Hints for Success with Plain Cakes

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Cakes require a greater degree of accuracy in measuring, mixing, and baking than do pastry doughs, creams, or ices. The following hints will make the process easier to understand and to execute.
  • Though many recipes for desserts other than cakes allow for a variation in measuring ingredients, this can have disastrous results with cake-making. Measure ingredients accurately.
  • Have all ingredients at room temperature for greater smoothness in mixing. Cold eggs added to a mixture of creamed butter and sugar will not mix in smoothly and will cause the batter to separate and the baked cake to have a rough texture.
  • In case a mixture of butter and eggs separates, warm the bottom of the mixing bowl in several inches of hot water in a bowl or the sink for 2 or 3 seconds and continue mixing until the mixture becomes smooth and creamy. Repeat the process several times if necessary.
  • Mix flour carefully into cake batters. Overmixing may cause a strong gluten to develop in the batter and toughen the baked cake.
  • When recipes call for whipped egg whites in a batter, follow this procedure for whipping them: place the egg whites in a clean, dry bowl. Add a pinch of salt and whip on medium speed with a hand-held mixer or a heavy-duty mixer fitted with the whip. Continue whipping until the egg whites are white, opaque, and beginning to hold their shape. Increase the speed to maximum and add the sugar in a slow stream. Continue whipping until the egg whites hold a soft peak. Immediately fold the egg whites into the batter.
  • Always use the pan recommended in the recipe for baking a cake or cake layer. A different pan will alter baking time, since doneness depends mostly on the depth of batter in the pan.
  • Grease the pan with very soft, but not melted, butter applied with a brush. Line the bottom with a disk of parchment or wax paper, cut to fit. If the cake sticks on the side of the pan, a knife or spatula will loosen it easily. If it sticks on the bottom, it will be impossible to remove from the pan. For a pan that is not flat, butter it carefully and coat the buttered surface with flour, adding a handful of flour to the pan and tipping the pan in all directions to cover evenly with flour. Invert the pan and tap sharply against the work surface several times to remove excess flour.
  • Bake cakes in the middle level of the oven for even baking. If your oven gives off a strong bottom heat, place the cake pan on a heavy jelly roll pan or insulated cookie sheet to prevent the bottom from burning. The extra pan may increase baking time slightly, so check for doneness carefully before removing the cake from the oven.
  • Most cakes are done when the center feels firm when pressed with the flat palm of the hand. Or you may use a thin knife or skewer to test doneness by plunging it into the thickest part of the cake, usually the center, and seeing if the knife or skewer emerges dry.
  • Cool the cake briefly in the pan, then unmold to a rack to cool. Quickly reinvert the cake so that it cools right side up, leaving the paper on the bottom of the cake. After the cake is cool, it is easy to invert the cake again and remove the paper. Leaving the paper under the hot cake holds the cake together and makes it easier to handle.
  • If you prepare a cake in advance, double-wrap it in plastic after it has cooled. Refrigerate the cake. Before serving, unwrap, cover loosely with a towel, and bring to room temperature. If leftovers of a plain cake become dry, toast them under the broiler for a minute, or use them in Zuppa Inglese, or Tiramis├╣.
  • For cakes containing dried fruit, it may be necessary to plump the fruit if it is excessively dry. Place the fruit in a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil over medium heat, drain, and place the fruit on a pan lined with paper towels to absorb excess moisture. Cool and use in the recipe. Or place the fruit in a bowl and cover with boiling water. Steep for 5 minutes and drain and dry as previously.
  • For cakes containing candied fruit, rinse the fruit in a strainer under warm running water. Remove to a cutting board and cut as indicated in the recipe. Oiling the knife helps to keep the fruit from sticking during cutting.