There was a time when a cake meant a special celebration – a wedding, birthday, festival, a welcome or a farewell. It still does; especially a tiered cake festooned with intricate icing, or a chocolate gateau slathered with cream and dotted with jewelled cherries. Today, with the proliferation of tabletop ovens, high-end kitchen ranges and time- and energy-saving devices, one can whip up a cake and have it in and out of the oven quicker than it would take to drive to the nearest confectionery to buy one! And it would be delicious too!
Not rocket science
Contrary to popular fears, baking is neither difficult nor doomed to failure for first-timers. There is a bit of chemistry that goes into the production of a well-risen, light-textured cake. As with all cooking, you need good quality ingredients in the right quantities, and need to follow a few basic steps in the right order to get the best results. The basic ingredients for cooking cakes are plain flour (it contains gluten which provides body and strength to the structure), fat, sugar, eggs (to provide flavour, moisture and lightness), raising agents like baking powder and sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) to aerate the cake, salt, essences and other ingredients to give the cake flavour and texture, like cocoa, vanilla, instant coffee granules, dried fruit, coconut, fruit pulp and sometimes, a little liquid like milk or fruit juice to lighten the batter.
the order of things
As with all things scientific, precision is everything; so begin by cleaning, washing and preparing ingredients beforehand. Make sure all the ingredients are at room temperature, especially the eggs and butter. Measure all the ingredients after cleaning, using a set of measuring cups or spoons, or a weighing scale. Use one set of measures throughout the recipe e.g. grams, ounces or spoons/cups.
All measures are level, so do not heap the ingredients unless specified. Turn on the oven to the required temperature and position the rack in the centre of the oven, before you start mixing the batter. It should be put into the oven as soon as it is prepared. Grease the cake tins with melted butter or plain vegetable oil, and line the cake tins with greaseproof paper cut to size, so the batter can go straight into them as soon as it is mixed.
step by step
The first step is to sift the flour and baking powder together to make sure the raising agent is evenly distributed and the mixture is aerated. Creaming the fat and sugar till pale and fluffy ensures a smooth and light batter.
Do not hurry this step – your patience will be rewarded. Scrape the sides of the bowl with a spatula from time to time. Beating the eggs in emulsifies the batter, making it smooth and creamy and ready to receive the flour, which should be gently folded in so as to not disturb or break the air bubbles caused by all the beating.
Tenderness is called for here, and more of it, if you have to fold in other dry ingredients like dried fruit and nuts. Alternating the dry ingredients with a little liquid helps the process. One-bowl methods require less time and beating, and the results are almost as good. Dry and wet ingredients are assembled in separate bowls and then mixed together, beating vigorously to combine. This method is recommended for the time-challenged or nervous baker, who just wants to bake a cake in an instant, without resorting to those packaged mixes.
As soon as all the ingredients have been mixed, pour or spoon the batter into the prepared cake tin. Smooth the surface lightly with a spatula to even it out. Pop it straight into the oven and bake for the recommended time. You will know the cake is done first by the divine aroma that will waft through your home, then by the sight of it all risen and golden, and finally, by inserting a wooden skewer or toothpick into the middle. If it comes out without any wet matter clinging to it, your cake is ready. If the batter is still slightly wet, close the oven and bake for a few
Take the cake out of the oven, using oven mitts or gloves, and place on a wire rack. Do not be in a hurry to turn it out – it is very fragile and needs to recover from all the heat. Leave the cake to stand for about 10-15 minutes and then gently turn it out. Turn onto its base and leave on the wire rack to cool till completely cold. The wire rack is important to allow the air to circulate all around the cake and to prevent it from getting a soggy bottom.
There you have it – a beautifully risen, golden, scrumptious cake that you can be proud of!
All dressed up
Icing or frosting is what gives a cake pizzazz! The simplest, plainest sponge cake can become a creature of beauty and delight, when draped in luscious icing. The simplest of all icings is glacé icing; which is just icing sugar, a drop or two of food colour and a tiny amount of water or fruit juice. Liquid ingredients must be added in half teaspoonfuls, as the icing or confectioners’ sugar needs the smallest quantity to liquefy. Too much liquid will prevent the icing from setting. A knob of butter will make it a little more creamy and spreadable, but you need to use the icing immediately, or it will set hard.
Buttercream icing , which is a popular icing, is made by creaming the butter with sugar and then adding flavourings and milk and is perfect for piping into patterns. Ganache, or chocolate icing, is made with melted chocolate and cream, and adds glamour to the simplest chocolate cake. Other professional icings like royal icing, fondant, marzipan etc. require practice and patience.
Look out for recipes for celebration cakes and gâteaux in forthcoming issues of CookeryPlus. In the meanwhile, the recipes provided here are for simple, foolproof, delicious cakes, guaranteed to bring you satisfaction and praise when you ‘rise’ to the occasion.