Cake Making Tips, A general Guide to Cake Making by Sue L
Cake Making Tips, A general Guide to Cake Making
The first thing to say is that whatever I write here will only scratch the surface of the subject of cake making – whole books are written about it, and websites containing many pages of information can be found.
The second, and probably more important, thing to tell you is that if you are a novice or inexperienced cake maker, you really need to follow recipes from trusted sources, and follow them exactly, from start to finish.
Baking isn’t like other areas of cooking, where you can thicken a sauce with flour at the end of cooking if you don’t like the consistency, or add a few spoonfuls of yogurt if you fancy a creamier sauce. Of course it’s not going to matter if you use chopped dried apricots instead of raisins, or walnuts instead of pecans, but you can’t change the basic ingredients (fat, sugar, flour and eggs), or their quantities, without it having some effect on the final result – and that effect won’t always be good. Even something as seemingly harmless as using white sugar instead of dark muscovado might make a big difference, because muscovado sugar is acidic and could have been included in the recipe to activate a raising agent.
Some people do seem to be able to throw random amounts of cake ingredients into a bowl, stir them together and come up with something edible after baking, but you’ll never know that way whether you could have made something better with a bit more care and precision, and unless you have some sort of natural flair for baking, you’ll have many more failures than successes.
Below are a few questions to which inexperienced bakers might like to know the answers
How do you prepare a baking tin? If you are buying a new cake tin, it is probably going to be non-stick. In my opinion, it is still worth greasing the sides with butter and lining the base with baking parchment/paper, to be confident that the cake will come out easily. Baking paper has a siliconised surface which means it will be non-stick without extra greasing and when cakes are cooled in contact with it. Greaseproof paper needs greasing to become non-stick and needs removing from the cake while it is still warm, so isn’t suitable for some things such as brownies or flapjacks which are cooled in the baking tin. Baking paper can be bought in rolls, pre-cut circles to fit the base of common cake tin sizes or even as complete liners for tins.
Which are the best tins to use? In general, the more you can spend, the better quality you will get. Look for a heavy gauge tin – thicker metal will be less likely to buckle in use, or get dented out of shape if you drop it. Non-stick is a definite advantage for most types of cakes, as you don’t need to line the sides of the tin before using it. Springform tins (the sort where the side is clipped onto a removable base) are good both for cakes and for delicate desserts which can be kept on the base for serving. I’ve only used round springform tins, but square and rectangular tins are available. With round cake tins, the most common sizes used in recipes are 8” and 9” in diameter. An adjustable square tin, which has removable sides and dividers, can make any size of cake up to 12” square, so avoids the need for lots of different sized tins. As well as a deep round tin and a deep square tin, you will probably eventually need a pair of sandwich tins to make round layer cakes such as a Victoria Sandwich (classic sponge cake). A flat baking tray with only one raised edge (for grasping) is useful for making cookies, or for preheating and standing cake tin, flan rings or pie dishes on, to speed the cooking at the base. Silicon baking ‘tins’ are widely available now, and have the advantage of being non-stick without any further treatment or lining. From experience, they are very good for individual small cakes and pies, but if you want to try large cakes you have to buy really good quality moulds which have thick walls or extra side support, so that the mould doesn’t buckle under the weight of the raw cake mixture. These will need standing on a metal tray while in the oven.
Why are ingredients used at room temperature?. Unless the recipe specifies differently, it is best to assume that all ingredients, especially butter and eggs, should be at room temperature. It will make mixing easier. If you are in a hurry, you can soften butter for creaming by cutting it into 2 cm. cubes and microwaving on a medium setting, in short bursts, until it is soft to the touch, but not melted.
Difference in fan/conventional oven temperature. The general recommendation is to lower the oven temperature stated in the recipe by 20° C if you are using a fan oven. Even then, the cake may cook a little faster, so do the first test a few minutes earlier. Personally I don’t like using the fan setting for large cakes which need more than 30 minutes baking – I don’t think you get such a good rise as with a conventional setting. I’m fortunate to have the option of turning off the fan, but I know that isn’t always possible.
Always sift the flour. Again, be guided by the recipe. Sifting the flour not only removes any lumps (although lumps are not common in most baking flours these days), but it helps to incorporate more air into the batter. This is one reason why flour is usually folded in gently – to keep the aeration gained by sifting.
How much to beat? When is it enough? This is a difficult question to answer, as it’s something that is learned with experience. Some recipes give a guideline as to how long beating should take. When ‘creaming’, sugar and fat (usually butter) are beaten together until the colour has lightened due to the air beaten in. This also increases the volume of the mixture and, as the sugar dissolves in the butter, the mixture stops looking gritty. I’ve recently started to beat eggs into cake mixture at a slower mixer speed, as I’ve found this lessens the chances of the mixture curdling. I beat only until the egg is fully incorporated and the mixture has an even texture throughout. Adding a teaspoon of the flour from the recipe can also help prevent curdling.
Consistency of batter This will vary from recipe to recipe, so it’s impossible to give any guidelines. If the recipe says ‘dropping consistency’ this means that the cake mixture will fall from a tilted spoon under its own weight, and not need to be shaken off.
Covering cake during baking to avoid excessive browning; when to cover it? A good recipe should mention if the cake needs to be covered during baking. If there is no mention of this but the cake is a deep golden colour long before it is cooked, or you can see patches are starting to look burnt, then it’s OK to cover it. I wouldn’t expect the need to cover a cake until at least 3/4th of the way through the baking time, as covering it too soon can affect the rise and the baking time. If you find you regularly need to cover cakes because they brown too much, then you might need to check that your oven is actually running at the temperature it is set at, or try baking cakes farther away from the hottest part of the oven.
Why should you keep the oven door closed? Try not to open the oven door during the first half of cooking as this is when the cake is rising due to expanding air and carbon dioxide bubbles in the batter. A drastic reduction in oven temperature due to opening of the door could reduce the final rise. After the rise is complete, the batter is setting, and is less likely to be affected if the door is opened.
Why added solids sink to the bottom of a cake? How to avoid it? Solid pieces in cake mixtures, such as dried fruit, chopped nuts and chocolate chunks might sink during cooking if the batter is too liquid to hold them in suspension. Unfortunately there’s no way of telling this before baking, as batters liquefy in the first stages of cooking, but if it happens, and you want to continue using the recipe, you could add a little less liquid next time. Chopping chocolate and fruit into smaller pieces might help too. Sometimes sinking can be due to a syrupy coating on things such as glace fruit and stem ginger – the syrup seems to prevent the raw cake mixture sticking to the pieces, so they just slide downwards as the batter rises. This can be prevented by washing the syrup away, drying the fruit, then tossing it in a little flour from the amount in the recipe (not extra).
Why does the cake sink/dip in the middle? There are several reasons why this might happen, including over mixing, oven too hot, not enough liquid so that batter is too thick, or the cake baked too high in the oven.
When is a cake done? How to recognise it? Most recipes will give a baking time – this is just a guideline and will be affected if your oven runs hotter or cooler, if you open the door frequently, if you are baking other things at the same time or even if you have added a little too much liquid to the cake batter. If you remove the cake at that time without checking that it is cooked, then you may have an undercooked cake. The first thing to do is shake the cake tin gently from side to side, and see if there is any movement under the surface – if there is any wobble the cake is still a long way from being cooked. If it seems firm then you need to test the cake; one test that is reliable for many cakes is inserting a cocktail stick or fine skewer into the cake near the centre – when you remove it, there should be no signs of raw batter or even damp cake crumbs sticking to it. Your recipe should tell you if this test is suitable. A sponge cake can be tested by pressing lightly on the surface with one finger – the cake should spring back up, and will also be pulling away from the sides of the cake tin by this point.
Substituting wheat flour with almond flour or other flours for wheat allergic people. Baking for people who have wheat or gluten allergies is another huge subject. Unless you can find mainstream recipes which are naturally free of the things which can’t be eaten, you will need to look for recipes written especially with those diets in mind. Gluten-free and wheat-free flours behave differently in baking so can’t always be substituted into ‘normal’ recipes with good results. I would only be confident of substituting wheat flour with ground nuts in a recipe where a very small amount of flour was used, say 50g. In these cases the flour is often only stabilising a rich egg, butter and sugar mixture, and any type of flour or ground nut can be used.
Note from Mamta: If you have any other concerns/questions about cake making, please ask them on the Forum. Alternatively, you can send them to us via the contact link, we will do our utmost to get a reply to you.