patch, who is a master of Korean-American fusion cuisine, and my friend Ryan, who bakes the most amazingly delicious and visually stunning cakes out of anyone I know. Case in point:

Ryan's Hyperbole and a Half Cakes

Ryan baked these two cakes for my roommate Anita’s birthday and decorated them with depictions of characters from Anita’s favorite online comic, Hyperbole and a Half. I was floored. Not only were the cakes impeccably beautiful (and so perfectly suited to the birthday girl), they also tasted like heaven. One was a maple walnut cake, chewy and nutty, and the other was a spiced cake, soft and fragrant.

Read on to find out how this unlikely baker learned his craft, and how he manages to concoct such delightful sweets even though he’s diabetic.

Jen: What’s the first thing you ever baked?

Ryan: It was probably something boring like yellow cake with buttercream frosting.

Jen: Since I’m a baking newbie, I already have a question about the basics: What makes a yellow cake yellow?

Ryan: It’s a combination of having butter and egg yolk. It’s harder to make a white cake because there’s not as much butter or egg yolk. I’m not sure I’ve even made a white cake from scratch before; it’s a more complicated recipe.

Jen: Is cake mix completely foreign to you because you’ve always made your own cakes?

Ryan: A friend of mine actually baked something from a mix one day, and I was like, “This actually turned out pretty good and it was a lot simpler…why I am spending all this time baking my own cakes?” I still prefer to have something homemade from scratch, especially if it’s for someone else. I try to do the best that I can when baking for others.

Jen: How did you learn about the techniques and sciences of baking?

Ryan: It was a combination of my mom telling me these things because she’s been baking cakes for so long. But also, someone can tell you to do it this way, and you say, oh, that makes sense, I’ll try that. You don’t really know until you don’t do it, and the result isn’t good, for example, “I mixed it too much, and it turned out too dry.” Sometimes I learned things from my mom, and other times, I learned from some sort of mistake that I remembered to fix next time.

Jen: Was there ever a time when you had an epiphany about baking tools or techniques?

Ryan: One of the biggest things was when I realized how big of a difference having good quality cake pans had in baking a cake. I was never that picky to begin with; when I was five, having a little bit of a dome on top was fine. However, layered cakes would always turn out a little odd. I was really glad when I finally found some good pans (unangled edges without nonstick coating). It’s kind of a hassle, but once you make that mistake and the cake turns out over-domed, you remember to do it right next time.

Jen: That’s definitely a good lesson! So it sounds like what you learned about cake pans was more of a trial-and-error thing rather than something you read about or talked to someone about?

Ryan: It sounds like trial-and-error, but my mom really did have a lot of influence. It would be the kind of think where I’d try something, and then it wouldn’t turn out quite right, so I’d call my mom, and she’d say, “Oh yeah, that’s happened to me before, and this is what I did for it.” It was really a combination of the two. If it’s something I’ve never done before, I’ll call her up ahead of time to get a few basic tips from her. For example, the pork buns I made – I’d never actually made bread before, so about an hour before I started making the bread, I called her and asked her how to make the bread just right. My mom’s experience helps a lot and having confidence helps too.

Jen: How did you come with the idea for making pork buns?

Ryan: I was making a lot of egg tarts for a while, and then I started thinking…what else do I love about dim sum? Pork buns! It’s not sweet, but it’s still a baked good. Someday, I want to learn how to make all my favorite things from dim sum, and have a big dim sum party at my place sometime.

Jen: What else would be at this party?

Ryan: Wonton wrappers with various fillings. I haven’t gotten around to actually planning everything yet.

Jen: How do you find recipes for all these different items? When you look for a recipe, are there triggers for what will turn out well?

Ryan: I just search on Google, and it’s hard to say how I find what looks like it will be good. I think both the pork buns and the egg tarts are from someone’s blog. I find that there are lots of people who want to do what I’m doing, and usually if you find someone’s blog, they say “I searched all the web, and here’s the one I found that is better than all the rest.” This seems a lot more reputable than just a random recipe posted online somewhere.

Jen: That’s a really good point – it seems a lot more curated when it’s on someone’s blog.

Ryan: Right – you actually get someone’s opinion on a recipe.

Jen: How did your mom learn how to bake? Is this knowledge something that’s been passed down for many generations in your family?

Ryan: The impression that I got is just that my mom has been baking for at least as long as I’ve been alive. She’s had a lot of time; she’s even more adventurous than I am about trying new things, so she learned mostly on her own. She’d watch TV shows that taught her how to bake things.

Jen: Which TV shows?

Ryan: Both of us like watching “Good Eats” a lot. So when we’re talking about cooking something, we’ll both reference stuff we saw on “Good Eats.” And it’s great because it’s a scientific approach to cooking. She’ll watch other stuff too, like Martha Stewart.

Jen: Speaking of the scientific approach, do you think that your engineering background has shaped the way you bake at all? Or is your baking hobby completely separate from your career in engineering?

Ryan: I like to think that baking is more scientific than cooking, but still, I don’t think of it as an engineering, especially when it comes to frosting and finishing. It’s sort of a nice break for me to get away from tough problem solving. I’m sure there is some influence of engineering in it. I’ve baked cakes enough times, so it comes sort of naturally. My mind almost turns off a lot of times I’m doing it. I bake pretty much when I want to relax. Although cleaning up the mess at the end stresses me out, so in the end, I’m not sure how much it really relaxes me. I’m not a super clean, organized baker, but the result is usually good enough.

Jen: What about ovens? How do you control for different oven settings, and what’s the difference between a convection oven and a regular oven? I feel like the more I read about it, the more confused I become.

Ryan: I’ve never had a convection oven, but from what I understand, a convection oven always blows
hot air, so it keeps the air more consistent, and it tends to bake things faster, so I have no idea how to adjust to that.

In terms of regular ovens, I just use trial and error. In theory you’re supposed to be putting a thermometer in the oven. What do now is keep a pizza stone in the oven. The pizza stone absorbs a lot of heat. It helps maintain a consistent temperature in the oven; without it, the oven gets hot and turns off; gets hot again, and turns off. That tip actually came out of a cake decorating class I took last November.

Jen: Interesting! I had no idea that pizza stones could do that. Where did you take the cake decorating class?

Ryan: It was at Michael’s. I happened to walk in one day to buy a cake box, and I saw that there was an ad for a class. And it was actually a really fun class! It was once a week for four weeks. Every class was two hours. We started out with basic tips for making a cake; then, we frosted cookies, learned the basics of the making the first cake layer, and made frosting flowers. We got to design our own cakes on the last day. I made a cake with a panda holding a flower.

Jen: I have heard that you make amazing panda cake pops.

Ryan: Yes, that was something I did at some point. My friend started telling me about something called cake pops, and she really thought that I should try making some. I got a book, but I didn’t really like any of the ideas I saw in the book, so I just took some leftover cake that I had, and crumbled it up into balls. I really like pandas, which are easy – just different layers of white and dark colors. The hardest part about the whole thing was getting people to eat them, because no one wanted to bite into a cute panda.

Jen: That’s exactly how we felt about Anita’s Hyperbole and a Half cake too!

Ryan: I’ve learned really think I should stop putting cute things on cakes; people just don’t want to eat them. Eating a flower is different, but eating something that is staring at you is kind of sad.

Jen: Do you have a favorite cake to bake? Your go-to thing?

Ryan: I do. The problem with having a favorite cake is that I tend to make it more often, so I kind of make too much of it. There’s a recipe I got from my mom called the perfect chocolate cake. It’s an amazingly good three-layer chocolate cake with a whipped cream filling and a chocolate ganache frosting on the outside. It’s a cake that my parents had several times when I was growing up. When I first learned that I could make it, and it wasn’t too hard to make, I made it over and over again. It’s still good, but I’ve almost gotten tired of it.

Jen: Is there anything you’ve aspired to bake but you haven’t gotten around to it yet?

Ryan: The one thing that I haven’t been able to make quite yet is the amazingly good strawberry pie that my mom made when I was growing up. I’ve tried making strawberry pies, and they never turn out anywhere near as good as hers. I really wish I could…I can never get the crust right, I never have enough strawberries, the filling’s just not quite right…I don’t know what I’m doing wrong. But nothing ever seems to be as good as the one that my mom made. The crust in particular is really hard to get right. I just really need to visit my parents and get an idea of how to make a good crust. I think it’s a good technique worth having.

Jen: As a diabetic, how do you reconcile your dietary restrictions with your passion to bake sweet things?

Ryan: I use an insulin pump, which is a very flexible way to manage diabetes. So long as I have a rough idea of how many carbohydrates I’m consuming and how it affects my glucose, I can just adjust my insulin pump. It’s not nearly as much of an issue as one might think. It doesn’t really affect me that much.

Jen: Any pieces of advice for someone who’s just starting out?

Ryan: Be fearless! I think what holds me back the most is just being unsure of myself to the point that I don’t do it. I hesitate. It’s good know that you’re going to have mistakes. The results are usually good enough anyways.