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Sunday, July 7, 2013

Cake and Muffin 101

My grandmother has to be one of the most giving people in the entire world. She spent most of her time doing things for other people and when I was 9 years old and her birthday rolled around, I decided she needed a cake. Not just any old nasty boxed cake mix, but a real, homemade cake straight from the heart. Strawberries were her favorite, and dang it, she was going to have a strawberry cake so she knew how special she was to us.

The look on her face was worth it all! Unfortunately, at the ripe old age of 9 I was struggling to comprehend the concept of baking, much less understanding the difference between baking soda and baking powder. The cake didn't rise... at all. It was about an inch thick but my grandmother was a trooper. She just kept sawing, determined to cut that brick-like cake and pretend nothing was wrong. I was the first to burst into laughter and it was a domino effect. That night is one of my favorite childhood memories, and it's also the night a baker was born.

Nearly 3 decades and many cakes later, I'm sharing the tips I've accumulated to make a perfect, fluffy tender cake.

The first thing to determine is if you're making cake or bread. "What? That's a silly question," you say? It's sort of a trick question. Banana bread, zucchini bread, and Irish soda bread are all cakes, not breads. They're mislabeled as "breads" due to their loaf shape. What's the difference between a cake and bread? Yeast? Nope! The difference is gluten.

Once you wet the flour and start mixing it, the flour proteins stretch and gluten is created. Gluten is chewy and tough and is what holds bread together. But you don't want cake to be chewy and tough, you want it to be light, delicate and airy. (For reference, a glazed donut is made with yeast but it isn't kneaded so there's almost no gluten. It's actually a fried cake.) Over-mixing the flour is the number two cause of mediocre cakes!

I prefer King Arthur brand flour because it has a lower protein content resulting in better cakes. If you're interested in additional information about the difference between all purpose flour, cake flour, bread flour and the others, it's primarily the protein content resulting in different levels and structures of gluten. More info can be found here on the King Arthur website.

The next thing you need to know is how to properly measure. You must must must weigh your dry ingredients, especially the flour. A scale is only $40 USD. If you're outside the US, you're already doing this. If you're in the US like me, you're not yet using the metric system. Once as an experiment, I used a whisk to fluff up my flour before properly scooping it into a 1 cup measuring cup. I weighed the flour and found that it was 189 grams. What's the problem? The problem is that a cup of flour is 125 grams. That's a 50% increase! Can you imagine what that would do to a cake? Talk about dry. My word! Not even a glass of milk would help choke that thing down. You never know how accurately someone measured the flour in their recipe, so I tend to stick with recipes that have it listed in weight for consistent results. (The first time making a recipe that's measured in cups, I use about 150g per cup of flour, then adjust next time accordingly.) Traditional Oven is a terrific website with weight conversion calculators for different ingredients. Each dry ingredient will have a different weight conversion. Not properly weighing flour is the number one cause of failure for cakes!

Now that all the basics are covered, regardless of the instructions included with the recipe, here's how to make sure your cakes are always perfect.

  1. Make sure all ingredients are at room temperature. Sit them on the counter at least two hours in advance. Cold ingredients cause the flour proteins to tighten up and make folding in the wet ingredients much more difficult. That will result in more gluten which will make the cake tough. Also, cold ingredients will mean the cake will have to bake longer which will result in a dryer cake.
  2. Whisk all the dry ingredients (except for sugars) in a large bowl and set aside. If making a cake with nuts, carrots, raisins, dates, etc they should be tossed into the dry ingredients after whisking.
  3. Whisk the water-based ingredients together and set aside. The following items should also be added into the wet ingredients if they're in your recipe:
    - Egg whites (if it calls for them to be beaten to peaks, they'll be added later instead)
    - Melted chocolate
    - All sugars
  4. Whisk the oil-based ingredients together (This would include the oil or melted butter. If the recipe calls for creamed butter, just melt it and add in this step.)
  5. Add the egg yolks to the oil mix and whisk until combined. (Adding the egg yolks in this step will allow the oil and waters to emulsify mix smoothly without separating.)
  6. While whisking the oil mix, slowly pour in the water-based mixture. Whisk until well mixed.
  7. All at once, pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and fold with a spatula. The proper way to fold is to slice down the middle of the batter, then scoop under the side to fold half the batter up on top of the other side of the batter. Rotate the bowl 90 degrees and repeat. Here's a video on proper folding from when I made blueberry muffins. It should take around 15 folds, but never ever more than 30. This step is where people suddenly get crazy and create gluten which causes a tough cake. Remember that the wet and dry ingredients were already mixed separately so you're basically just wetting the flour. The mix should be lumpy.If you keep folding until it's smooth, the cake will be tough and dry.
  8. If the recipe calls for egg whites beaten to peaks, fold no more than 10 times in step 7. It will all be mixed when folding in the egg whites. Beat the whites now then gently folded into the batter in 3 separate additions. Again, the *total* number of folds including adding the egg whites should not exceed 30.
Pour into pans and bake as directed in your recipe. Perfect, tender cake, every time! Let me know how it works out for you. I'm happy to offer advice if need any.

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