If you pulled a dry cake out of the oven, don’t throw it away! I discovered many ways to add moisture to crumbly, disappointing cake. Learn the strategies to save your cake, especially if you’re entertaining and guests are on their way.
For dessert, I served a chocolate cake trifle with my new birthday present, a beautiful glass trifle dish (thanks Mom for the gift!). At the end of lunch, there was hardly a crumb left on our plates.
Then I let my guests in on a secret.
The chocolate cake was from my failures baking at high altitude. I hated the idea of throwing out my dry cakes (I had 7 cakes!). So, I kept the cakes in the freezer until this moment when I could transform a dry cake into a beautiful English trifle.
I asked Alex for his honest opinion on how the cake tasted. He declared the trifle delicious, and said that the cake would have only been improved if I had added some sweet liqueur.
You may be staring down a dry cake right now wondering what to do.
In this article, you’ll learn how to save your dry cakes so they’re presentable to your guests. I’m focusing on real methods, not gimmicks like putting your cake in a bag with a slice of apple or a slice of white bread.
If you’re in the same boat, read on with courage! You can do this.
If your cake isn’t dry yet, but you suspect it’s on its way to drying out, check out this secret trick in my High Altitude Baking article. It guides you on how to lock in moisture, while your cake is still edible.
However, if your cake is already dry, no amount of frosting or glazing will help. You’ll need to use one of these strategies to transform your cake into a palatable dessert.
Let’s tackle these from the least effort to the most effort.
Option 1: Serve it with sauce (easy)
The easiest and fastest way to add moisture is to serve your dry cake with something wet. You can pick one of these suggestions based on the flavor of your cake and what you’ve got in the pantry.
- Ice cream: Serve the cake with a scoop or two of ice cream. Let the ice cream melt a bit to give the cake a chance to soak up the moisture before serving it to your guests. Ice cream is best for 1 slice of cake because it will need to completely melt before the liquid can soak into the middle of a 9-inch cake.
- Milk (condensed milk): Add a few spoonfuls of milk (dairy or plant-based milks) to your cake. If you don’t mind extra sugar, you can add condensed milk. This is the foundation of tres leches cake (where tres leches uses a mix of evaporated milk, condensed milk, and heavy cream).
- Yogurt: For cakes that are already very sweet or rich, adding more sugar is undesirable. That’s why I put yogurt under the cake to soak in. The tartness delivers a contrasting brightness to the sugary cake. If you’re worried that cake + yogurt is an unusual combo, serve freshly cut fruit with the yogurt.
- Liqueur: Flavored liqueurs add moisture and flavor to your cake. My favorites are Kahlúa or Baileys for chocolate or coffee cakes. I like floral liqueurs like Crème de Violette and St-Germain for fruity cakes. Here’s a comprehensive list of liqueurs for ideas.
NOTE: The cake may require at least 1-2 hours to soak up the moisture. If you don’t have that much time, try Option 2 with the poke cake method.
Option 2: Make a poke cake (easy)
If you’re rescuing a whole cake or you’re in too much of a rush to wait a few hours for the sauce to soak in, make a poke cake. This method is a variation on Option 1.
The twist is a poke cake requires you to use a skewer or toothpick to poke holes into your cake. Then you pour the sauce, syrup, or liqueur into the holes.
By maximizing the surface area, you can speed up the soaking process so your cake is ready sooner.
In addition to the sauces described above in Option 1, here are other sauces you can use for a poke cake:
- Simple syrup: Make a thinner simple syrup by using a ratio of one part sugar to two parts water. Add a cup of water and 1/2 cup of sugar in a sauce pan. Boil the water until the sugar is melted and the syrup looks clear. Once it has cooled, you brush the simple syrup over your cake.
- Fruit syrup: You can use the sweetened fruit syrup or fruit juice from canned fruit (this is what I did for my trifle, see Option 3).
- Caramel: This Better Than Sex Cake is made with a chocolate sheet cake that is poked and drenched in caramel sauce.
- Fruit jams/jellies: Thin your favorite fruit jam with boiling water. Spread the thinned jam over your poked cake.
- Custard/curds: Similar to fruit jam, curds can add a lot of moisture. They’re a bit more work to make and taste richer because of the addition of eggs and butter. Here’s an example of a coconut and key lime curd for a poke cake.
Here are the ways you can spread your sauce over your poke cake:
- Brush the sauce on with a pastry brush.
- Put the sauce in a squeeze bottle. This method gives you the most control when drizzling the cake.
- Pour spoonfuls of sauce over the cake and spread it with a spatula.
- Inject the poke holes with a turkey baster.
Option 3: Trifle (medium)
Coming from a Commonwealth country, I’m well acquainted with English trifles. We enjoy them with strong English breakfast tea.
Trifles are a great way to use dry cake especially if you’re expecting guests because they offer a beautiful presentation.
To make a trifle, you cut up the dry cake into small pieces, about 2 inches/5 cm x 0.5 inch/1.5 cm. You layer the cake in the trifle dish.
Then drench the cake with a sauce (see Option 1 or 2 for sauce ideas — flavored liqueur is a favorite). I spooned a lot of fruit syrup over the cake (more than you think you need).
Layer the drenched cake with alternating layers of fruit, chocolate, custards or pudding, and whipped cream.
It ends up looking very civilized. Nobody will wise up to the fact that the cake was dry. Here are example of a trifle recipe and another one. (If you want step-by-step instructions of how I made my trifle, leave a comment to let me know.)
Here’s the breakdown of what I put in my trifle:
There are 2 things I wished I had done better with my trifle:
- Added a flower liqueur like St-Germain (elderflower fragrance would have added a sublime flavor)
- Soaked the cake with a lot more liquid
I was too stingy with the liquid because I worried I would drench the cake. It turns out I really did want to drench the cake as the second layer still tasted too dry.
TIP: If a trifle sounds intimidating or you don’t have a trifle dish, you can make a parfait, which is like a baby trifle. Layer pieces of dry cake with syrup, custard, fruits, yogurt, and liqueurs in a tall glass and top with whipped cream. You can add creative toppings like nuts, granola, or a maraschino cherry for a kitschy finish.
Option 4: Make new desserts (hard)
Because I promised you wouldn’t have to rebake anything, so far, I picked easy tricks to rejuvenate your cake.
However, you could dive in and spend a lot of time to transform the dry cake into a masterpiece. These suggestions are much more work than a simple poke cake or even a trifle. But they will wow your guests.
- Cake pops
- Chocolate truffles using chocolate cake as a starting point (I have a great chocolate cake truffle recipe but I can’t find my recipe books after moving. If you’re interested in getting my chocolate cake truffle recipe, leave a comment to let me know.)
- Charlotte aux poires using your dry cake instead of lady fingers (leave a comment or email me if you need help with a translated version of this charlotte aux poires recipe)
NOTE: Here’s a list of creative ways to use cake scrapes. Quick warning: some will require baking a new cake.
Let’s end this article with prevention so you can avoid baking dry cakes in the future. While there are many reasons why your cakes might turn out dry, here are the main ones:
- Baking at high altitude: Follow these tips for how to adjust your recipe for high altitude
- Your oven is too hot: Place an oven-safe thermometer to see what temperature your oven is reaching. Most ovens have hot spots and/or miscalibrated knobs.
- Too much dry ingredients (flour) compared to wet: Did you read the recipe correctly? Is it a lower calorie recipe with less fat and sugar? You may want to weigh your ingredients.
- You accidentally over baked the cake: Use timers to remind you when to take the cake out. Test with a toothpick, cake tester, or a sharp knife. Remove the cake from the oven as soon as the tester comes out clean. Remember: some cakes are done when there are still a few crumbs on the tester.
- It was a terrible recipe: Find a well-tested recipe. Here are sources to find recipes.
- You didn’t follow the recipe: Did you substitute ingredients? Were you converting the cake into a vegan or gluten-free cake? Follow the recipe with precision (this is mostly true for baking as cooking is more forgiving). If you want a specialized recipe, find a different one that is designed for your diet.
- Wrong-sized pan: I’ve often used a bigger pan than what the instructions require. This means the cake is spread out over a wider surface area. When I bake for the same amount of time as the recipe states (even though the recipe was tested on a smaller pan), the cake ends up dry. Try to use the same-sized pan or test the cake 5-10 minutes earlier if you’ve got a bigger pan.