The Perfect Cake
By Diane Watkins
The perfect cake is easily recognizable. It’s shape is perfectly symmetrical with a golden brown crust. It has a feathery velvet texture. It is moist and light. The taste is pure heaven. You can certainly recognize a perfect cake, but can you make one?
When making a cake it is important to follow the recipe exactly. If you try to skip a step you may have less than desirable results. Skip the sifting step and your flour will be heavier than it should, creating a heavy, dry cake. Over-mix and your cake will be tough and chewy, more like a good bread.
So, what are the steps in making a good cake? Lets explore these separately.
The Right Ingredients
First, use the right ingredients and measure carefully. If the recipe calls for cake flour, you will have best results with cake flour. All-purpose flour can be substituted, but will not make as tender a cake.
Beat the liquid ingredients well before combining with the dry ingredients. Once the dry ingredients are added, the cake should be stirred gently, unless the directions tell you otherwise. If your cake is course and dry, or has tunnels, you have probably over-mixed.
All-purpose flour has a higher gluten content, and this will affect your results. Also realize that all-purpose flour varies according to the region of the country it is produced. Southern brands of flour are a softer gluten than those in the northern US. If you must substitute all-purpose flour for cake flour, either use a southern product, or use 2 Tablespoons less per cup of flour suggested.
There are three different leavening agents used in cake making. Baking powder, baking soda, and air. Occasionally, you may see a recipe calling for yeast, but this is not the norm. If the recipe does not call for either baking powder or baking soda, then your leavening agent is air and your beating step is very important. Pound cakes, sponge cakes, and angel food cakes all use air as their leavening agent. Many cakes use a combination of leavening agents, including air. Beating the cake at the suggested speed for the appropriate time listed will beat in the air and make your cake light.
Baking powder also comes in different varieties, including regular and double acting. If your recipe specifies a variety, be sure to use the one called for. Most recipes that call for baking soda require buttermilk, lemon juice, or vinegar. Do not substitute regular milk for buttermilk without adding acid, as it is necessary to activate the baking soda and make the cake rise.
Shortening, Oil, and Butter
Again, using the correct shortening is important. If substituting, be aware of the liquid content. Everyone is aware of the need to decrease the liquid when using oil, but you may not know that butter contains more liquid than shortening, requiring an increase in volume and a decrease in the liquid added to the recipe.
Choose the correct size and shape of baking pan. The batter should almost fill the pan, without any spillage or bulging. Baking times and temperature will be dependent on the pan size. A thinner pan may need a higher temperature to bake the cake without drying it out.
Prepare the pan as directed. Most recipes call for the pan to be greased and floured. A piece of waxed paper or parchment paper cut to fit the bottom may be placed in the greased pan if desired. This will aid removing the cake when done. If using the paper, grease the bottom and sides, place the paper into the bottom and then flour the sides if directed.
Baking the Cake
Preheat the oven as directed. Starting in a cold oven, or too hot an oven will affect the rising and browning of the cake. A cake started in a cool oven will not allow the cake to rise sufficiently before the crust forms and the cake may fall. Too hot an oven may cause a crack to develop, and the crust might harden and over brown. The cake should be placed in the center of the oven for best heat distribution. Be aware of your oven, if there are hot spots in your oven you may need to adjust.
The cake is done when it is lightly browned and it springs back when lightly pressed with the fingertip in the center or when a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean and dry. The cake will have begun to shrink away from the sides of the pan.
Follow the recipe on removing the cake from the pan. Some cakes can be removed immediately, some need a 5 minute rest, and others must be allowed to cool completely in the pan. Proper attention to this detail will prevent repairs caused by the cake sticking to the pan and tearing.
Using the proper ingredients, mixing well at the proper time, and careful baking will produce a light tender cake that you will be proud to serve. Follow the recipe, understand the reasons behind the directions, and you, too will have the “knack” for cakes.