Flour, eggs, sugar, and butter are the main ingredients of your basic cake. Amazing how these simple ingredients, if put together correctly, can produce such a wonderful treat for almost any occasion. But believe it or not baking cakes from scratch was not among one of my high priorities, even with my love of baking. I, like most people, was intimidated and just knew my final product wasn’t going to taste as good as the cakes made from store bought mixes. Even though baking from a bought mix can be easier, it still requires the basic baking knowledge as when you bake from scratch. Also, although you purchase a mix, you still have to add some of the same ingredients (and quite often the same amount) as you would if you were baking from scratch. For instance, on the back of a well known brand box of yellow cake mix, the formula requires that you add three eggs, a ˝ cup of butter or margarine and 1-1/4 cups water.
The only difference in this formula and one from scratch is that you don’t have to add sugar, vanilla, flour, salt or baking powder and instead of adding the water you would probably use milk. After all, a cake recipe will usually have flour, butter, sugar, eggs, leavener, milk, and flavoring. If this is all still too much for you to attempt now and you wish to remain baking cakes from premixes then that is perfectly understandable. It took me quite a while to even attempt baking a cake from scratch.
PREPARING TO MIX THE BATTER
The leavener will begin to work immediately so you will want to get the batter in the oven soon after you mix it therefore you should attempt to do any preparation before actually mixing the cake batter. Before beginning to mix your cake always read the recipe’s ingredients and mixing method carefully.
Make sure all your mixing utensils are clean and free of any oil. This should be especially true if you are baking an Angel Food Cake.
Preheat your oven at least 15 minutes before putting in cake pans. Unless otherwise noted in the formula or recipe, position the rack in the center of the oven to bake cakes.
Grease the bottom of the cake pan with shortening. An exception to this would be if you were baking Angel Food Cake. Do not use butter or margarine! Butter and margarine contains water, which may leave gaps when it evaporates allowing the batter to stick to the pan. Only grease the sides lightly. When I first began baking cakes, I read instructions that said to grease the sides of the pan well. I soon learned that it was better NOT to grease the sides entirely as this will cause the batter not to rise as well. It will also cause the edges to develop a rim with a deep indentation around the cake. Also a quick spin of the cake pan will allow the batter to cling to the ungreased portion of the pan’s sides assisting with creating a flat top.
After greasing the pan, sift a little flour and shake it around to cover the pan. Lightly tap on the bottom to knock out any excess flour. If you prefer, you can cut a piece of waxed paper (or parchment paper) the size of your pan and place on the bottom after you grease the pan. Grease the paper and the sides of the pan. Lightly flour the pan and knock out any excess. The flour serves to hold the shortening in place to prevent the batter from seeping through to bottom of the pan.
MIXING THE CAKE
To assure even distribution of ingredients, scrape around the bowl with a plastic spatula or scraper frequently to incorporate batter remaining on the sides. The ingredients should be at room temperature. If the ingredients are not at room temperature the batter could separate and your cake could have a bread-like texture.
If the recipe calls for the sugar and butter to be creamed (usually done with a beater) make sure you follow the time guidelines to obtain the correct texture. This is important because the beaters cause air to be incorporated into the mixture. The air then becomes “trapped” by the fat from the butter creating air pockets. The heat from the oven causes the air pockets to expand and the cake to rise. See the recipe below. After creaming the butter and adding the sugar it says to” beat until the mixture resembles moist sand” this is the consistency you want to achieve. It also gives a time guide, about three minutes.
Eggs should be added one at a time. This will allow more air to be incorporated into the batter. To make a cake with a lighter texture, separate the eggs adding the yolks to the butter mixture. Beat the egg whites and gently fold into your batter at the end.
Be careful not to over or under mix the batter. Over mixing the batter can cause the cake to toughen. Under mixing will keep the cake from rising and may create lumps. To achieve identical cakes, pour the same amount of batter into each pan. Sometimes cake will rise with a dome or even split in two. This can be caused by excess air in the batter. To prevent this, remove excess air from the batter by dropping the filled cake pans about three inches onto a flat hard surface.
BAKING THE CAKE
When the pans are filled with batter they should be placed immediately into the oven, which should already be preheated.
If you will be decorating your cake then it will probably be important for the cake to rise with a flat top and not a high dome. One way to achieve this is to put a rectangle pan on the bottom rack half filled with water. The moisture released from the pan will assist the cake in rising evenly. Another way to prevent the middle dome shape is with Magi-Cake Strips. These strips are supposed to slow down the edges of the cake from baking faster than the middle so they both will rise evenly. The Strip is supposed to be moistened then wrapped around the outside and pinned in place.
If you are baking in two pans, you will want to have as much equal space between the pans and oven walls to allow the heat to circulate evenly. To achieve this, put them both together in the center of the oven and move two inches apart.
NO PEEKING! Keep the oven door closed until minimum-baking time has elapsed. Opening the door too soon can cause your cake to sink or fall. Wait at least twenty minutes before opening the oven door. Test for doneness before removing the cake from the oven. Removing an under baked cake from the oven prematurely can cause it to fall. Insert a wooden toothpick into the center of the cake; if it comes out clean the cake is done.
TIP - To speed up the softening of butter, thinly slice and let sit for about 10 minutes over warm water.