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Cake baking can be a challenge at any experience level and there is always some mystery to negotiate in the kitchen whether that be a soggy mess, a parched creation or a disaster that is best relegated to the scrap heap. However there is hope in the wisdom of others, so below we share our wisdom drawn from tackling 5 of the most common cake baking problems.
WHIPPING EGG WHITES
Egg whites are fragile, and the older the egg the more fragile the white will be. You would have probably noticed that an egg of questionable age when cracked releases a lot of water. These eggs will never form stiff or even soft peaks as the protein that provides the structure in meringue is almost completely broken down. Using the freshest eggs possible is key to fantastically whipped whites, but it doesn’t end there…
Those delicate protein strands that form the white have to be preserved through the whipping process. Adding a pinch of salt can help you form incredibly stiff peaks for making recipes like meringue kisses. The salt strengthens the protein strands by binding to them and making them more elastic. Your mixer should be set to a speed just above medium setting. Even with planetary mixers a whisk that spins too fast will bash the proteins strands out of existence. You can also add a 14 teaspoon of cream of tartar. Cream of tartar is a denaturing agent that transforms the egg white proteins from stiff and fragile into stretchy strands. This is necessary for incorporating as much air as possible resulting in a light and fluffy meringue.
HOT TIP: If your meringue has collapsed in the bowl and returned to a liquid you should throw it away and start again. There is no rescuing that mess!
FOLDING BETTER BATTER
So you’ve whipped your egg white and your recipe asks you to fold the mix into your cake batter. ATTENTION: DO NOT STIR! The action of folding egg whites into a cake batter mix should be just like folding a sheet. You lift and turn one layer on top of another. Make a quarter turn of the bowl and then fold again. Repeat these steps until your egg whites and other ingredient are incorporated.
The main obstacle you are trying to avoid here is crushing your whites and releasing the air as you fold them into the mix. Stirring your mix stretches those lovely webbed proteins to the point where not even the salt or the cream of tartar can hold them together. Burst bubbles = doorstop cake!
HOW TO TELL WHEN A CAKE IS BAKED
There are many indicators for knowing when a cake is cooked. One of the most popular, but not always the best method of testing whether a cake is baked is the skewer test. A clean skewer once removed means your cake is cooked, but it can also mean that the cake is overcooked as any state after the cooked point will produce a clean skewer.
Another method is the press test. Apply some light pressure to the top of your cake with a non-stick spatula and if it springs back nicely the cake is ready. If it takes a while to spring back (more than 2 seconds) your cake probably could do with a little more baking.
Our favourite method is purely visual and doesn’t involve opening the oven door. When a cake is cooked through it will begin to shrink away from the sides of the cake pan. While this method requires some close monitoring it will give an immediate indication that your cake is ready and avoids unnecessary incisions, fluctuations in oven temperature and the potential for the top crust of your cake coming away with your spatula.
CREATING A FLAT TOPPED CAKE
Take a 40-50cm length of aluminium foil and fold a 2cm wide pleat in it so that the foil is now a square shape. Place your foil over your cake pan and seal it onto the sides with a scrunching action. You will want to leave it a little loose so that your chimney can rise as high as possible. Once the foil is on the pan gently grab the pleat and raise it creating a dome or point over your cake. The pressure created in the chimney will force the rising centre of your cake back down resulting in a flat, easily decorated cake.
The second method of achieving a flat top is to get an old hand towel or thick tea towel and cut it into strips the same depth as your cake pan. It is recommended that you stich the ends together to create a single long length to wrap around the pan and then pin. Alternatively you can use silicon bands to hold the strips in place. Wet the strip(s) then wring to remove any excess moisture, then wrap them around your pan fastening them with a pin. The moisture helps keep the sides of the pan cool which in turn helps your cake both heat and rise more consistently. The best part is you can reuse your baking strips over and over again and will never have to suffer the burden of wonky cake tops and layer cakes.
KEEPING CAKES MOIST
Baking a moist cake and keeping it moist can be a challenge but there are some simple tricks and ingredient substitutions that can help you get by.
Avoid Overbaking – You can refer to ‘How to know when your cake is baked’ above for some methods for achieving this. It’s a good idea to check your cake 5 minutes before the recipe indicates it should be ready. Most home ovens vary widely in their actual temperature so your cake could be cooked well before the recipe suggests it should be.
If a recipe calls for milk or cream consider using sour cream. Not only will the extra fat in the sour cream keep your cake moist, but it will also enhance the flavours that you add. While we are on the topic of fats you could also consider adding a teaspoon to a tablespoon of vegetable oil to your cake mix. A standard chocolate cake mix can accommodate up to a tablespoon of vegetable oil.
Adequately creaming your butter and sugar is also important. You want your sugar and butter to form a white fluffy paste before you combine it with your other ingredients. This will help to incorporate air into the cake and also ensure that the fat of the butter is evenly distributed through the mix.
Cake recipes that call for eggs can sometimes become dry because of the egg white. If a recipe calls for 2 eggs for example you can add 1 whole egg and 2 eggs yolks. The difference this makes to the moistness of a cake is incredible. As a basic rule if you remove 1 white you need to add 1 yolk, however whites are important for creating volume in your cake mix. Using just yolks results in a dense cake that will not rise.
Cake decorators know that baking your cake 2 days prior to decorating will ensure a moist result. Similarly cupcakes can be baked a day before.
If your cake seems irreversibly dry you may want to consider using a pastry brush to apply a light coating of sugar syrup. Sugar syrup is simply a cup of sugar dissolved in a cup of simmering water. Let the cake and the syrup cool before you brush the syrup on.