How To: Bake Better at Home
Nothing beats a homemade cake and to avoid a flop you need more than just a good recipe.
GETTING THE RIGHT MIXTURE
A cake’s texture depends on the ratio of ingredients used and the method in which they’re mixed.
Flours are sold pre-sifted these days, so there’s usually no sifting required. But there are exceptions – flour for sponges should be sifted to aerate it and ensure a light-textured cake, while flour mixes containing spices, cocoa powder and bicarbonate of soda require sifting to guarantee a good blend and to remove any lumps.
The creaming method
Creaming the butter and sugar (by beating them together until almost white in colour) before adding the rest of the ingredients incorporates more air and results in a light-textured cake. Take care not to overbeat after you add the eggs and flour as this can produce a heavy, coarse-textured cake.
The melting method
This technique relies on a melted mixture of butter, sugar and treacle for moistness, and bicarbonate of soda for lightness. Measure the treacle accurately as too much will result in a heavy cake. The bicarb will begin to work as soon as the ingredients are mixed together, so you’ll need to move quickly.
Recipes are designed for specific cake pans, so it’s important to use the stated size. Greasing and flouring or lining the pan with non-stick baking paper will prevent the cake from sticking.
An accurate oven temperature is vital, so if you do a lot of baking an oven thermometer is a good investment. Fan-forced ovens are hotter than conventional ones, so reduce the temperature by 10-20C. For even cooking, centre the pan in the lower third of the oven so the top of the cake is in the middle of the oven. The cake is cooked when it begins to shrink from the sides of the pan and the top springs back when lightly tapped. As a final check, insert a skewer into the centre of the cake – it should come out free of cake mix and moisture. If it doesn’t, bake for a further 5 minutes then try again.
Cakes are fragile when they’re removed from the oven, so leave them in the pan for five minutes before turning onto a wire rack to cool. (Don’t leave it any longer or it will sweat and the crust will go soggy.) If the cake is stuck, run a flat-bladed knife around the inside of the pan. Remove non-stick baking paper immediately.
Ice the cooled cake on a wire rack over a sheet of baking paper. Elevating the cake stops icing pooling around its bottom, while the baking paper catches any drips. Work quickly or the icing will begin to set.
Use fresh, medium-sized eggs (55-60g) and take them out of the fridge at least one hour before baking to bring to room temperature.
Use butter at room temperature – it’s easier to work with and facilitates aeration. To quickly soften butter, simply zap it in the microwave for 20 seconds or grate it.
Milks & sour creams
Always use buttermilk, milk or sour cream at room temperature to prevent curdling and separation of the mixture.
Self-raising flour contains a raising agent, but if you only have plain flour on hand, add 2 tsp of baking powder to 1 cup of plain flour.
This is what gives the cake its structure. For a finer texture, use caster or soft brown sugars, which cream easily.