Cakes

Cakes. That’s what we’re here for, aren’t we?

Here you can find some useful information about anything related to basic cakes baking, from ingredients, techniques and methods to identify in advanced, whether certain recipes will work or not. I recommend to read through the entire article, however, you can quick jump to any topic using the below table of contents.

A. Introduction

I’ll start by saying that not a lot of people often think about this weird phenomenon, which is almost a wonder in itself, to mix some practically inedible raw substances (i.e., flour, sugar, eggs, fats and leavening agents = “the basic structure”), put it inside the oven, and getting instead, something which is not only edible, but also amazing in its taste and aroma. Have you had the chance to think how all of this is possible at all?

Generally speaking, and without getting too scientific, this is possible thanks to chemical reactions that occur between the ingredients during mixing the cake, and during baking. For those of you who might be concerned that they are not good at baking, due to the common notion (which is a bit misleading as well) that baking is considered “an accurate science”, I’d be happy to eliminate that concern.

Don’t get me wrong, an accurate recipe is super important. However, I bet you already noticed that about every 5 minutes or so, a new cake recipe is published somewhere on the internet, and many people are inviting you to “try it now” because it is either revolutionary in its taste or ease of preparation. I will go into greater detail about it down below, however, this is exactly the proof that as long we keep the basic cake structure intact, no matter what we add in, a cake is bound to be made!
Hence the claim regarding precision in baking becomes slightly more fragile that what we even imagined before even trying to bake something at all.

B. Correct Measurement

For those of you who already got the chance to take a look at the recipes I publish, you probably noticed that I am constantly measuring in grams only. Not in cups, definitely not “eyeballing”. There is great importance in correct measurements of ingredients, to both a recipe’s success, and its continuous success, which means that we are able to re-create its success at any given moment. In our day and age, I find it really hard to see why one would not measure using a digital scale. You don’t need to own some flashy or sophisticated model. All of them work the same way- you put your bowl on top of the scales and tare its weight prior to adding any new ingredient.

    1. Correct measurements in grams assures that you always put the same amounts into the bowl, every time you prepare the same recipe. Using measuring cups (or disposable cups) creates inconsistencies, as each person measures according to how they see fit, and therefore dooming the recipe to fail. No matter how experienced you may be with baking, using measuring cups for a recipe you developed and tried for years, will never be the same when you try to recreate someone else’s recipe.
    2. Measuring liquids: measuring in grams could be used for liquids as well. I find it a bit odd when recipes specify liquids amounts in units of volume (ml/l). Whoever published their recipe in grams could have probably gone the extra mile and specify the weight of the liquids In grams. He already had his scales used to measure the other ingredients. In my eyes at least, it makes things slightly more complicated since different liquids have different densities and therefore a cup of heavy cream (which is thick and denser) would not weigh the same as a cup of water.
    3. Eggs: I weigh everything, including eggs. There are several reasons for that. Different eggs sizes are also different in their weight. Most recipes are calling for large sized eggs. But what would a person to do if they only have medium sized eggs on their hand? The differences in weight between large and medium sized eggs, could range between 6-10 grams (!) per egg. It is very significant, especially if you double a recipe, or whether the recipe calls for using many eggs as it could entirely change the ratio between liquid to dry ingredients in the recipe. Moreover, if you need to use just the yolks or egg whites, the differences become even more substantial.

      Eggs can be easily weighed by whisking them thoroughly inside some kind of container, then pouring the required amount into a separate container.
      If you prepare several different pastries that call for eggs in their recipes, you could easily split the amounts in advanced during weighing of all of the other ingredients.

    4. Leavening agents and unique powders:
      There are times where I decide to be exceptionally precise. In such times I would weigh these specific ingredients in a mini digital scale that allows for milligrams precisions. However, most often, I don’t actually do that. These ingredients can certainly be measured using calibrated measuring spoons, which means they have been tested and approved for measuring tiny amounts. Among all the ingredients composing a cake, these substances are the ones that should be kept to a high degree of accuracy. Recipes are intentionally calling for them in small amounts, in order to control their effect. Add too much baking soda and the cake would taste metallic. Or, if you make a wrong measurement of gelatin, it could dramatically change the texture of a jello or mousse.

In conclusion, I hope that you have a slightly deeper understanding why I’m such a big fan of measuring ingredients by weight. It can only help you succeed any recipe you will try.
What should you do if a recipe doesn’t specify accurate measurements in grams? I shall explain about it in more detail later in this article.

C. The ingredients for a basic cake

The original pound cake was composed of exactly 1 pound (= 454g) of each one of the basic cake ingredients: flour, eggs, sugar and butter. You can only imaging how dense, doubt if tasty could such cake be, without any flavorings or leavening agents. Not the best choice for a party. Regardless, the result would be a cake.

    1. Flour- this is the most basic ingredient of a cake that contributes a lot to its structure thanks to the gluten protein. In our day and age, many people are already familiar with what gluten is, and how the gluten network forms when flour comes in touch with liquid such as water. However, when you step into the groceries store, there is such a huge selection of different types of flours. Most of tend to just automatically pick up the all-purpose flour, or even worse, self-rising flour.
      The only two flours I ever use in my cake recipes are cake flour and all-purpose flour. I never endorse using self-rising flour since we need to be able to control the amounts of leavening agents at any given moment. Using self-rising flour does not allow that. Those who are concerned about accuracy and success in executing their recipes, should simply stop purchasing this type of flour that is ruining your cakes and your wallet as it tends to be more expensive.
      The main differences between cake and all-purpose flours are their gluten content. You can always check the nutrition facts on the back of the packaging.
      Cake flour would essentially contain between 9.2-9.5 grams of protein per 100g or flour.
      All-purpose flour would essentially contain between 10.2-10.8 grams of protein per 100g of flour.
      Using flour with a lower protein content will support the creation of a more tender cake crumb structure.
    1. Sugar- white granulated sugar is the most common sugar available at stores. Seemingly, there shouldn’t be anything else to elaborate on this topic. However, this is untrue. There are many types of sugars just as those of flours. Depending on the type of cake, we either use white granulated sugar or brown sugar. Sometimes a recipe would call for dark brown sugar, where the main difference is the amounts of molasses it contains. Molasses is the liquid that exudes during the processing of sugar.
      It contains all the vitamins and minerals that are originally found in raw sugar. However, do not be mistaken, it is pure sugar, and just the fact that it contains minerals and vitamins does not automatically turn it into wholesome healthy food substance. You can also find superfine white granulated sugar, which is actually perfect for baking cakes since it dissolves much easier and allows for a better cake structure.
      Sugar has several roles in baking:
      1. Flavor- this is the main source of sweetness for many cakes and pastries.
      2. Aroma- sugar caramelizes during baking, helping spread aromatic compounds in addition to the other aromatics used in a recipe.
      3. Color- caramelizing the sugar also contributes to browning of cakes and pastries.
      4. Texture- sugar also contributes to the cake’s texture in addition to flour. In fact, it competes together with the flour over the liquids in the recipe, and makes it more tender. Sugar also contributes to the cake’s stability by supporting the formation of small air bubbles when beaten together with whole eggs, or softened butter. These air bubbles expand during baking and actually create the typical sponge like crumb of cakes.
        However, if the recipe contains to much sugar, the cake’s structure becomes weaker, making it denser.
    1. Liquids- the main liquids of a basic cake would be eggs and water or milk. Some recipes call for orange juice to hide the scent and taste of flour and eggs, however these are just the basic types. In the previous section I shortly explained about eggs and how to accurately weigh them. Since eggs are part of the liquids part of a cake, unlike water, they have other traits that contribute a lot to a cake’s structure. The egg yolk contains a natural emulsifier called lecithin. The role of emulsifiers is exactly that to create an emulsion. In other words, to make to substances, that are naturally separated, to become one homogenous substance. Apart from that, the egg yolk contains fats and proteins and contribute to the structure as it coagulates during baking. The egg white mostly contains water and proteins of course. Overall, eggs also contribute to the browning of cakes due to its high protein content.
      The use of water and/or milk, increases the relative amounts of liquids in the recipe, which allows expansion of the cake during baking due to forming steam. In past times, prior to the use of leavening agents, bakers would rely on liquid steam to support the rising of cakes and pastries in order for them to have a nicer and aerated texture that is pleasurable to eat. The combination between steam created by evaporation of the liquids, and the air bubbles created as a result of intense beating of eggs together with the sugar and the powder of leavening agents, are what allowed the perfect aerated texture of a cake.
    1. Fats- I intentionally use the word “fats” as cakes can be made with two main sources of fats which are butter and vegetable oil. Each one has their own advantages and disadvantages, however, at least in my eyes, using butter is much preferable over using oil. Butter lends excellent taste to any pastry. Fat contributes in tenderizing the crumb by blocking the formation of gluten bonds.
      Butter cakes recipes call for creaming the butter together with the sugar to a creamy and fluffy consistency, which actually fills it with tiny air bubbles which contribute to the cake’s structure. Butter contains about 18% water. People often tend to think that sugar dissolves in the butter when they are being beaten together, however that is not true.
      The tiny amounts of water inside the butter doesn’t allow the sugar to dissolve, and you can check this if you touch the creamed butter-sugar mixture with your finger.

      Oil
      – oil is often being used as a substitute for butter. The need to replace butter with oil to make it dairy free is understandable and legitimate. However, oil doesn’t lend any flavor or aroma to the cake. On the other hand, oil makes cakes stay softer for longer periods of time even if they are stored in the refrigerator (unlike butter-based cakes). Butter based cakes must be served at room temperature in order for the flavors and textures to be right and not too dense. For this reason, I like to combine oil and butter in recipes to enjoy both worlds.
      I’d like to add a word about margarine- cakes and pastry as we know, are not healthy food items. I am not going to preach to anyone about consuming margarine, however, I will only say that I have never used, and will never use margarine in my pastries even if it’s the last source of fat remaining on earth. Margarine, and practically any other solid vegetable fat, are pure poison to our body and I’ve decided wholeheartedly not to consume this food item.

D. Correct use of the oven

I am not sure at what point in time it became obvious that novice bakers are not getting the most basic explanation of how to use their ovens correctly. Baking over a baking rack, or a baking sheet? Using static heat or fan mode? I’m happy to put things in order here.
No matter how accurate you’ve weighed your ingredients, or how perfect your recipe and technique were, if the baking step is not done correctly, all of your hard work is unfortunately going down the drain.

    1. Calibrating your oven- all ovens are different from one another. Models, production date, different baking features. Every baker must know their oven and what its capable of before they put their first cake inside. The most crucial thing to confirm is that our oven is accurate. We want to be 100% sure that if we turn on our oven to 180 degrees Celsius, then this would be reflected exactly inside the oven. The simplest method to check this is by using an oven safe thermometer. It’s expected that newer ovens will have a slimmer chance of inaccuracies, compared to older ovens. However, this is the only way for you to tell whether you need to adjust the temperature slightly higher or lower than what is dictated by the recipe.
    2. Preheating your oven- after becoming familiar with your oven, you should also be able to tell how long does it take it to reach the target temperature. Preheating the oven in advanced is crucial because by the time you put your cake inside the oven, things are already stirring up inside the cake batter. Molecules are bonding, air bubbles are popping, and leavening agents are activating. We must be able to put the cake into a ready oven in order to maximize its rising and ensure it is completely baked according to the times specified by the recipe.
    3. Static heat vs. fan mode- allow me to add my humble and honest opinion on this the never-ending discussion.
      When I just started baking, I had an ancient 20 years old oven at my disposal, which had a fan mode that caused power breakdown all over the house as soon as it was turned on. Consequently, I was forced to bake for years with the static heat feature only (that is until I decide to purchase a new oven). Without even being aware, and despite the fact that my older oven caused heat burns to show on my cakes (a phenomenon caused by imbalance when the heating bodies inside the oven are heating unevenly), all of my cakes and pastry would turn out moist and delicious. Over the time, I realized that it was better and preferable to bake cakes and pastries with the fan mode off. Fan mode triggers a circular movement of hot air inside the oven which hastens the drying of cakes and pastries. This phenomenon makes the oven temperature become higher than what it actually is set for by about 15 degrees, which could be crucial. Its perfect if you’re baking puff pastry, pizzas, meringues- anything that requires heat drying. But certainly not baking.
      I am aware that many home bakers testify to bake all their cakes using fan mode, and they turn out just as perfectly, and I don’t doubt that. I’ve already previously mentioned that if you know your oven, just continue as you have been so far.
      I even stumbled upon some explanation that claimed the professional bakeries use fan mode ovens only and therefore we should adapt this approach at home as well. I would like to add that despite it being true (partially as there are many types of ovens), the ovens we use at homes are nothing like professional ovens in terms of strength of fan mode. Therefore, my recommendation and personal experience taught me that baking with the fan mode off is preferable in 95% of cases.
    4. Baking over a baking rack or a baking sheet- very simply put, baking over a baking rack allows for a more uniform and better heat flow when compared to baking over a baking sheet. We also need to consider the time it takes for the baking sheet to heat up before the heat is being transferred to the baking pan and pastry. Therefore, its better to avoid baking over a baking sheet if that’s not necessary. The baking sheet is primarily being used to short baking of cookies, small pastries, and if its deep enough, you can use it as a water bath to create an environment enriched with steam.
    5. Position inside the oven- allegedly, yet another trivial detail. As a novice baked, I’d have baked all of my stuff at the middle shelf of the oven. This is a mistake as the oven’s strongest efforts at baking are focused at its lowest heating body, which is covered by a thick metal. Therefore, if you’re interested in making sure your cake is cooked all the way through, including at the bottom, it needs to be placed at the lowest level of your oven.
      In fact, most baked items, including breads, should be baked at the lowest level of the oven. The middle section is commonly intended for short baking times, such as for cookies and small pastries, while the top shelving is used for grilling.

E. Techniques:

In this section I’d like to elaborate about the basic types of cakes we’re all familiar with, however are not commonly thought to be classified under the same category (unless you’re an experienced baked):

    1. Sponge Cakes (Genoise)- cakes can’t go any classic and basic than the genoise. I make it on a regular basis and it is also using me for all the layer cakes I prepare. The resulting cake is soft, tender and bouncy to the touch. It is perfect as a base for a whipped cream cake (AKA, Shortcake) as it will not cause the cream to collapse.
      The main technique in making a genoise is whipping a large amount of whole eggs, together with sugar (often at amount that equals that of the flour), to obtain a very thick and airy batter, which almost doesn’t include any fat, and into which the flour is being folded.
    2. Pound Cake- this caked is based on butter. I’ve already briefly explained the characteristics of this cake. It is commonly denser when compared to a sponge cake, yet benefits the wonderful taste and aroma of butter.
      The ideal combination of this cake is fluffy buttercream or berries compote. The ratio of ingredients is nearly 1:1, with exception of the liquids.
      The main technique includes creaming of room temperature softened butter together with sugar, to make a very creamy and fluffy mixture. Into this mixture, you add the liquids, commonly eggs and milk, very gradually in order to avoid separation (we’re adding a large amount of liquid into a large amount of fat, which as we all know, are not naturally coming together).
    3. Torte Cakes- this is a lighter variation of the pound cake. Oil is commonly used instead of butter, or a combination of both oil and butter.
      Oftentimes, other types of fats are added, such as sour cream. It is lighter compared to a pound cake which also makes it ideal for layered cakes. When using oil in a recipe, it will commonly be mixed together with the rest of the liquid ingredients. The flour is then added at the end in order to develop the minimum required levels of gluten.
    4. Roulade- the technique of making a roulade resembles that of making a genoise. Some recipes are calling for whipping whole eggs, and some require you to separate them in order to whip the egg whites. Either way, Roulades commonly don’t contain a lot of flour in order for them to be flexible enough which allows to be rolled.
    5. Chiffon Cakes- we’re all familiar with the tall and soft orange cakes from the 80’s. These are Chiffon cakes, and I’m sorry to disappoint but they were not invented by our grandmothers. The recipe was a very kept secret of a caterer named Harry Baker, until it was finally sold to General Mills company at the 40’s.
      This type of cake contains large amount of eggs as the liquid, with the egg whites being whipped separately to a meringue. As such, it is very low on fat.
  1.  

Just becoming familiarized with the different types of cakes and their techniques, allow us to simplify our understanding of any cake’s recipe. This will be discussed further ahead. In the meantime, let’s keep in mind that if we discover a recipe that doesn’t fall into any of the categories mentioned above (in terms of techniques and ratio of ingredients), it is possible that it’s not necessarily a recipe we should be eager to try, and we’d better off be looking for a different recipe.

F. Correct Storage of cakes:

The next lines are relevant not just for cakes, but pastries as well. Ideally, baked items need to be stored in a sealed and airtight container that will ensure prolonged freshness.
Storage at room temperature (20-250C) can be considered for cakes and pastries that do not contain creams or any elements that otherwise require refrigeration.
Layered cakes (with either buttercream or whipped cream fillings)- are stored refrigerated only. Butter cakes need to be taken out of the refrigerator a few minutes prior to serving, in order for them to reach room temperature, where their full flavor and texture potential can be realized.
During summer days, everything should be stored inside the refrigerator, without any exception.

What about freezing?
Freezing food items is common even at the world’s most known bakeries.
Generally speaking, cookies are the best survivors in their category, at prolonged freezing after they are baked (they can be frozen for months). In particular, they have a great survivability if they are frozen unbaked.
Cakes can also be stored frozen, given that they are well wrapped in plastic wrap and kept in an airtight container. They can be stored this way for up to two months.

Completely filled and iced cakes can also be stored frozen. However, their shelf-life may not be as prolonged, probably by a couple of extra days. Otherwise, the texture and taste are impaired.
I’ve recently learned that another option is to freeze the unbaked cake batter.

This way, when you need to prepare a cake, you’d simply thaw out the required amount, bake regularly with a very good result. This method seems to potentially be a huge time saver, however honestly, I do not necessarily plan on implementing this method as it sounds a bit complicated and I am also concerned the repeated freeze-thaw cycles will mess up the chemical reactions that are taking place during mixing and baking.

It’s important to remember that at home, we are not commonly using preservatives. Therefore, storing out home baked goods under optimal conditions will allow for prolonged use and shelf-life of the products.

G. Correct reading of recipes and advanced detection of issues

So far, we were presented with quite sufficient evidence that if we mix flour, sugar, eggs, fats, liquids and flavorings- a cake will happen. Not considering the ratio of ingredients, we’re bound to get something. This “something” might be good or less than that, however we already promised that the process is right. All we’re left to do now is to connect all the dots into a single recipe that will allow the correct ratio of ingredients to produce a cake that is perfect in both flavor and texture.

To demonstrate, I’ve examined four (4) lemon cake recipes- all originating from well known baking queens.
In the table down below, you will find the major differences in terms of ratio of ingredients, as percentage, excluding leavening agents and flavorings:

CompareEN

You can see that by comparing some of the basic ingredients, it is clear that substantial differences are noticeable between the recipes. For those of you who are slightly more interested in understanding the recipe, rather than blindly following it, several questions are raised, such as:

Why does this happen?
What is the meaning of the differences between the recipes?
What necessarily guarantees a particular recipe will be better than another?

No need to mention that all of the above recipes were thoroughly tested by the bakers, otherwise they had not been published. None of them would want a bad recipe under her name. I will try to provide answers to the questions listed above, however there is no one correct answer and it is subject to personal interpretation.

The differences are mainly due to the recipe developer’s perspective of what should be considered “a perfect cake”. If one baker is interested to produce a more tender cake, they would increase the sugar content of the recipe. On the other hand, they need to ensure there is correct balance between the amounts of flour and liquids in the recipe in order to get the right crumb texture.

I guess there’s also some self interest involved in terms of which one will be crowned by the audience as “the best and most balanced recipe”.
A quick glance at this data, I’d bet that recipes 3 or 4 would be better compared to the others.
Equal amounts of flour and sugar, with slightly lower amounts of liquids in comparison should produce a more balanced cake crumb, with great texture and also flavor.

Additional point to consider: a most basic cake recipe ever is selected, and 10 different people (that are living in the same country) are asked to make it. Practically speaking, even if the recipe is highly accurate, the cakes would still turn out differently for each one of the people making it. The texture and flavor would potentially vary dramatically. What could be the reasons for this?

    • Differences in technique and understanding
    • Differences in equipment being used
    • Differences in the quality of available ingredients

Could the differences be entirely diminished in order to get the same result among all of those 10 people?
Not really. The differences are even more noticeable when trying to follow a recipe that originating from different countries. The ingredients alone will greatly impact the final result.

So what could be done?
When we approach a recipe, especially if it is taken from the internet, it’s very important to follow some simple and basic guidance in order to prevent disappointment as best as we can:

    1. Use recipes that originate from a reliable source. What does it mean?
      For example, savvy and well-known baking blogs, people which known to be professional at their niche. Local baking book authors. Even your neighbor could be considered a reliable source, assuming you’ve tasted her perfect cakes many times by now.
      The rule of thumb is- a recipe that is not represented by a certain person, i.e., published on some random recipe website that doesn’t even credit the recipe creator, most often will not worth our time and efforts.
    2. The best recipes tend to be written in gram measurements. I’ve explained above the importance of correct and accurate measurements whenever you bake anything.
      Specifying the ingredients in grams measurement, indicates that the recipe author cares a lot about accuracy and it is their wish that people following their recipe will succeed. Therefore, they are interested that all people will start at the same place that is similar as they do.
      The fact that I object to recipes written in cups measurements, does not necessarily mean they’re not good. All it means is that they are going to be more challenging to re-create, therefore, a lot of people are expected to be disappointed from the result, at different disappointment levels. One would get a sweeter cake, the other will have a low or denser cake. One person would simply complain that the recipe is not accurate (seriously?!).
      Whenever I stumble upon a recipe that looks interesting and reliable, but is not written in grams measurements, I start to convert the cups to grams and review whether the ratio of ingredients is correct. It is very possible to technically inspect a recipe and to know in advanced how it will turn out.
    3. Pay attention to the ingredients list and see if you can mimic it fully. For example, if the recipe calls for sour cream. There are several types of sour cream that comes in different contents of fat. This can dramatically impact the final result (for those who wonder, most cases the right fat content for sour cream should range between 15-20%).
      Another example is cocoa powder. Many recipes tend to not mention that the most recommended cocoa powder for baking is Dutch processed cocoa powder which is richer and more chocolatey in its taste.
      As a final example, I’d list dark chocolate. Dark chocolate also comes in various cocoa solids content. Some recipes will also specify the precise brand they used. The more the recipe reveals all of these tiny details, the more your chances to re-create it are growing.
    4. Read the recipe all the way. To this very day, I sin at occasional breezing through a recipe when I am impatient or in a hurry. It’s not so nice to discover that a particular yet main ingredient is not available, after the cake mix is already half-way done. Here is some more stuff worth to pay attention for when reading a recipe for the first time:
      • The oven temperature and baking time are specified. If a recipe does not indicate these two very important parameters (whether if intentionally or on purpose), try to search for a similar recipe from another reliable source, and check if you can get the information from there.
      • Ensure that all the ingredients listed in the recipe, also show up at some point during the preparation steps. It is also important to understand at which stage each ingredient is going to be used, because oftentimes it is helpful in time management and to be prepared in advanced (for example, if an element requires prolonged freezing or to be cooked).
      • Ensure all preparation steps are clear. Writing a good recipe requires very high drafting skills. Sometimes, what needs to be done can be very clear. However, that does not mean that the recipe author should take it for granted and assume the reader understands some generic instructions, that are bound to raise some questions, for example:
        • Simple example: “Whip the egg whites with the sugar” (On which speed? For how long? Which texture do I aim for?)
        • Extreme example: “Temper the chocolate” (Is there a reference to an external source where we can further read on tempering chocolate?)
      • At the end of the day, make sure that you are following all of the instructions provided by the recipe, and do not attempt to make any changes unless you are confident that the change is going to work and will not be a cause for disappointment.

In conclusion:

I hope I shared some new information for some of you, and if at least a single person found this information interesting or enlightening, I am very grateful and happy for that 😊

Composing an accurate recipe requires a lot of knowledge and experience. Regardless, not all recipes are going to taste great for all the people who would give them a try. I’d like to hope that the recipes I publish are perfect enough for as many people as possible. Recipe testing takes time and money for buying all the ingredients, but it is totally worth it.

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