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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Brianne Hager holds a spice cake with cream cheese icing at B's Sweets.

When Brianne Hager thinks of Christmas, visions of yummy cakes dance through her head. Cakes with big flavors and fluffy — really fluffy — swirls of frosting.

It's the holidays, after all, a time when we want to show some love, and one way to do that is by putting just that little extra bit of effort into making a spectacular Christmas cake that will amaze.

Hager opened B's Sweets on Signal Mountain Road in 2013 after her home and kitchen outgrew demand for her made-from-scratch cakes and other confections. Her creative edge was realized at an early age. When she was 4, she mixed together all of the colors that came in those little food coloring bottles and came up with an icky army green color, added it to biscuit dough and created army green biscuits. It's a tale her mother continues to tell.

"I was very proud of those biscuits," Hager says, sitting at a table in her bakery surrounded by cases filled with the day's cookies, cakes, sweet rolls, pies, cupcakes, eclairs, cake pops and the like. "I guess that's where it all started. So when my son was little, and I wanted to make him a birthday cake, I thought, why would anyone want a plain white cake?"

That's when she signed up for every cake-making class she could find — Wilton, for starters, then classes at The Sugar Shoppe in East Brainerd before heading west to California to get instruction from Susan Carberry, a woman whose resume includes appearances on The Food Network and TLC.

Hager's first cake — that birthday cake for her son — was a rocket ship as tall as he was. Today's cakes are different, though, she says. Bakers are trending away from fantastical, whimsical decorations made with heavy fondants, instead concentrating on organic flavors, such as elderberry and lavender, and simpler, though beautiful, frostings and natural finishes.

Around the holidays, however, flavorings change. We see richer spices, such as ginger, clove, cinnamon. And chocolate. Oh, chocolate!

"I'm a super chocolate fan. It's my favorite holiday cake," Hager says with a dreamy look in her eyes chocoholics know only too well. "We do a chocolate cake with chocolate buttercream frosting and chocolate ganache drizzled over the whole thing."

And it has to be a layer cake. "You can go anywhere and get a sheet cake," she says. "I want layers. I want flavors. I want it to look like there was a lot of thought that went into it and make you thank God for it. People can appreciate that."

Making a cake isn't difficult. Making a showstopping cake, though, takes some know-how and practice. Here are five tips Hager offers for success:

1. Use lard. Wherever a recipe calls for shortening, substitute lard. Lard has more protein, "and when you're adding all that sugar into your diet, you need something to balance it out so you won't feel heavily loaded down," she explains, adding, "Your body can process [lard] a lot better. It's organic." Lard is not a substitute for butter, however. If a recipe calls for butter, use butter.

2. Freeze the layers. "I freeze every single layer of my cakes," Hager says, "and here's why: When you toss your cake out onto your cooling rack and let it sit there for a few minutes, then pick it up, you'll see condensation underneath. Your cake is already drying out. So what you do is let it sit at room temperature for about five minutes, wrap the layers up individually in plastic wrap and put them in the freezer. You've locked all that moisture into that cake, so when you go to level it, it's nice and chilled, and you'll have a super-moist cake. Try to freeze it overnight — even up to a week. Make it on a Monday, then pull it out on Friday, frost it and it will be ready to go for the weekend."

3. Use cake flour vs. all-purpose flour. Cake flour has a lower protein content and is lighter and softer. Because of the lower protein, less gluten is produced. Cake flour, Hager says, makes for a lighter, airy cake.

4. Bring ingredients to room temperature. Not just the eggs, but butter, sour cream, milk, cream cheese; all the cold ingredients. "At the beginning of the day we set everything out that we'll be using that day, to bring them to room temperature," Hager says.

5. Use salt. If a recipe calls for salt, use it — in your cakes and in your buttercream frostings, too. Not only will salt enhance the flavor of the cake, it works to activate the leavening agents in baking powder and baking soda. It also balances the sweetness of frostings.

To keep things simple, Hager suggests using a box cake mix and tweaking it to create a yummy cake. Put it on a pretty cake stand and no one will know you used a shortcut to create a stunning centerpiece for your dessert table.

*****

Spice Cake with Cream Cheese Buttercream Frosting

Submitted by Brianne Hager

What you need:

1 box of your favorite white cake mix

1 cup whole milk

cup canola or vegetable oil

3 eggs

2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice mix

1 tablespoon molasses

For the frosting:

8 ounces cream cheese, softened

8 ounces butter, softened

teaspoon salt

8-9 cups powered sugar

Milk

What you do:

1. Preheat oven to 300F. Combine 1 cup whole milk, pie spice and molasses and, using an electric or stand mixer, mix until well combined. Add eggs and oil and mix until combined. Add cake mix and beat on high speed for 3 minutes.

2. Divide batter between two greased 8-inch cake pans lined with parchment paper. Bake for 30 minutes or until a knife inserted comes out clean. Turn cakes out onto cooling racks and cool for 5 minutes, then wrap layers in plastic wrap and freeze for 8 hours or overnight.

3. Remove cakes from freezer, dust off crumbs, and frost between layers, around sides and top. Decorate as desired.

4. To make frosting: Cream cream cheese with electric mixer, then add butter and cream well. Add salt and 1 cup of powered sugar at a time. Use a little milk, if needed, to reach desired spreading consistency.

*****

Black Forest Cake

This is a Christmas tradition at my own house.

What you need:

2 boxes devil's food cake mix, plus ingredients called for on box

For the syrup:

1 (24-ounce) jar sour cherries

1/2 cup sugar

1/4 cup kirsch liqueur

For the frosting and filling:

3 teaspoons unflavored gelatin

4 cups heavy cream

1 cup powdered sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Chocolate shavings, for topping

What you do:

1. Preheat oven to 350F. Line three 9-inch round cake pans with parchment paper and grease with cooking spray. Prepare cake mixes according to package instructions.

2. Divide cake batter between prepared pans and bake according to package instructions, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Let cakes cool in pans for 10 minutes, then invert onto wire racks to cool completely. Wrap and freeze layers for 8 hours or overnight. Remove from freezer and complete cake.

3. Make the syrup: Drain cherries, reserving 1/2 cup juice. Reserve cherries for assembling cake. In a small saucepan, combine reserved juice with sugar. Bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve sugar. Remove from heat and add kirsch.

4. Make the frosting: In a medium bowl, sprinkle gelatin over 1/4 cup boiling water and whisk to dissolve. If necessary, microwave in 5-second increments to dissolve gelatin completely. Beat heavy cream with powdered sugar until soft peaks form. Add vanilla. While beating, slowly pour gelatin mixture into whipped cream until combined. Transfer 1 cup of frosting into a pastry bag fitted with a star tip and set aside.

5. Place one layer of cake on a platter and brush heavily with cherry syrup. Spread 1 1/4 cups of frosting over the top of the cake and cover with half of reserved cherries. Place another cake layer on top and repeat.

6. Top with remaining cake layer and brush heavily with syrup. Spread remaining frosting over the top and sides of the cake. Sprinkle shaved chocolate around the top of the cake and press it into the sides. To decorate, pipe dollops of frosting around the top edge of the cake with reserved frosting.

*****

Boozy Rum Bundt Cake

Don't worry about asking for IDs for this cake. Cooking takes the alcohol away but leaves all the yummy, rummy flavor.

What you need:

1 cup chopped walnuts

1 box yellow cake mix

1 (3.4-ounce) package instant vanilla pudding

4 large eggs

1 stick butter, melted and cooled slightly

1/2 cup water

1/2 cup dark rum

For the glaze:

1 stick butter

3/4 cup sugar

1/3 cup dark rum

1/4 cup water

What you do:

1. Preheat oven to 350F and grease and flour a Bundt pan. Add chopped walnuts to bottom of pan.

2. In a large bowl, whisk together cake and pudding mixes. Add eggs, melted butter, water and rum and mix until combined. Pour batter into Bundt pan and bake until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean, about 1 hour. Let cool 10 minutes, then invert onto a cooling rack.

3. While cake is still warm, make the glaze: In a medium saucepan over medium heat, melt butter, sugar, rum and water. Let boil for 5 minutes.

4. Poke cake all over with a toothpick, then brush with glaze. Let glaze soak into cake. Repeat until you've used all of the glaze.

*****

Hager's Grandmother's Chocolate Yule Log Cake

This recipe is a little advanced and doesn't rely on prepackaged cake mix. However, it makes a beautiful centerpiece for your holiday table, says Hager.

What you need:

5 eggs, separated

1/2 cup cake flour

1/4 cup baking cocoa

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup sugar, divided

1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar

Confectioners' sugar

For the filling:

1 cup heavy whipping cream

1/2 cup confectioners' sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons instant coffee

For the icing:

1/3 cup butter, softened

1/3 cup baking cocoa

2 cups confectioners' sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla

1 tablespoon brewed coffee

2-3 tablespoons whole milk

What you do:

1. Preheat oven to 350F. Line a 15-by-10-inch jelly roll pan/rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Grease the paper.

2. Place five egg whites in a small bowl; let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, sift together cake flour, cocoa and salt.

3. In a large bowl, beat egg yolks on high until light and fluffy. Gradually add 1/2 cup sugar, beating until thick and lemon-colored. Gradually add flour mixture until blended.

4. Beat egg whites on medium until foamy. Add cream of tartar and beat until soft peaks form. Gradually add remaining 1/2 cup sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, beating on high until stiff peaks form.

5. Stir 1/4 of egg white mixture into chocolate mixture. Gently fold in remaining egg white mixture until no streaks form.

6. Spread batter evenly in prepared pan. Bake for 12-15 minutes or until cake springs back. Do not overbake. Cool 5 minutes, then invert onto a linen towel dusted with confectioners' sugar and peel off the parchment paper. Roll up towel, starting with a short side. Leave rolled to cool completely.

7. Make the filling: Beat whipping cream until it begins to thicken. Add sugar and coffee and beat until stiff peaks form. Chill.

8. Make the icing: Beat all ingredients together until smooth.

9. Unroll cooled cake. Spread with filling (leaving 1/2-inch edge); roll up again. Place on serving platter and chill until firm, then cover completely with icing. Using a fork, make lines to resemble tree bark.

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