If you are familiar with our Test Kitchen, you know that two of my co-workers are Robin Bashinsky and Adam Hickman. These guys are great on the savory, or hot, side of the kitchen. But when it comes to the sweet side, they can be challenged. My degree from The Culinary Institute of America is in Baking and Pastry Arts, so I have a real advantage over them when developing or preparing dessert recipes. However, when it comes to preparing a recipe with fish, they win, no doubt about it.
Some of the questions and comments I hear from Robin and Adam when they are baking include:
a) “What’s up with demanding room temperature butter? Put it in the microwave for a minute and get on with it.”
b) “Light and fluffy? Come on, just throw everything in a mixer, crank it up to high for a couple of minutes, and call it a day. What’s the difference?”
c) “I’ve had this bag of flour for about a year, but that really doesn’t matter, does it?”
Baking a cake is just as much about chemistry and chemical reactions as it is about celebrating a birthday. So even though I don’t have a degree in food science, I can give you a few tips for a more successful baking experience.
I know it may be elementary to say it, but using fresh ingredients will make a huge difference in the flavor and overall appearance of your cake. If you have ever eaten something you forgot about in the freezer, you recognize the dull, flat, lifeless flavor that can happen to perfectly good food. Loss of flavor — or even worse, absorbing off flavors — can happen to flour, butter, and sugar. Using real vanilla extract and quality chocolate will take your cake from ho-hum to OMG! delicious. Make your labor of love something memorable with the best and freshest ingredients possible.
There are many components of cake baking, and temperature contributes to just about all of them. Room temperature butter ranges from 60°F to 70°F. Why is this important? Because butter at this temperature will incorporate more air during the creaming process and provides more height to your cake. A tall proud cake is so much more appealing than a squatty one. After all, we eat with our eyes first. (Find out how to get your softened butter just right.)
Room temperature eggs range from 70°F to about 90°F. As you know, eggs are gradually added to the creamed butter and sugar mixture and form an emulsion. (Think about mixing vinaigrette — you want perfectly blended oil/vinegar mixture on your salad, no vinegary bites.) If your eggs are too cold, they can cause the butter to firm up into little lumps. These little butter lumps will create holes in your cake because as the butter lumps melt, steam forms, and holes are left behind.
If you are an occasional baker and store your flour in the freezer, be sure to let it come to room temperature before making your cake. Cold flour will react differently (read: poorly) with the absorption of liquids, distribution of leavening ingredients, and in the oven during baking.
And finally, your oven. Get to know your oven well. Are there hot spots? Is the back hotter than the front? Is the temperature accurate? Invest in an oven thermometer, and take the time to investigate. Set the oven to 350°F and place the thermometer in various locations for 10 minutes at a time to see how evenly and accurate your oven heat is. Make adjustments as necessary, like rotating the cake pans halfway through baking to help even out the baking process.
By following these few simple tips, your next baking project will be the best ever, I promise. But if you want to know how to take the skin off of a salmon, just ask Robin or Adam. They are the experts.