Cakes: Tips and Techniques
Perfectly baked desserts are easier than you think. Try these simple tips for moist, tender cakes that rise to any occasion.
Lining a Cake Pan
What good is a delicious cake if it remains stuck in the pan? For smooth, easy removal, prep your pans properly. When a recipe calls for buttering and flouring, place a piece of parchment or waxed paper on the bottom of a pan (trace and cut it to fit). Coat the sides and bottom with softened butter, and then dust with flour, turning the pan on its side to get full coverage and tapping out the excess. For chocolate cakes, swap in cocoa powder for flour. Cakes baked in springform or decorative Bundt pans don't need the paper; just butter and flour (use a pastry brush to get butter into the crevices). The exceptions: Angel, chiffon and sponge cakes should go into clean, untreated pans, because they need to adhere to the sides in order to rise properly. For cupcakes, decorative preformed paper or foil liners are indispensable.
Accurate measuring is the difference between a light, moist cake and a gummy, dense one. To properly measure, you need three types of measuring tools: a clear measuring cup with a spout for wet ingredients, cups with flat rims in graduated sizes for dry ingredients and a set of measuring spoons. Most American baking recipes measure ingredients by volume, not weight. (For example, a recipe will call for 1 cup sugar rather than 8 ounces sugar.) If you become truly passionate about baking, consider investing in a scale. Weight measurements are the most accurate and are commonly used in advanced recipes and international cookbooks.
To measure liquids: Set the spouted cup on a level counter, bend at the knees so you are at eye level with the lines on the cup and pour the ingredient right up to the line indicating the amount needed. Keep in mind: Liquid measuring cups often include volume measurements in ounces — don't confuse them with weight measurements in ounces. A recipe with weight measurements requires a scale.
To measure dry ingredients: Use the spoon-and-sweep method. Spoon the flour or other dry ingredient into a measuring cup, filling it generously above the rim of the cup. Then, run the back of a knife over the edge to sweep the excess back into the container. Don't be tempted to scoop out the flour with the measuring cup. It will become compacted, giving you more flour than called for and producing a dense, dry cake. Likewise, don't tap the filled cup on the counter, because the flour will settle. If you top it off, you'll end up with too much.
If the recipe calls for "1 cup sifted flour," first sift the flour and then measure it. If it calls for "1 cup flour, sifted," measure the flour by the spoon-and-sweep method, then sift it. It may seem subtle, but in the cake world, it can make the difference between ethereal and leaden. A fine-mesh strainer is more than adequate for sifting. Keep in mind that even flour labeled as "presifted" on the package needs sifting. Before adding the wet ingredients, use a whisk to mix together your flour, salt and spices to make sure they are evenly distributed.
Bringing Ingredients to Temperature
The temperature and consistency of ingredients can also improve — or destroy — the texture of a cake. Many recipes call for softened butter. Use it, especially for creaming (see below). When butter is softened, it is pliable enough to beat but can maintain its structure so it can trap and hold air (the secret to a fluffy cake). Butter that's too cold and firm — or warm and slack — won't, resulting in a flat or dense cake. How to get the right temp? Take butter out of the fridge 45 minutes before you need it. When it's soft enough to hold a light thumbprint, you're ready to go. (Cutting it into pieces speeds things up.) You can also warm butter in a microwave on reduced power, though it's very easy to overdo and can cause uneven melting, so use it only as a last resort. Eggs should also be at room temperature. Place them in a bowl of warm water for 5 minutes to warm them up.
Cake recipes often call for beating, or creaming, butter with sugar for several minutes — sometimes up to 10. Although it can be tempting to cut this step short, particularly when you're using a hand mixer, it's important to stick with it. This beating is where the texture and structure of a cake is made. Air is a vital ingredient in cakes, and it takes time to properly incorporate it into the batter. As you beat, the butter will lighten in color and you should see it increase in volume in the bowl.
Eggs should also be beaten until light and foamy. They should lighten in color and fall in a thick ribbon when the beater is lifted out of the bowl. If the recipe calls for adding eggs one at a time, make sure each one is fully incorporated before adding the next.
When incorporating dry ingredients into a batter, it is important not to overmix (another cause of tough cakes). The best way? Fold instead of stir. Here's how: Use the broad side of a silicone spatula, and drag it like an oar moving through water to suspend the dry ingredients in the batter. Turn the bowl regularly to make sure you bring the ingredients together evenly. Use the same technique when incorporating beaten egg whites, whipped cream and other wet ingredients that are light and airy.
Allow at least 20 minutes for your oven to preheat; it's best to turn the oven on before you start working on your recipe. Keep in mind that ovens differ and every oven has hot spots. Your best bet for even baking is to position a rack in the center of the oven and rotate the position of your pans partway through after the cake has begun to set. Opening the oven door too often can make a cake fall, so use the window in your oven door to check the cake's progress when possible. Check for doneness 10 minutes before the recipe suggests. For most recipes, a cake is ready when it starts pulling away from the sides of the pan and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
Cakes cool faster and don't get soggy when set out on a rack. Leave them in the pans for 10 to 15 minutes before unmolding, then place on a rack to cool completely before frosting. Angel, chiffon and sponge cakes should be left in the pan to prevent collapsing.
To divide a cake into layers, run a serrated knife lightly around the perimeter of the cake, marking the line where to cut. Then draw the knife through the cake with a gentle sawing motion to cut it in half. If the layers come out uneven, put the thicker one on the bottom.
Store unfrosted cakes, well wrapped in plastic, at room temperature for 24 hours. Refrigerating cakes causes them to stale faster, so for long-term storage it's best to freeze them. Wrap the layers in plastic wrap and then heavy-duty foil to protect them from the cold; let thaw in the refrigerator before frosting. To store frosted cakes, keep at room temperature under a cake dome or large bowl unless the recipe specifies refrigeration. For cut cakes, press a piece of plastic wrap against the exposed surface to keep in moisture.