What Exactly is a Cake
The early cakes were round as they evolved from bread and were shaped by hand and baked freeform. Early pans consisted of metal or wood hoops placed on metal sheets (metal hoops are still used in bakeries in France). The round shape also symbolized the sun and the moon. The Chinese Moon cake, for example, served as an offering to the moon goddess for the harvest; in Russia, blini were called sun cakes and honored the return of spring.
Present day cakes can have different shapes from round to rectangular, single layer to multi-tiered, domed or flat (from as low as ¼ inch to as high as 4 or more inches). They can have smooth surfaces or take on the imprint of the pan in which they were baked. Most striking is that such a variety of textures and flavors derive from so few basic ingredients. In fact, a good part of the appeal of cake is the magic or alchemy, in essence, of spinning flour, sugar, butter, and eggs into 'gold.'
Different Types of Cake
The basic categories of cake are: yeast cake, cheesecake (which is really custard), sponge cake (including flourless), butter or oil cake (including quick bread such as cranberry nut quick bread) which is baked in a loaf pan. Flourless cake falls under the sponge cake category and depends on well-beaten eggs or egg whites, ground nuts or chocolate (for example, a chocolate soufflé roll) for structure and texture.
The majority of cakes falls into the categories of butter cake, containing solid butter or other shortening, sponge-type cake, which has a high proportion of eggs to flour and melted butter or oil; and sponge-type cake, which contains no added fat or no fat at all.
The basic ingredients of cake baking fall into two categories: those that primarily provide structure, and those that primarily provide tenderness, moistness, and airiness. The ingredients that create the structure are flour and eggs, both of which contain proteins that coagulate when baked to form the framework of the cake. The starch contained in the flour also gelatinizes (absorbs water) and imparts additional stability. Liquid, in the form of water or dairy, enables the two proteins in flour to combine and form gluten, one of the major structural networks of the cake. (An excess of liquid, however, will cause the cake to collapse.)
The ingredients that primarily tenderize are fat, sugar, and leavening. They soften and weaken the cake's structure in varying ways. Butter not only adds flavor but also is an enhancer of other flavors, but when a cake made with butter is chilled the butter hardens and makes the crumb firm. Oil, which remains soft when refrigerated, is ideal in cakes that derive their flavor from other ingredients, like the spices in carrot cake, and that are best eaten chilled, especially those frosted with cream cheese, butter cream or whipped cream.
Sugar provides characteristic flavor, aeration and tenderness. Pancakes, however, can be sweetened (usually with syrup) after cooking -- their structure doesn't depend on sugar for texture.
Salt is employed in many cakes to heighten flavor.
Major Variables in Cake
The most significant difference in the final cake variety is based on the choice and proportion of ingredients, how they are mixed, the pans they are baked in, oven temperature, baking time and the way in which they are cooled.
Proportion of ingredients:
liquid: from 0% (lady fingers) to 52% (pancake)
egg: from 10% (basic butter cake) to 59% (sponge roll)
flour: from 13% (angel food cake) to 27% (basic layer cake)
sugar: from 0% (pancake) to 34% (angel food cake)
fat: from 0% (angel food cake) to 22% (pound cake)
How cake is mixed: Butter or oil cake is mixed by either the creaming of the butter and sugar method or the two stage (also referred to as the one bowl method) where all the dry ingredients including the sugar are combined with the fat and a small amount of the liquid before the egg and remaining liquid is added. (If using a stand mixer both methods use the paddle beater).
Sponge cake either involves beating the eggs and sugar separately until greatly increased in volume, or beating the egg whites and some of the sugar into a stiff meringue. In both methods the beaten egg mixture is then folded together with the remaining ingredients. (If using a stand mixer both methods for beating use the whisk attachment.)
Types of pans used for cake baking: Layer cake pans, layer cake pans set in water baths (surrounded by water), fluted tube pans, angel food pans, sheet pans, jelly roll pans, muffin pans and Madeleine or other decorative-shaped mini pans all influence the appearance and texture of the baked cake.
How cake is baked: Cake typically bakes between 325˚F/175˚C to 450˚F/230˚C. Most convection ovens require lowering the temperature by 25˚F/15˚C.
How cake is cooled after baking: layer cake: 10 minutes in the pan; sponge cake: unmolded immediately; angel food and chiffon cake: suspended upside down until cool.
Essentials for Successful Cake Baking
Cake baking is easier than ever now that many more home bakers have powerful stand mixers, rather than handheld ones, and scales that measure precisely. Kitchen scales have always been standard equipment in European kitchens. It is thought that early American settlers lost this tradition because of the need to lighten their load when crossing mountainous terrain in covered wagons on their trek across country. They abandoned the scales in favor of the cup as a means of measuring. As home bakers have become more sophisticated, there has been a significant return to the use of scales. Cake baking, however, does not require a huge battery of equipment. It's without a doubt the easiest form of baking as long as you have a well-calibrated oven and follow a few simple rules.
FLOUR: Be sure to use the flour specified in the recipe. Most cakes require bleached flour for the best texture.
BUTTER: Use a high quality unsalted butter with standard fat content unless high butter fat is called for in the recipe. When a recipe specifies softened butter it should be cool to the touch but soft enough to press down (65˚ to 75˚F./ 19˚ to 23˚C).
EGGS: Unless a recipe calls for heating the eggs before beating, allow eggs to reach room temperature, or place them, still in their unbroken shells, in hot water for five minutes. Weigh or measure them as eggs vary significantly in size.
CREAM OF TARTAR FOR BEATING EGG WHITES: Use 1/8 teaspoon of cream of tartar per egg white. 1 teaspoon cream of tarter per 8 egg whites/1 cup volume/weight: 8.5 ounces/240 grams. This magic formula completely eliminates the risk of overbeating and drying the egg whites .
CHOCOLATE. Use the cacao content specified in the recipe.
WEIGHING OR MEASURING. Weighing is faster and easier, but measuring will achieve excellent results if done with care. If measuring dry ingredients, use a cup with an unbroken rim. Allow the ingredient to mound over the top and use a flat blade or metal spatula to run across the rim to sweep off the excess. Do not tap or shake the cup to avoid packing in excess ingredient that could result in a dry heavy cake. Use a cup with a spout for liquids and take the reading at eye level. The bottom of the meniscus (clear bubble at the top of the liquid) should be read at the line marking on the cup.
MIXING. Mix the batter starting on low speed and gradually increase the speed to the designated number or description such as medium, or medium high. When using a stand mixer, at frequent intervals turn off the mixer and then scrape down the sides of the bowl with a silicone or rubber spatula. Be sure to reach to the bottom of the bowl.
PANS: If using dark metal pans lower the temperature by 25˚F/15˚C.
FILLING THE PAN. Unless otherwise specified, the pan should be filled no less than half and no more than two-thirds full. The batter in tube pans is an exception as it is usually about 1 inch from the top.
BAKING. Preheat the oven for a minimum of 20 minutes before baking. Use the correct oven temperature and bake as close to the center of the oven as possible for proper air circulation. If baking in two pans at the same time, leave at least an inch between each pan and the sides of the oven. If necessary stagger the pans on two shelves so that one is not directly over the other.