We’re delighted to welcome back the awesome Sandra with her latest post. Last time she managed to combine her wise words with her clever science mind to bring us an innovative take on why you shouldn’t sweat the small stuff. This time she tackles the science of baking, making baking numpties like me feel so much better in the process. I am forever grateful.
Over to you, Sange:
So, hands up who can’t reliably bake a cake? Go on, you’re amongst friends. I know I can’t. I envy the pictures I see on the Clandestine Cake Club when I receive their updates. I go green (with envy, obv) at the sight of friends’ outstanding creations. I can cook up a storm, regarding recipes as a set of guidance notes rather than carved in stone. So why does the humble sponge elude me? Even if I *shudder* follow the recipe to the letter? The only cake I can reliably make is the sort which isn’t required to burst forth from the vessel containing it like a WAG bikini top on the Daily Mail website.
But, have I got news for you. It’s not our fault, ladies. We can, in fact, blame Chemistry. It’s all I hold dear, but it is also responsible for one of my greatest sources of frustration. I. Cannot. Bake. A. Chuffing. Cake.
Reasons why its’ nothing to do with you, gov.
Flour is mainly comprised of starch and proteins, glutenin and gliandin. Different flours have differing amounts of protein. And you can’t tell by looking at them. If you add water/moisture to flour, the two proteins are drawn to each other and chemically bond to make the kind of sticky mess that makes you wish you’d taken your rings off first-a new, larger protein. In cakes, too much gluten can make them heavy and dry.
In bread baking, a higher protein content is required – you experience stiffer dough. The kneading helps to build these new protein networks. See?
Conclusion – if you find flour that works for you, stick with it. I haven’t found my flour yet.
2) All rise
Baking soda and baking powder are your friends here, as well as a bit of elbow grease. They react with acids in the liquids in the mixture, and then release more carbon dioxide when exposed to heat. Powders will work for you whatever, but unless you have slogged your heart out until your arms is dead getting some air into the mixture, they’ll have nothing to work with. They make the existing air pockets bigger. No existing air pockets = a cake as flat as a witch’s tit.
Conclusion – put your back into it. Give then lovely chemicals something to work with. More effort required from me, I think.
The fat in a cake is a v. good thing. It prevents the protein binding together by helping to coat the protein in flour and preventing the formation of gluten. Good for bread, not for my blummin’ sponge. Too much gluten in a cake makes it tough, so effectively the fat makes the cake tender. Awwww. Oil is better then butter as it coats the proteins better, making the cake more likely to be moist.
Conclusion – fat makes you tender (if you’re a cake, but feel free to gloss over this part if you’re not. Tell ‘em Sange said so)
They put air into the mixture and help to stick it all together – like dough to rings. The beaten white can act as a leavening agent but the protein content of the white can release water when heated, making a cake light but dry. Use yolks only and the cake will moist but tending towards wet. Look, no-one said this was easy – oh hang on, I’m told cake baking is easy all of the time. Damn you, perfect bakers!!
Conclusion – Always use room temperature eggs. Don’t beat yourself up if it fails *see what I did there?*
5) Sweet additions
Now I don’t know about you, but I like a sweet cake. If I’m going to feel a little (or sometimes massive) pang of guilt when indulging in a little slice of perfection then I require sugar. But guess what? Sugar brings a little more to the party than its’ inherent flavour. It brings chemical usefulness too. Remember Glutanin and gliandin from your flour? They combine with the sugar to prevent, you guessed it, gluten formation.
Conclusion – it’s useful, you can’t make a cake without it. Ergo, it’s good for you.
Well that’s the bare bones of it, but it should be enough to get you out of a sticky situation when you’re expected to provide a cake. Or take one of my life tips – if you need a home baked cake, get to your local WI / farmers market or find a great cake shop. Feel no guilt, have no shame. Some people can fly aeroplanes, some people can fix cars, and some people can bake cakes. I can’t do any of these and I no longer care.