You'd think I was trying to make the world a fatter place the way I'm posting the calories here lately. But Grace made the cutest-ever Jungle Cake for my birthday a while back. Can you guess what those cute little monkeys are made of?
Get a load of the carnage after Andrew got through cutting them, it was a Jungle Massacre I tell you. What it is about men cutting things? Slicing bread, cutting cakes, whatever the task it looks likes it's been accomplished with a chain saw.
Here are a few tips that make baking a cake from scratch easier. Though box mixes are fine (I've never met a calorie I didn't like) the taste of a homemade cake is really superior and worth the effort. Some of the tips are rather obvious but it seems that making a cake from scratch is becoming uncommon so I’m taking a gamble and going back to basics.
1. Grease and flour the cake pans. When you’re preparing your cake pans you can use whatever oil you wish to grease the pans. Shortening has a stronger flavor and is good for chocolate or spice cakes but margarine or butter or spray oil work fine as well. When you dust the pans to keep the cakes from sticking you can likewise use either flour or cocoa, depending on the type of cake you’re fixing. Aluminum cake pans work the best for heat distribution.
2. Use sifted cake flour. There are two different types of basic cake: the heavy, dense, moist cakes like carrot cake, and devil’s food and then there are the lighter, more delicate textures that are used for white, yellow and some chocolate cakes. If you want a light, fluffy texture use sifted cake flour because it has less gluten and will therefore form fewer protein strands to toughen things up. If you’re aiming for a real dense and meaty delight there’s no problem in using all-purpose flour. But regardless always spoon the flour into the measuring cups then scrape a knife across the top to level it off. If you scoop up the flour and shake it to settle it you’ll end up with more flour than the recipe requires and the texture will be compromised. Too much flour equals yuck.
3. Mix the fat and the sugar together thoroughly. This is called creaming and coats the sugar with the fat, improving the texture, whether you’re using butter, margarine, shortening or vegetable oil. The fat you use will affect the flavor. Cakes with a strong flavor like fudge or spice can use shortening because it incorporates well but the flavor of the cake covers the taste of the fat. Lighter, vanilla cakes often call for butter to improve the flavor.
4. Mix all the dry ingredients and all the wet ingredients separately. As soon as the gluten in the flour mixes with the oil or wet ingredients it begins to form protein strands. To keep the cake from getting too tough it’s important to mix all the dry ingredients together and begin adding them alternately with the wet ingredients starting and ending with the dry ingredients. This is standard cake making procedure and makes sense once you understand why.
5. Use real vanilla extract. Imitation vanilla is cheaper but there is a significant difference in taste and quality. Splurge on the real stuff and don't look back.
6. Bake 30 minutes at 350 in middle of the oven. Every cake, with few exceptions (sponge cake, pound cake, angel food cake) is baked at 350 for half an hour. It’s just a given. If your pans are glass or if your oven cooks slowly or if you have a larger pan the time may be lengthened but it’s almost always half an hour at 350. Bake the cake in the middle of the oven and refrain from checking it until you’re fairly certain it’s done then check by inserting a toothpick into the center. If it comes out clean, without crumbs clinging to it, then it’s done.
7. Loosen the sides and cool. If you're using round cake pans when the cake comes out of the oven immediately run a knife around the edges to loosen the sides then let it set for 10 minutes to cool before attempting to take it out of the pan. If, after ten minutes, it doesn’t come out easily then set it back in the oven for a minute or two before trying to remove it again.
8. Let the cake cool upside down with dusting of sugar. Sprinkle a bit of granulated sugar on a towel, invert the cake onto the towel then remove the pan. Let the cake cool completely before trying to frost it and allow it to cool the entire time upside down because that will produce a flat surface and make it easier to decorate. I always decorate the bottom because it’s so nice and flat.
9. Use a cake stand. Cakes are fine and delicious in big 9 x 13 rectangular pans but if you make it in two round 9-inch pans and set them on a cake stand you'll feel as if you’ve done something really special. Cake stands are inexpensive and make everything look lovely—cupcakes, hors d’oeuvres, pies, everything. Put a roll of toilet paper on a cake stand and even that looks lovelier than it did before.
10. Try something easy for frosting. After going to all the work to make a real cake if you want to fudge a little, save time in the frosting (not the cake) by using pudding, whipped cream, cherry pie filling or a dusting of powdered sugar or cocoa. Not only will it still feel elegant it will taste wonderful as well. I prefer whipped cream over frosting myself any day and will sometimes sprinkle toasted coconut, chopped pecans or chocolate shavings on the top to add an extra touch of pretty.
Here are some of my cake recipes from the archives:
* Sour Cream Coffee Cake
* Pecan-Cream Sponge Cake
* Coconut Cream Cheese Pound Cake
* Pumpkin Cake with Orange Cream Cheese Frosting
* Dutch Oven Mississippi Mud Cake
* Sour Cream Pound Cake
* Pumpkin Molasses Cake with Orange Frosting
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