As many of you know, I (Wendy-the-non-cake-maker) am presently trying to master the science of baking in order to make my best friend’s wedding cake next month (eeeek!). Despite having purchased the aptly named Cake Bible and having read it cover to cover, all is not going smoothly. In what way? you ask. In many ways, I tell you.
Humour me whilst I tell you about a conversation D and I had last week.
On reading what promised to be a crucial section of my new baking book, I burst into tears. One too many people had politely suggested I order a cake from the bakery and one too many of my baking attempts had been entirely inedible. The nail in the coffin was the following paragraph:
“The larger the pan size, the less baking powder is used in proportion to other ingredients. This is because of surface tension. The larger the diameter of the pan, the slower the heat penetration and the less support the rising cake receives because the sides are farther from the centre. Baking powder weakens the cake’s structure by enlarging the air spaces, so decreasing the baking powder strengthens the structure and compensates for the retarded gelatinization and the decrease in support.”
No matter how many times I read and re-read it, it made absolutely no sense to me whatsoever. It appeared to be suggesting that something big required less baking powder and that sounded like madness to me. Seeing my distress and knowing me well enough to understand it was caused by sheer frustration rather than any real ailment, D asked if he could help.
“Well, not unless you can tell me what this crap means!” I sobbed and read him the paragraph.
After listening carefully D breezily announced that the writer was, as she had stated, talking about the principles of surface tension and that it was really a simple concept. Sceptically, I listened to my science teacher boyfriend’s explantion. It seems that the smaller an object is the greater its surface area proportionally.
“Think of an elephant.” D explained. “Imagine the amount of skin required to cover an elephant but also imagine just how much matter is inside. Now think of a mouse and how much skin it has on the outside but how little is inside it.”
“But it’s smaller.” I was confused.
“Ok, think of how many acrobatic circus mice it would take to stand on top of one another and balance in formation to make an elephant sized, elephant shaped structure.”
I imagined that and giggled.
“In that structure”, he continued, “there’s a lot more skin or surface area, isn’t there? Think of all those mice…”
Suddenly it became clear. Baking powder makes cakes airy and big cakes can’t cope with too much air beacause their surfaces are (proportionally) smaller giving them less support. Therefore you need less baking powder (proportionally) to make an elephant than you do to make a mouse. Eureka!
Buoyed by my new understanding of baking I decided to take on the cake challenge yet again. I had a lovely sounding recipe for “white butter cake” and I had made a list of hints from the exceptionally knowledgably Ms Levy Beranbaum. Unfortunately, implementing all of her advice was not as simple as I had hoped.
Use aluminium cake pans – Couldn’t find those.
Make sure the cake pan is the same height as the cake you want to make – couldn’t find those either.
Make sure your baking powder is not out of date – that baking powder has a shelf life was new to me. Checked my tin and, yup, expired 2005. Bought new stuff.
Use “cake flour” – this doesn’t exist in the UK. I used Tipo ’00 instead. It’s very fine.
Make sure all ingredients are room temperature – ok doke.
Ensure your oven is the right temperature – checked and it is.
Rub cake tin with clarified butter, dust with flour and line the bottom with baking paper.
Cook cake in the centre of the oven.
When cooking large butter cakes ensure you cool them thoroughly before turning out.
With all this good advice and a carefully worked out recipe (more about that another day), I felt sure my next baking attempt could not go wrong. But go wrong it did. See for yourself.
What went wrong? The answer lies in the last three hints I gleaned from Ms Levy Beranbaum. Firstly, my oven was too small to accomodate both cake tins at the same time resulting in one cake being cooked on top but not on the bottom and the other being cooked on the bottom but not on top. Secondly, I forgot to put the baking paper in and the sponge stuck to the tin making the last hint redundant. :-S
On the bright side, knowing where I went wrong means I know what to correct and the parts of the sponge that cooked well were absolutely delicious. That’s progress!
Trying again tomorrow. Watch this space…