Cake Baking Basics
Whether you're making an angel food cake or an Easter bunny cake, it helps to remember that baking is both an art and a science. Success with any recipe depends on carefully following the instructions and using the right equipment.
Types of Cakes
Cake recipes are divided into two categories according to what makes the cake rise. Butter cakes rely primarily on baking powder or baking soda for height. Sponge cakes depend on the air trapped in the eggs during beating.
Butter Cakes include pound cakes and the yellow, white, spice, and chocolate cakes used in everything from towering wedding cakes to traditional layered birthday cakes. These cakes use butter, shortening, or oil for moistness and richness and are leavened with baking powder and/or baking soda.
TIP: Before mixing the cake batter, soften the butter so that it mixes easily with the sugar.
Sponge Cakes achieve their high volume from beaten eggs rather than a leavening agent like baking powder. Sponge cakes do not contain butter, shortening, or oil. Angel food cakes are the most popular and are literally fat-free since they use only egg whites, not egg yolks. Yellow sponge cakes are prepared with whole eggs. Chiffon cakes are also lightened with beaten eggs, but they are not true sponge cakes because they contain vegetable oil.
TIP: When preparing sponge cakes, be sure to beat the eggs to the proper stage; do not overbeat or underbeat. Handle the beaten eggs gently when folding them into the other ingredients or they will lose air and volume.
Eggs separate more easily when cold, but egg whites reach their fullest volume if allowed to stand at room temperature for 30 minutes before beating. Plan ahead.
Choosing a Baking Pan
There is very little "wiggle room" in baking! Always use the baking pan size specified in each recipe. The wrong size baking pan may cause your creation to overflow, burn around the edges and bottom, or sink in the middle.
Read the recipe carefully to make sure you have the type of baking pan that is called for. You also should be aware of the baking pan material, because it can affect the outcome. For beginners, a metal cake pan would help to produce tender crusts and this is because the metal helps to reflect the heat away. In general, glass baking dishes require a 25-degree reduction in oven temperature. Some recipes may actually specify which material, metal or glass, will get the best results.
Often, you can determine what type of baking pan and what material will work best by carefully noting the description used in the recipe method. These general definitions usually apply:
Preparing Baking Pans
Greasing a cake pan is very important to prevent the cake from sticking to the bottom. Some cakes require greasing and flouring the baking pan and some call for using parchment or waxed paper. To assure the best results from every baking recipe, always prepare baking pans as instructed in the recipe or in the manufacturers' directions. Common preparation steps include:
TIP: When a recipe for chocolate cakes calls for greasing and flouring the baking pan, use cocoa powder instead of flour. No more white spots on the surface of the baked cake!
Cake Baking Basics
When it comes to dessert recipes, nothing beats the tantalizing aroma and luscious flavor of a home-baked cake. Whether it's a carrot cake with cream cheese frosting or a light, lemon pound cake, many of the preparation principles remain the same.
1. Cake baking is based on scientific principles and requires the interaction of very specific ingredients in exact proportions. Before you begin, make sure you have the ingredients called for in the cake recipe.
3. Use the right baking pans and prepare them according to the instructions given in the cake recipes.
Beating Egg Whites
1. For best results, use a copper, stainless-steel, or glass bowl. Check to make sure bowl and beaters are completely clean and dry. (The smallest trace of yolk, water, or fat can prevent the whites from obtaining maximum volume.)
2. Beat the whites slowly until they are foamy, and then increase the speed. (If using egg whites for a savory recipe, add a pinch of salt and cream of tartar at this point to help stabilize them.) Do not overbeat or they will become dry and clump together.
3. If recipe instructs you to beat egg whites until stiff peaks form, you can test by lifting beaters straight up from egg whites. Peaks should remain on top of the egg whites, and when bowl is tilted, mixture should not slide around.
4. If adding to another mixture, immediately fold beaten egg whites gently into the mixture so volume is not lost; never beat or stir.
Baking the Cake
1. Preheating doesn't really matter if you're making a casserole, but it is very important for getting the best baking results. Always preheat the oven (according to the cake recipe directions). Starting the oven 1 minute earlier and placing the cake even before the oven is heated through is not accepted. It will only throw the correct cake baking time off-balance.
2. Place the baking pan(s) in the center of a preheated oven. Oven racks may need to be set lower for cakes baked in tube pans. If two racks are used, arrange them so they divide the oven into thirds and then stagger the baking pans so they are not directly over each other. Don't allow pans to touch each other or wall of oven.
3. Check for doneness using the test given in the cake recipe. Test for doneness 8 minutes prior to recipe directions for doneness.
Use a toothpick to prick the center of the cake. If the toothpick comes out with just a few dry crumbs, the cake is done. If the toothpick is wet, continue to bake, checking at 2 minute intervals.
Cooling a Cake
The steps you take after you bake your cake can affect the ultimate outcome just as much as the ingredients you use. Removing a cake from the pan too soon or too late can drastically change the appearance and texture of your cake.
How to Frost a Cake
Simple cakes served right from the baking pan can be easily finished with a generous layer of your favorite icing recipe. Make sure the cake is completely cooled and brush off any loose crumbs from the cake's surface before frosting. Layer cakes should also be completely cooled and brushed free of crumbs prior to frosting.
Splitting a cake layer: Most layer cake recipes are for two-layer cakes, but if you want to create a fancier dessert with four layers and more filling, you can split each cake layer in half. Use a ruler to measure the height of the cake layer. Insert wooden picks halfway up the side of the cake layer at 2-inch intervals.
To split the layer in half, place a 15- to 18-inch length of thread at the far side of the cake. Pull the ends of the thread together through the cake, following the line at the top of the wooden picks. Gently separate halves.
Frosting a layer cake:To begin frosting a layer cake, place the bottom layer on the serving plate. Place small strips of waxed paper under the edges of the cake to keep the serving plate clean during frosting; remove the strips after you finish all your cake decorating.
Spoon a mound of frosting, about 1/2 cup, on top of the bottom cake layer. Spread it evenly over the cake with a narrow metal spatula. Place the second cake layer on top. If you split the layers, repeat the process.
You will achieve a more professional look and finish on your cake if you apply the frosting in two coats. First place about one-third of the remaining frosting in a small bowl and thin the consistency with a small amount of milk. Spread in a thin layer over the entire cake as a base coat to seal in any remaining crumbs and smooth the surface. Let the base coat dry for about 15 minutes.
Spread the sides of the cake with a thicker, finishing layer of frosting, working from the top toward the bottom as you rotate the cake. Wipe the spatula with paper towels before dipping it back into the bowl of frosting, and keep it well coated with frosting so it doesn't pick up any crumbs.
To frost the cake top, spoon a mound of frosting in the center and spread it outward to all edges. Hold a narrow metal spatula under hot running water, shake off the excess water and use the damp spatula to quickly smooth a section of frosting with long strokes, moving in one direction. Repeat until the frosting is smooth on the cake top and sides.
How to Store a Cake
Whether you're simply saving your cake to serve later in the day or you're saving the leftovers for tomorrow, storing it right will keep it fresh, tasty, and looking good.
Store one-layer cakes in their baking pans, tightly covered. Store multilayer cakes in a cake-saver or under a large inverted bowl. If the cake has a fluffy or cooked frosting, insert a teaspoon handle under the edge of the cover to prevent an airtight seal and moisture buildup. Cakes with whipped cream frostings should be stored in the refrigerator.
Unfrosted cakes can be frozen for up to 4 months if well wrapped in plastic. Thaw in their wrappers at room temperature. Frosted cakes should be frozen unwrapped until the frosting hardens, and then wrapped and sealed; freeze for up to 2 months. To thaw, remove the wrapping and thaw at room temperature or in the refrigerator. Cakes with fruit or custard fillings do not freeze well because they become soggy when thawed.Information and photos courtesy of HowStuffWorks.