Monday, November 05, 2007

Tips for the Perfect Cake

Monkey CakeYou'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.

Monkey Cake After Andrew's Brutality1. 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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Mary Alice said...

Good tips. I grew up baking from scratch so for a long time it never occurred to me that many people haven't had that experience and had to rely on cake mixes. Folks it just isn't the same...and if you take a little time you to can bake something that rivals that of a great bakery --- at a fraction of the cost. Take these tips and run with them people. Your taste buds will thank you.

Sandy said...

Thanks for these tips!

I've always eyed the cake flour at the grocery store and wondered if I should buy it or not? I think I will.

Can I the granulated sugar on the dish towel an anti-sticking mechanism?

Stephanie Wilson she/her @babysteph said...

These are wonderful tips. I definitely agree about the vanilla, too. I just recently bought a nice cake stand and also a cup cake tree. It makes a HUGE difference... you gotta put them on display!

Anonymous said...

I have a baking question for you. Do the high altitude directions on boxed mixes really matter? I do them, just because once I didn't and the cake turned out weird.

BUT when I am baking something from scratch, do I need to alter the recipe at all?

This was a great post, BTW. You are like the female Alton Brown with the scientific explanations.

Anonymous said...

I'm going to have to try the sugar on the towel & cooling the cake upside down. I've never done that. Great tips!

Janet said...

Thanks for the inspiration. I made my Halloween cupcakes from a mix but I always do homemade frosting (unsalted butter - not margarine, confectioners' sugar, and yes, REAL vanilla, you're right there!!). I do carrot cakes from scratch, but almost everything else from a mix. Thanks for explaining why cake flour is different, I always wondered! Mary Margaret is already listing her specs for her birthday cake (which is January!) so I'll try out a scratch cake and see what happens.

Pendullum said...

I'm drooling now...
Off to bake a cake...

Anonymous said...

I'm guessing the monkeys were made out of tootsie rolls. Am I right??

Anonymous said...

Great tips. You could definitely rival the British cook and author Delia Smith who has been my saviour in the kitchen for the last few years.

Magpie said...

#6 cracks me up - and, it's hard to refute. :)

Scribbit said...

Well now I'm going to have to Google Alton Brown and Delia Smith with such nice compliments

As for high altitude, I've never cooked in those conditions so I'm at a loss. I've never seen a recipe that makes allowances for high altitudes so I tend to be skeptical about it making a difference. Anyone got an answer?

Sandy--yes, that's what the sugar is good for. You can also use a standard cooling rack but it will stick to the grill slightly.

Yes, the monkeys are made of Tootsie Rolls, you heat them quickly in a microwave and then flatten slightly them to make the body shapes. I think Grace found this idea in one of my FamilyFun magazines.

Karen Olson said...

I should never read this before lunch!

Tootsie roll monkeys: who would've thought it? But clever, so clever!

jubilee said...

Thanks for the tips. I'm going to try the sugar on the towel bit. And you are so right -- the cake stand makes all the difference. My kids always ask, "Who is coming over?"

An Ordinary Mom said...

I have always wanted a cake stand ... but I still need to wait until DH is done with school so I have somewhere to store it :) !!

Thanks for all the tips and the reasons why you do things a certain way. When you know there is a reason behind something, it helps you stay motivated to do things properly.

Loralee Choate said...

OH, MAN! This is the fourth cake post that I have read today. I'm so hungry I can't take it anymore.

It makes me want to stick head in a vat of frosting.


Anonymous said...

I just discovered your blog a few weeks ago. I want to let you know how much I enjoy reading it. I really like the variety of your posts. I especially liked your winter ideas for kids. I live in the Mat Su Valley.

luckyzmom said...

My first thought was that you sounded like Alton Brown. Then I thought about dense moist carrot cake,my favorite. Then I thought about my beautiful cake stand that hasn't been out of it's glass fronted cupboard since I put it in there. Then I thought it is time to get it out!

Daisy said...

Yum. I'm with you on the vanilla; alwasy use the real thing. Cake flour would mean one more flour in my cupboard (along with all-purpose, wheat, and bread flours). Why not? It works.

Stephanie Appleton said...

Great tips. You are right from scratch cakes are becoming a lost skill. Thanks for promoting it! :)

I'm partial to cream cheese frosting myself, but of course that works best on a dense cake.

all over the map said...

I agree that it has become uncommon to make a cake from scratch.
There is nothing that replaces good, pure and real vanilla. Nothing.
My favorite part of cake is real, homemade buttercream frosting. . .oh I can't stand the phony stuff. I'd rather have "boxed" cake with real frosting than the other way around.
And what are the monkeys made of?
Good list btw.

April said...

You have inspired me! I am for SURE going to try to make my next cake from scratch. I'll let you know how it goes... :)

Susan from Food Blogga said...

You know, I've never floured the pan, only just greased it. Do you think it really makes a difference? And would you believe I don't have a cake stand? I guess that shows I really don't bake that much.

Heffalump said...

I am lazy and doctor up regular cake mixes with recipes from The Cake Mix Doctor. It gives them better texture and flavor, but its not as time consuming as from scratch.

Ice Cream said...

I was always too impatient to do #4 but it makes all the difference in cakes, biscuits, pancakes, and all other quick breads.

Irene said...

I love to cook, and thought I knew a lot, but never realized there was so much more to baking a cake! This was such a great, educational post!

Thank you! I think I will try baking one from scratch (following your tips) soon!!!