It’s a Piece of Cake

I’d like to start out by dispelling a myth that pervades many kitchens:  baking a cake from scratch does NOT have to be difficult.  But those fancy cakes from the bakery seem way too beautiful and tasty to pull off at home, right?  Do you know what they have that you don’t have?  Courage…(no, no, no….I just watched the Wizard of Oz recently, and I still have lines, lyrics, and tunes coursing through my veins).  Okay, maybe a little courage is useful (as well as a brain, a heart, and a home), but if baking is totally new to you and seems a bit intimidating, what often makes bakery cakes so good is simply a good recipe.

Technique also comes into play when baking a cake from scratch, and there certainly are some types of cakes that require more advanced skills than the novice baker may possess.  But, with a few basic tips to follow, many recipes can become fool-proof and will produce delicious and beautiful results every time.

The following recipe is one from the treasure chest of Olive, a beloved neighbor and seasoned baker, and it’s a wonderful choice for a birthday cake, cupcakes for school events, or just an anytime dessert.

But, first, some tips for the baking newbies…

For making the perfect batter:

  1. Let all cold ingredients come to room temperature (e.g. butter, eggs, milk), unless the recipe specifies otherwise.
  2. Do not rush the creaming of fat and sugar.  Beat it until it becomes light and fluffy, and all the sugar is incorporated.
  3. Do not rush the beating of eggs.  This is what gives cakes, cookies, etc., a lot of their volume.  See the picture to the right for an example of what it should look like.
  4. Measure carefully – a little variance of ingredients in most cake recipes can completely change the results.  Once you are an experienced baker, you can add a little, cut a little, to achieve different results.  But for now, just follow the directions.

For easy removal of cakes from baking pans:

  1. Grease and flour cake pans generously and thoroughly.  The wrappers from the used butter are perfect for greasing pans.  Next sprinkle flour around all parts of the pan, then bang one side of it on the palm of one hand while holding it with the other to shake the flour around, kind of like playing a tambourine.
  2. Line the bottom of the cake pans with parchment paper to further assist in easy removal of the cake once baked and cooled.  Just trace the outside bottom of the pan on the paper, and cut just inside your markings for a perfect fit.  (By the way, do NOT use wax paper – it is not the same.)
  3. Allow the cakes to cool completely before removing them from the pans.

For producing a perfectly baked cake:

  1. Some ovens leak a lot of heat, which makes the back a lot hotter than the front.  If this describes yours, you may need to rotate the cake halfway through the baking time.
  2. Allow the cakes their own time in the oven rather than doing double duty and sticking it in with that casserole for dinner.
  3. Place cake pans on a rack in the top third of the oven, but not the very top.
  4. Toothpick test – stick a toothpick in the center of your cake to see if it’s done.  If liquid batter still sticks, it needs more time.  If crumbs appear on your toothpick, it may be over-done and too dry.
  5. Another way to tell if a cake is done is to see if the center is firm yet, or if it still jiggles at all.  You can also lightly press the top with your fingertip – if it bounces back immediately, it’s probably done.
  6. Keep in mind that each time you open your oven, much of  the heat is lost (I’ve heard estimates of 25-30%).  And every time that you pull the cake out to test it, it stops cooking.  This can lead to a cake with a burnt edge and soft center – yuk!  So be diligent about the cooking, and resist the temptation to check once a minute for the last five minutes of baking time.

Buttermilk Cake

Ingredients:

  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 1/4 cups buttermilk
  • 1 cup butter (2 sticks)
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 3 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoon vanilla
  • zest from 2 lemons (optional)

Add the baking soda to the buttermilk in a medium bowl and set aside.  The mixture will foam a little.  Cream the butter and sugar, then add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each.  Mix in alternately the flour and buttermilk mixture.  Then add the vanilla and lemon zest.

Line with parchment paper, grease and flour two nine-inch cake pans.  Bake at 350° for 25-30 minutes.  I also get 10 standard cupcakes from this recipe.

Frosting:

Here’s a little secret about bakery-style frosting — you know, that light and creamy frosting that tops the cakes from most grocery store bakeries?  It’s most likely made from vegetable shortening, which is a man-made fat of partially hydrogenated oils.  Its benefits are that it withstands temperature changes and does not spoil quickly, but there’s nothing natural or healthy about it.  So please, take pause, when you feel compelled to grab the piece of cake with towering frosting at the next birthday celebration you attend, if you don’t know who made the cake and what’s in it.

Smaller, independent bakeries (those outside of the grocery and big-box stores) tend to use better, more natural ingredients — so vanilla buttercream frosting will likely contain real vanilla, butter, and cream.

Don’t get me wrong, there is NOTHING healthy about cake frosting — it is pretty much all fat and sugar.  But this is why we don’t eat it every day, right?  And natural ingredients are most certainly a better bet for your body than the unnatural ones.

This being said, here is a basic recipe for a buttercream frosting.

  • 1 cup butter (2 sticks), room temperature
  • 3-4 cups powdered sugar, sifted
  • 1 vanilla bean, seeds scraped out, or 2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2-3 tablespoons of milk or cream

Directions:

Beat together the butter and one cup of the sugar in a mixer for one minute on low speed.  Add the salt, two tablespoons of the cream, vanilla beans or extract, and then, gradually, two more cups of sugar.  Increase the speed and beat until light and even.  Add more sugar or cream to reach your desired consistency.

I like to use real vanilla bean in buttercream frosting because I love the flavor and the look of the little seeds in the finished product.  Sometimes I go overboard and use both the seeds and one teaspoon of vanilla extract.  It just makes it a little extra special.

Assembling the Cake

Carefully remove the round cakes from their pans.  To do this, first use a flat utensil (preferably plastic, so you don’t scrape your metal pans) to fully separate the cake from the sides of the pan.  Although, with the coating of grease and flour, the cakes should have mostly pulled away from the sides by the end of the baking time.  If you used parchment paper on the bottom, it should come out easily now.  If not, use your spatula to gently lift the cake away from the bottom of the pan without any of it sticking.  Once it is all loose, invert a plate on the top of the pan, turn it over, and it’s out!

If your cakes are domed (rounded on the top), trim a bit off the tops with a sharp knife to make them flat and even.

To frost your cake, it’s best to use either an off-set or flat spatula, but in a pinch, a butter knife will even do.  Smear a small dollop of frosting in the center of your cake plate — this is so that the cake does not slide around if it has to travel.   Place one of the cakes with the bottom up on the cake plate.  Scoop about 2/3 cup of the frosting gently onto the center of the cake.  Using your spatula, press the frosting carefully out to the sides, being careful to not allow crumbs to be lifted.  Add more frosting, if needed, to completely cover the top of the bottom layer.  Next, carefully lay the second cake on top, again, bottom side up.  Frost the second layer in the same way as the first, covering the sides, as well.

Don’t worry if the cake, at this point, doesn’t look quite as pretty as the store cakes.  If you are artistically talented, perhaps it looks lovely, but if you’re like me, you may want something up your sleeve to finish it off.  An easy way to make a cake look beautiful is to sprinkle the entire thing with shredded coconut.  Not a coconut fan?  Try lining the top perimeter with thin strawberry slices (and even including a few strawberry slices between the cake layers).  Let the cake be your canvas, and only goodness can result.

Ok, you may be reading through this entire post, thinking to yourself, “hey, I thought they said this was uncomplicated.”  Trust us, it is. Baking is a delicate art, which is mastered once one knows all the subtleties.  But, honestly, it only requires a few more measurements on your part to forgo the box and bake from scratch. And believe us, the results are a million times more delicious.  Baking can be a real joy.  As with just about everything in life, the more you practice, the better you will become.  So whip out your mixing bowls and spatulas, and get baking!!!

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