I've probably taken 9 cake baking classes over the years...one would think I would learn all there is to know in one or maybe two classes, no? What can I say, I'm a glutton for cake and apparently cake classes! I do love cake - I love everything about it - from the sifting to the stirring to the baking to the frosting to the eating...what's not to love?
Last week I invited some friends to come to my house for a Kitchen Tips Class. My friend Marsha is a kitchen guru - she worked for Sur La Table for many years and knows all there is to know about everything kitchen...knives, cookware, gadgets, etc. Marsha talked for about 45 minutes and she could easily have gone on for hours! She just might have to do it again (and again!) My friend Megan is an excellent pie maker - so she was enlisted to tell the group about pies and she gave them all a quick demo on pie crust - she used this pastry recipe, which is super easy and produces the flakiest and best tasting crusts ever! Yours truly waxed on and on about baking a great cake - and I passed out a list of my best baking tips, which I have acquired through the many classes I took (probably spent about a $1,000 just on cake classes alone, but these tips are worth it!) and if you use these tips, your cakes will be great! I promise!
1. Start with a good recipe from a good, trusted source. Baking, unlike cooking, is a science...ingredients are used for specific reasons and added in at certain times to create different results...so it's imperative that you follow the recipe - from a good, trusted source! (There are a million baking books out there, and a million recipes on line but you can't beat Baking Illustrated by Cook's Illustrated Magazine Editors, hands-down, it's one of the very best and it's available on Amazon, new or used and at Costco for $18.00.)
One word about trusted recipe sources...some of the best recipes are handed-down from family...but family cookbooks are notoriously full of errors! Aunt Madge might make a great caramel-apple pie but chances are she didn't write down the recipe correctly! If you use a family cookbook that is not from your family, maybe try the recipe out on your family first before making it for company! About Pinterest recipes...there are some great recipes out there but when you go to the original site of the recipe, if the person who posted it is NOT a cook/baker, I wouldn't trust them...ingredients are too expensive to waste on someone who says "It's the best thing I ever ate" but whose blog is all about stamping! Not that stampers are not great cooks, but I think you get my point!
2. Preheat oven for 20 to 30 minutes minimum. Your entire oven should be hot, not just the walls or the racks or the thermostat - and that takes times. A properly pre-heated oven will evenly bake a proper cake.
3. Start with room temperature butter and eggs. I have skipped this step many times and my cakes have tasted great but here's why you shouldn't skip this step...when the butter, sugar and eggs are all creamed together, if they are room temperature, more air will be incorporated into the creaming process, thereby making the finished cake lighter. The air in the creamed mixture will actually lift the cake layers. So if you want higher cake layers, make sure you start with room temp butter and eggs...oh...one more thing, you should always cream the butter and sugar for at least 3 minutes. It may look thoroughly creamed in 1 or 2 minutes but giving it an extra minute or two will incorporate more air. (Using a microwave to bring butter to room temperature is risky, as the butter can melt and that won't help your cake layers one bit! You can bring the butter to room temperature quickly by putting it on a piece of waxed paper and squishing it with the palm of your hand until it is soft - takes about 30 seconds because your hand is 98.6 degrees and will soften that butter right up! If your hand is hotter than that then you're sick and you shouldn't be baking! Now, about the eggs, if you can't take the time to bring them to room temperature by leaving them on the counter for an hour, then put them into a bowl of hot water for about 1 minute - works like a charm every time!)
Back to the eggs for a minute...always crack your eggs into a separate bowl and never into the batter...if you happen to drop in a piece of egg shell, it's easier to retrieve from a separate bowl, where you can see it. Also, do not use a piece of egg shell to retrieve a piece of egg shell...I know that's a common practice and a "tip" many people will tell you but I'm here to tell you not to do it! If there is any contamination of the eggs, it will be on the outside of the shell, not on the inside so don't use the shells as scoops. And when baking cakes, always use large eggs.
4. There is a difference between liquid measuring cups and dry measuring cups...make sure you use the right measure for the right ingredient. Anthropologie and other stores like them sell adorable looking measuring spoons and cups...but they usually aren't accurate - and accuracy is important so use metal measuring spoons and cups when baking...you can use the cute stuff when cooking, if you must.
5. Always sift flour. Always. Put a piece of waxed paper on the counter, use a sieve as the sifter and gently hit your hand on the side of the sieve, it takes about 10 seconds and your cakes will be lighter because of it. And always sift cocoa. Always. Let's talk flour for a minute...if making a perfect cake is your thing, then you will want to use cake flour, which has less protein than regular all-purpose flour and less glutten, so the cake will be lighter. Are you sensing a theme here? Lighter is better. Cake flour is more expensive but if perfection is your goal, it's worth it.
6. Beat batter for 30 seconds on low speed, just to get everything incorporated then turn off the mixer and scrape down the sides. Turn speed up to medium-high and beat batter for one minute, then turn off mixer and scrape down sides. Resume beating for another minute but not one second longer! Over-beating the batter causes more air in the batter...air in the creamed mixture is good, air in the batter is bad, it makes for a tough/dry cake!
7. I like to use parchment paper liners for my cake pans, but it's not necessary, although it always prevents the bottom of the cake from sticking to the bottom of the pan. Grease the cake pans, then flour them. If you don't flour the cake pans, as the cake rises up the sides of the pan, it will also slide down the pan, so for a nice high layer cake, make sure you flour the pan. About cake pans...never use glass or dark cake pans...they will heat up too fast and the cake will cook faster around the sides and you'll end up with cake layers that are dry on the outside. Use aluminum, light-colored pans (and to keep them looking great don't put them in the dishwasher...Marsha told me that, just about 5 years too late!) When you fill the pans with batter, spoon the batter up the sides just a bit, so the center of the cake is a smidgen lower - when the cake bakes then it will bake evenly and you won't get a domed top.
Update! I writing this post I took a class at King Arthur Flour Baking Education Center and it was there I discovered Cake Strips - which allow for the cake pan to heat up evenly, thereby producing a flat top cake! You can buy them in any baking/kitchen shop or you can make your own by cutting up an old dish towel into 2-inch strips, the long way...you'll need one for each cake pan. Soak the strips in water (to prevent a fire) and then secure around the outside of your cake pan with a binder clip, safety pin or T-pin. These really work - and you can read more about them here.
8. Bake the cake in the center of a preheated oven. If you are baking more than one pan at a time, make sure there is at least 1-inch of space between each pan. If baking more than two pans, rotate after 20 minutes. Never open the oven door in the first 20 minutes of baking though - that's a sure fire way to sink a cake!
9. Test to make sure the cake is done with a wooden toothpick inserted into the center of the cake. If it comes out clean or with just one or two crumbs, it's done. You can also tell if a cake is done if it has begun to pull away slightly from the sides of the pan and if, when you touch the center of the cake lightly it springs back just a bit. Although a dense cake will not spring back but it will feel firm. Over-baking is just one of many ways to ruin a cake so always set a timer, or two.
10. After removing the cake from the oven, let it sit in the pan for 10 minutes before removing. Trying to remove the cake sooner is risky, the cake layer will be too hot and will be extremely fragile and most likely will fall apart. (If that does happen, frosting is an excellent glue!) Run knife around the edges of the pan and invert onto a cooling rack to cool completely.
11. Put a small dab of frosting onto the cake plate, in the center. It will act as a glue to keep the cake from sliding off the cake plate. If you have to deliver a cake to someone this step is not to be skipped!
12. Apply a thin "crumb coat" to the cake. A crumb coat is a very thin layer of frosting - it seals the cake, to help keep it fresh, and it also seals in all of the crumbs so they don't show up on the frosted cake. After the crumb coat is applied, put cake in refrigerator for about 15 or 20 minutes, until the frosting is set. Frost the cake by frosting the sides first and then the top. Frosting over a set, cold crumb coat also helps the frosting to go one smoother and to set faster.
13. About cake mixes...I do use them and I love them. Cake mixes are formulated to work. True story, when they were first introduced back in the 1940's, every ingredient needed was put in the mix so the home baker just had to add water. But guess what? They were too easy! Home bakers thought that something so quick and easy was too good to be true and they would never serve a cake mix to friends when all they did was add water, stir and bake! So cake mixes didn't sell...the makers were shocked so they pulled their product off the shelves and re-made them...now the home baker has to add oil and eggs and water - whew! Now they have to do more than just stir and bake! And now they sell like crazy the world over! But, like I said, they are formulated to work and it's really hard to make a cake from scratch better than a cake mix...but here's where a scratch cake wins...there isn't a cake mix for coconut cake or Irish Cream Cake or Summer Berry Cake or any other specialty cake. And while there's a cake mix for carrot cake it pales in comparison to say, this Carrot Cake, which blows every other carrot cake and carrot cake mix away! If you are going to use a cake mix, then make it your own...put in a great filling between the layers...lemon, lime or cranberry curd! Any fruit can be made into a curd and curds make a great filling because they are thick enough to hold up a cake layer. Or raspberry jam between two layers of a yellow cake mix turn it from ordinary to special! Fillings are a great way to make a cake special so save the frosting for the outside and stick some yummy orange marmalade in between white cake layers for a nice surprise!
My Kitchen Tips Class was a success - I think everyone learned at least one thing and they seemed to enjoy it so maybe we'll have another in the near future! I did my best to make room for everyone - furniture was moved out onto the deck to make room for chairs - but even so they were packed in like sardines! I made my very favorite Coconut Cake with Lemon Curd Filling for the ladies to sample, and Megan brought 3 different pies for them to try, too! So at least they were well fed!