Saturday, December 4, 2010

Cakes from scratch 101

Cheap Eat Challenge Count Down: 28 days

There's a food gift my mother gave me: She always made our birthday cakes from scratch. I didn't know you could get something like a cake from a box until high school or maybe even college. Each year we got to pick the kind of cake we wanted (as well as a dinner of our choice). Mom would make it and even if it wasn't gorgeous (Mom was a busy woman), they always tasted great.

When I got married I wanted to repeat that tradition, but I'll be darned if I could ever get my cakes to come out. Their biggest problem was that most often they were dry. My husband loved chocolate, but aside from the indestructible wacky cake (I'll get a recipe up for that at some point in time; we love it), I just couldn't get them quite right. And I wanted to. I had visions of layers cakes--stacks of sweet, moist, just-the-right-amount-of-dense cakes. In those first years of marriage, I tried dozens of recipes--truly we ate an obscene amount of cake. I started with my Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook, which I will not even link to because it stinks, and not just regarding cake. I moved on to, which was more helpful. And finally, I discovered a few good food blogs, which paved my way. And now I make really good cake. In fact, if I had to pick the cooking thing that I feel is my strongest suit, it would be cake (which unfortunately happens to be neither high in vitamins, nor low in sugar or fat, and which is not edible for breakfast, unless of course you happen to be the birthday girl/boy).

Today we had a birthday party for my sweet oldest girl. She requested the same cake Daddy had for his birthday, namely the sheet cake from pioneerwoman. It's an excellent cake. Which I made in an excellent way. If I do say so myself.

There are a lot of tips out there for cake. You'll hear that sifting the dry ingredients is the key, or using sour cream or perhaps crossing your pinky toes. And I'm not saying those are bad things to do, but they're a little too prescriptive and as with most things prescriptive, they're not full-proof. Using sour cream isn't going to fix a bad recipe, if you know what I mean. And so, I offer a few of my own tips, which I believe WILL make your cakes perfect every time.

The Tasty Cheapskate's Tips for a Fabulous Cake

1. Use a good recipe. I know that that seems like a bit of a no-brainer, but for me it was practically the hardest part. Why? Because many of the "standard" cookbooks (i.e. the kind you're likely to be given as a newlywed) such as Better Homes and Gardens and Betty Crocker have the worst cake recipes possible. And why is that? You've got me. Perhaps they're just coasting along on reputation. Perhaps they haven't figured out that shortening a) is not cool anymore and b) never made a good cake anyway. Perhaps (and here's my favorite theory) it's a conspiracy so that they can convince the general population that it really is impossible to bake a perfect cake so you'll have to buy the cake mixes that they've sold their good name to. In all fairness, maybe the newest editions of these cookbooks are better, but the one I got 9 years ago is crap and with all the great food information out there for free, there's no way I'm giving them another shot. Wow. Who knew I had all that pent up anger in there about that? I guess that's what happens when you waste several good holidays with a bad cake.

So, how to find a good recipe? A good cake recipe does not involve shortening or margarine. Ever. You'll need one with oil or butter and perhaps some sour cream thrown in. Generally speaking, it's easier to get a moist cake with an oil-based recipe. Cooks love butter because it adds more flavor, as truly it does, but if you're new to cake baking or looking for something more fail-proof, go with a recipe that uses oil as its main fat. If you do use butter, I believe it helps to melt it (but that's one of those prescriptive things, so follow your gut there). (Don't ever follow your gut if it's telling you to use a recipe with shortening. If that's the case, your gut has been brain-washed, uh--gut-washed, whatever. Just don't do it.) Buttermilk is generally a good sign. Also, a combination of buttermilk and baking soda or vinegar and baking soda are good signs. (The soda reacts with the vinegar or buttermilk to create bubbly moistness in your cakes. Some people can taste a bit of the vinegar so if you have a super taster, be warned. I can never taste it and I have a very good taster, though not a superhero one.)

Some good sources for great cakes are (this woman has given me my best chocolate cake ever and for that I am forever indebted to her; she also has several other amazing ones such as the peanut butter one we had for our anniversary and a great strawberry one), (the best sheet cake ever), and Sky High: Irresistable Triple Layer Cakes.

2. Don't overbake your cake. Again, this is a no-brainer, but again--some recipes are just way off. Also, some ovens are a bit off. I always check my cakes at half the baking time. That's right, half. And you would be surprised at how many cakes I've taken out at that point; a few have even been a bit overdone. Who develops these recipes anyway? Aliens? People on crystal meth? CEO's of large non-cooking related companies who aren't even quite sure where their kitchens might be in their extremely large houses? Most likely we will never know. Let's just hope those aliens (or CEO's) never take over our planet, because we'll be stuck eating rock-like substances for the rest of our lives. So, yes, check your cakes early. And use a timer, for Pete's sake. And don't ignore the timer when it goes off because you set it for half the bake time and you're sure the cake couldn't be ready yet. Not that I'm speaking from experience or anything.

To check your cake for doneness, do not wait until it pulls away from the sides or is super springy to the touch. Please do not wait. (Perhaps it can just begin to pull away from the sides. Perhaps it has a bit of spring, but still leaves an indent.) To test your cake for doneness, I have only one very good method and it is, unfortunately, a violent one. You must stab it with a knife. Stick it right in the middle and take it out (this isn't necessary if your cake is jiggling, but if it's not jiggling even if it doesn't LOOK done, stick the knife in). If it comes out with batter, it's not done; give it a few more minutes (a few is not 10; a few is most likely 1 or 2 unless the knife is just dripping with batter). If it comes out with a few moist crumbs (crumbs, not globs) or nothing at all, take it out. I repeat, take it out. It will cook a bit after. Just take it out. You know it's not raw in the middle. And really, that's all you need to know.

3. Wax Paper. If you're making a layer cake, line the bottom of your pans with wax or parchment paper. I know it's a pain in your sweet, cakey posterior to cut them out, but do it anyway. Then grease them. (Some say to grease the pan, then add the wax paper, then grease again--I'll leave that up to you, but with wax paper, you at least need to give it a good greasing after it's down.) If you want to coat it with flour or your recipe says to coat it with flour, be my guest, but do use that paper no matter what else you do. Why? Because I have spilled many a tear over my perfectly good cake being perfectly stuck to it's pan. That is not a good reason for tears in this day and age. Cut out the wax paper.

This also helps out if you forget to turn your cake out of the pan after it's cooled for 10 minutes or so. Note: You should turn your cake out after 10 mintues or so because otherwise the cake is significantly harder to remove. However, I also know--because I have 4 children and perhaps only a 10th or so of functioning brain--that turning out your cake is another thing to remember when you've already pulled it together long enough to make an entire cake from scratch (good job). If you do forget to turn your cake out, the wax or parchment paper will help.

4. Don't leave your cake out all day uncovered. Once it's cooled, you can and should cover it with plastic wrap or put it in some type of cake holder/tupperware thing. If it's still warm and you need to leave the house or want to ignore and forget about the cake for a while, just throw a clean dish towel over it.

5. Cakes freeze well. If you need a cake, but have a busy day(s) ahead of you, make it early, let it cool, wrap it very well, and freeze it. It actually makes it easier to frost and the flavors and/or textures of some cakes even benefit from this type of aging.

6. A word on frosting. A good cake doesn't really need a frosting. But if we're talking about needs, we shouldn't be talking about cake, right? A good cake often wants a frosting. And cake and frosting can have a very mutually beneficial relationship. I believe frosting helps lock in (and perhaps provide) moisture. Also, it provides a textural compliment to your cake. Also, it can provide a nice visual for your cake. Also, where else will your children stick the M & M's. Also, what else is going to go between the 3 layers. Yum.

And now I have something controversial to say. A lot of frostings out there these days are sort of like runny-ish ganaches. (In my America's Test Kitchen Cookbook, I'm hard-pressed to find anything else in the chocolate frosting/icing/glaze department). And heaven knows, I have nothing against ganache. I hope (should I make it that far) to find plenty of it in heaven. However. I don't believe it should be the main frosting on a cake. Oh sure, if you want to pour a bit (or a lot) over your other frosting, go ahead, it'll taste fabulous and it'll look just as good. But the thing about ganache or ganache-like frostings as the only frosting is that they don't bind with your cake the way other frostings do. It kind of sits drape-like and separate from the cake. This can also be true of some caramel frostings (which I also certainly have nothing against). I like my cake and frosting to meld. Uh-huh. Because of this, I tend to favor three types of frosting: 1) Buttercream frostings (base of butter and milk and/or cream plus powdered sugar) like this chocolate or this vanilla, 2) Cream cheese frostings (base of cream cheese and butter plus powdered sugar), and 3) Flour, milk, and sugar frostings (bizarre cooked frostings where milk is combined with flour and cooked until it looks alarmingly like paper mache, at which point granulated sugar is added. It's surprisingly surprisingly good. We use it on our red velvet cakes and our wacky cakes). There are other types of frosting to be sure, and they are good--sour cream frostings (too grown up for me), marshmallow frosting (separates if not eaten soon enough). But my three favorite types of frosting will never do you wrong. In fact, if you use them, your cake has a good chance of tasting even better on day two. Melding, baby, melding.

7. One final word on frostings. If you're putting it between the layers of a cake, you probably want it to be substantial--no marshmallow frostings, whipped frostings, mousse frostings. Those look super gorgeous on the outside of your cake, but will be crushed in the layers of your cake and you'll wind up with a big 3-layer mound of cake and something that looks like it may once have been frosting, though you can't quite be sure, in between. I've noticed that plenty of cookbooks call for this sort of thing between layers. Sometimes they're even accompanied by a pretty picture. That picture is a lie. Your cake will smash your light, fluffy whipped frosting. So use it on the outside unless of course you like three-layer mounds of cake (I'm okay with that).

And now, in the ignominious words of Marie Antoinette, "Let them eat cake." And you too.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. mmmm, that looks yummy! better than wacky cake with chocolately frosting? i'll have to give it a try!

  3. hey, what is the link for this strawberry cake that you made from smitten kitchen? i need a strawberry cake, stat, and most of the recipes that i am finding are made out of a cake mix!

    1. Bossy bossy, little sister. It's this. I think it'd be better with the cake just cooked without the strawberries and then the strawberries with sugar added afterwards.

  4. I had to check these out after seeing your flower decorated cake. I'm looking for a really yummy snack sized cake (yellow). I usually make mayonnaise cake when I make chocolate cake or cupcakes and just half the recipe. And I HAD recipe for a delicious snack sized yellow cake but my paper recipes are a disaster and I can't find it. Wondered if you would have a moist yellow snack sized cake recipe. That would make one layer or 12 cupcakes.

    All of my little birds have left the nest and my husband and I certainly don't need a whole cake sitting around... but that's not to say that I don't still love dessert as often as I can get it.

    Thank you!

    1. I am still on a quest for a perfect yellow cake. I have a white, chocolate, coconut, and red velvet that I consider perfection, but yellow is still eluding me. Let me know if you find the perfect one.



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