Virginia’s Arley Bell got her start in nonprofits. Today, this Best Home Cook continues to spread the love—one cake at a time.
For Arley Bell, baking is about more than making showstopping desserts. It’s a way for her to celebrate others and the causes she’s passionate about.
In fact, recognizing the hard work of others is what inspired Arley to start baking in the first place. After college, she took a job at a nonprofit in Charlottesville, Virginia. “We didn’t have a budget for birthday cakes,” she explains. Despite not being an experienced baker at the time, she tied on an apron and got in the kitchen. “My co-workers deserved to be celebrated, so I started baking cakes for them,” says Arley. Many birthday cakes later, she left her nonprofit job and opened Arley Cakes, a cottage bakery in Richmond, Virginia. In her home kitchen, she frosts layer cakes artfully, adding iced decorations and fresh flowers. Each cake is packed with her favorite flavors, as is her strawberry-pretzel layer cake below.
The Arley Cakes Mission
While sweets—particularly cakes—are definitely the heart of her business, social justice is the soul. As Arley explains, “I set out to start a baking business with the hopes of having a social enterprise—a business that would have a social justice cause at the core of how it functions.”
To enact her mission, Arley donates a portion of her profits to important causes, including Richmond Public Schools, Mutual Aid Disaster Relief and the Okra Project. To date, she’s contributed more than $2,000.
And you’ll see these themes reflected in her Instagram feed. Each cake, cookie and pie is decorated with finesse, and many include empowering messages, like “We are strong” and “Love wins.” Says Arley, “To me, it’s a bit of a healing process—to get lost in buttercream and colors and flowers and tiny details. I feel as if things can be really hard and you can still find joy and beauty around.”
“Things can be really hard and you can still find joy and beauty.”
Arley’s Strawberry Pretzel Cake
Fred + Elliott for Taste of Home
“I love strawberry pretzel salad,” Arley says. “It has everything: sweet, salty, tangy, creamy, crunchy.” As you slice into this triple-layer wonder, you’ll find an exceptionally tender cake filled with classic strawberry-pretzel flavor. The trick to getting this ideal salty-sweet blend and light texture, according to Arley, is crushing the pretzels super finely: “I wanted it to have an infusion of pretzels.”
- 1 package (16 ounces) pretzels
- 1 cup cake flour
- 2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1-1/2 cups unsalted butter, softened
- 2-1/2 cups sugar
- 4 large eggs, room temperature
- 2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1-1/2 cups buttermilk
- 1-1/2 pounds fresh strawberries, chopped
- 2/3 cup sugar
- 1-1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Cream Cheese Frosting
- 2 cups butter, softened
- 1 package (8 ounces) cream cheese, softened
- 2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 6 cups confectioners’ sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
Step 1: Prepare your oven and cake pans
Preheat oven to 350°F. Line bottoms of 3 greased 9-in. round baking pans with parchment; grease paper.
Step 2: Prepare the cake
In a food processor, process pretzels until finely ground to the consistency of flour. Set aside 3 cups (save remaining pretzels for another use). In a large bowl, combine ground pretzels, flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy, 5-7 minutes. Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Add vanilla; beat to combine. Add the pretzel mixture alternately with buttermilk, beating after each addition just until combined.
Step 3: Bake the cake
Transfer to prepared pans. Bake until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, 25-30 minutes, rotating halfway through. Cool 10 minutes before removing to wire racks to cool completely.
Step 4: Prepare the filling
To prepare filling, in a bowl, combine strawberries, sugar and vanilla. Let stand 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Step 5: Prepare the frosting
To prepare frosting, in a large bowl, beat butter, cream cheese and vanilla until blended. Gradually beat in the confectioners’ sugar and salt until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes.
Step 6: Assemble
To assemble, drain strawberries. Reserve 1/2 cup for topping. Place bottom cake layer on a serving plate. Spread with 1/2 cup frosting; spread half the strawberry mixture to within 1 in. of edge. Repeat layers. Top with remaining cake layer. Spread a thin layer of frosting over the top and sides; chill 15 minutes. Spread remaining frosting over top and sides of cake. Top with the reserved strawberries. Refrigerate leftovers.
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