Monday, January 10, 2005

Cathy’s Secrets to Modestly Successful Cake Baking



I have a bad history with layer cakes. I can’t count how many times they’ve fallen or broken up on me. Then, of course, there were the ones that were just plain bad. I’m also not so good at achieving a polished look to my cakes – they look homemade. But I can’t complain about that ... I have bigger problems.

The really bad thing about this weakness of mine is that generally the only time I make a layer cake is for someone’s birthday. And seeing as how I’m always doing things at the last minute, there is seldom time to go out and buy a replacement, let alone bake a replacement.

I have not yet completely conquered my cake-baking ineptitude, but I do seem to have zeroed in on a few rules that have blessedly reduced the number of disasters. I know there are at least five or six more rules I haven’t figured out yet, but the three I have worked out have served me well.

1. Start with a good recipe. How do you know if you have a good recipe? Based on past experience – preferably your own. If you don’t want to make the same cake over and over (like me), then turn to a book or an author that you’ve come to trust. I have a book that has provided several recipes that have been successful, including the recipe for my most recent cake. It is The Wooden Spoon Dessert Book by Marilyn M. Moore. With this last cake, I think this book will now be where I turn first when I’m looking for a cake recipe (although I’m sure there is at least one disaster laying in wait between its covers).

2. Line the bottom of your pans with parchment. There’s just no excuse not to – it takes a few minutes, but it virtually guarantees that your cake layers will come cleanly out of the pans. Trace around the pans onto the parchment with a pencil and cut the pieces out, cutting just within the trace line. Grease the bottom of the pan, fit the piece of parchment into the pan and smooth it out, then grease and flour the parchment and the sides of the pan.

3. After you put your cake in the oven, grab the timer and evacuate the area. I go upstairs, but you could go for a walk or whatever. I used to start right in on the dishes as soon as I put the cake in the oven. I don’t know for a fact that this is what caused my cakes to fall, but it won’t be the thing that causes them to fall anymore.

Happily, the cake I made this weekend for my sister’s birthday didn’t fall or break and was really delicious. It was even reasonably attractive. It was a Toasted-Butter-Pecan Cake from the Wooden Spoon Dessert Book. The kids at the party were afraid of it because of the nuts, but the adults seemed to enjoy it very much. It’s a fairly small cake since it is made in 8-inch pans, but it is very rich and we had more than enough for 10. This was my first time making an 8-inch layer cake. I think I like this size – it looks nice and there are fewer leftovers!


12 comments:

Stephanie said...

See, my baking 'issue' is pies. More to the point, pie crusts. I hate 'em. True, I rarely make them (I don't even like pies...it's the whole cooked fruit or fruit in things thing), but when I do, I struggle, and patch and repair. If only I lived in France, where perfectly prepared pie and tart crusts of high quality were sold in every grocery store!

As for cakes; well, I sort of inherited the baking gene (sans pies) from my Mom. She's a professional baker, and cakes are something I've never had a problem with.

But pies...grrr.

Emily said...

i'm glad the cake turned out well for you! it looks really beautiful.. not like a product of someone who has problems with cakes!! but you bake and learn... i felt inspired from all of your maida cookies that i chose to make her chocolate whoppers.. they were delicious! even if you are done with chocolate drop cookies.. check it out if you come back around. :)

Cathy said...

Hi Stephanie - I guess we each have our little fears and foibles. I like what Emily said - "you bake and learn". I think you also bake and get comfortable. I used to hate making pie crusts, but now I don't mind them at all. I do think that cakes are much too temperamental though!

Hi Emily - thanks! Your chocolate whoppers look delicious! I'm making all the cookies in the old book, so they're not in the line-up for my "project", but that's not to say I won't get around to them one day. I don't have the new book (I had borrowed it from the library, but I've returned it), but I do have all the old books from which the recipes in it are drawn. That one comes from Maida Heatter's Book of Great American Desserts. So many cookies, so little time!!!

Reid said...

Hi Cathy,

The cake looks good...and sounds delicious! I think you did a good job! =)

Emily said...

thanks! and also.. oops!!! i should've known or remembered that you were baking through the old book. but a lot of the recipes were in both so i just went with the new one. wow, sorry about that...

Cathy said...

Hi Reid - thanks - it was delicious! The icing was awesome - it's a mix of butter and cream cheese with toasted pecans - yum!

Hi Emily - you're very welcome...and don't be silly! Actually, just about all the recipes in the old book are in the new one. There are just one or two that aren't.

Anonymous said...

Yum, sounds and looks SO good. I have the Wooden Spoon Bread Book, which has also given me nothing but good results so far. The first bread I made by hand was from that book! I'll have to check out Ms. Moore's dessert book as well.

Cathy said...

Hi Anon - thanks! That's good to know about the bread book. I don't have that book, but I do have another of her books (soup) - which for some reason I haven't used yet. I'll have to remedy that situation soon!

Anonymous said...

oops, that was me before, forgot to sign my name. I didn't even know she had a soup book...do try it soon and let me know what you think...I might be interested in acquiring that myself.
Alice

Cathy said...

Oh, hi Alice! I've pulled it out of the pile and plan to take a look at it soon!

Anonymous said...

I am enjoying your blog- just found it today. On the subject of 'layer cakes' and size, I started using 6" pans and making 3 or 4 layers, depending on the recipe. I usually use 2 layers and split them to make one 'mini' cake. They are perfect for giving as gifts or just enjoying without having to worry about too many leftovers, and the smaller layers seem to freeze better, for some reason.

June said...

Since I no longer bake for a large family (empty nest) I began using
6" cake pans and I love them. Most recipes will make either 3 or 4 6" layers so I can make one cake for myself and one to give away! And the bonus is that there are no leftovers hanging around to become stale.