Cakes instantly put people in a festive mood. While cookies, bars, yeast breads and muffins are wonderful, (and I actually prefer them), cakes are classy and stylish. They remind me of girls that are dressed up in fancy clothes, with flawless makeup and gorgeous hairstyles. Most of the time we like to relax and be comfortable and fun in a pair of jeans and flip flops. However, there are times when a fancy dress, and high heels are appropriate to celebrate a special occasion, or just to feel feminine and dressed up.
That’s what cakes are all about. Birthdays, weddings, bridal showers and holidays all wouldn’t be the same without a gorgeous cake gracing the center of attention in the midst of all the other goodies. And just like those times when we take special care with our makeup and put on jewelery for an evening out, sometimes a cake is a perfect addition to a simple evening meal - just for fun.
Here are some tips to make cake baking easier and to ensure super results and consistency. Many of these tips will also apply to other baking as well. If you follow these tips, you are well on your way to having phenomenal cakes be a part of your families special moments.
1. Do the prep work.
- Take out all the ingredients that you need before you start mixing. You don’t want to find out that you don’t have enough flour when you’re right in the middle of the process. I’ve had to take off my apron, brush flour off my nose and rush to the store for baking powder. It’s usually when I have 3 things going at the same time, and in a rush to get dinner ready. Anyway, save yourself the frustration.
- Preheat the oven. I usually turn it on right before I start doing anything else. By the time I’m finished making the batter, the oven is ready for use. A preheated oven is also good to make sure that you will have an even temperature as the cake bakes. For many cakes, it’s also important to have the initial burst of heat from the very beginning so that it will rise properly. Your cake may turn out lopsided too.
- Taking out all the ingredients ahead of time is great for another reason too. In most cases, you will have the best results if the ingredients are at room temperature.
- Prep the cake pans. If you need to grease a pan, I like to use baking spray, since it already has both the oil and flour mixed in. To keep the oil from going all over your counters and floors, hold your baking pan pointed toward your open dishwasher and spray away. The cloud of extra oil will go in the dishwasher, which will get washed later anyway. If you dont’ have a dishwasher, or it’s full of clean dishes, that you keep forgetting to put away:), you can do the same thing by holding the cake pan over the sink.
- Line the bottom of the cake pan with parchment paper. I love parchment paper and use it all the time. I never have to worry that part of the cake will stay in the pan.
2. Eggs, butter and cream cheese are the ingredients that almost always need to be at room temperature. Here is a trick I use to bring butter to room temperature faster – cut it into 1 inch chunks and let it stand while you prep the rest of the ingredients. In 10 minutes, it will be the perfect temperature. Place eggs in a bowl of warm water for 5-10 minutes to bring them to room temperature.
3. Beat the eggs and sugar/cream the butter and sugar long enough. This is so important. The texture of your cake will be completely different if you don’t let the mixer do it’s job. When in doubt, mix some more. A good 5-7 minutes is a basic rule of thumb. The eggs should be a pale yellow color and increase in volume quite a bit. The creamed butter should be an even consistency, a light yellow, almost white color and should double in volume. Add the sugar gradually to the butter or eggs.
In both cases, you are beating in air into the eggs and butter. This will make your cakes light and fluffy, otherwise they will be dense and squat.
4. Whisk dry ingredients together before adding to the wet ingredients. I wrote a little more in detail about this here. Basically, this prevents lumps and also pockets of baking soda in a section of the cake. 5. Don’t be tempted to over mix the batter after the dry ingredients are added to the wet. Mix just until incorporated, even if there are a few faint streaks of flour still there. Put it down and walk away.
After working so hard on beating enough air into the eggs or butter, you don’t want to smoosh all that volume out by overmixing. Also, the longer you mix the longer you overwork the gluten in the flour, which also makes the texture harder and denser. Definitely not a good thing for cakes.
6. Use less sugar. In fact, I almost always use half as less sugar as is called for in the recipe. You won’t ever miss it and the cake will taste better. Even though I care about health and all that good stuff, I use less sugar in baking simply for taste purposes. In my opinion, most desserts are so cloyingly sweet, it’s completely unnecessary to make everyone get a sugar rush from one spoonful. You can’t even enjoy more than a few bites unless you’re chugging it down with a full mug of coffee or tea.
I get lots of compliments on my desserts, and no one has ever mentioned that there isn’t enough sugar. Actually, most people point out how light and delightful the dessert is because it’s not so intenslely sweet. Try it. You will be amazed at the difference.
7. Splitting cake layers in half. Splitting cake layers will make the cake more moist and you can infuse more flavor into the cake. Here’s a wonderful tip that doesn’t require any special equipment or pastry school skills. Use a serrated knife that is long enough to span the whole surface of the cake. Make a small incision, about an inch deep all the way around the cake. By doing it a little bit at a time, it’s very easy to see where the middle point is. Once you’ve made the incision all the way around the cake, keep the blade parallel to the work surface and keep cutting a small section at a time, keeping the knife in the incision that you made earlier. Voila. Perfect, every time.
8. To keep the plate or serving platter clean while you apply the frosting and decorate the cake, put aluminum foil around the edges of the plate. Take four pieces of aluminum foil and place on each side of the plate. When you’re done decorating the cake, gently pull the aluminum foil out and you have a perfectly clean plate.