To be praised as a good cake baker is perhaps one of the great culinary accolades, and to achieve this goal you are best armed with basic cake chemistry.
Heat has a specific effect on liquids, flours, eggs, fats and sugars, which also react with each other during baking. Too low a heat and the cake will not cook thoroughly in the centre, producing a solid, cloying mass. Too high a temperature cooks the cake’s outside quickly, causing a hard crisp exterior that forces any uncooked middle mixture to push up and erupt in a peaked and cracked appearance. Yet light, whisked sponges, for example, need quite a high heat to prevent them from becoming as flat as biscuits.
Ideally, ingredients should be at room temperature, particularly eggs which curdle more easily when cold, and butter, which mixes so much more easily when soft. Cakes should be made with soft white wheat flour. Except for some fruit or vegetable cakes, I think wholemeal flours are too dense to be used on their own but can be mixed with white. Raising agents are necessary for fat-enriched sponges, but fruit cakes and fatless whisked sponges have air mechanically introduced through beating.
Fine caster and soft brown sugars cream easily with butter, allowing lots of air to be beaten in. Granulated and demerara sugars will make acceptable cakes but give speckled top crusts. Fats not only add flavour and colour but also keeping qualities. Butter always gives the nicest flavour, but margarines make excellent cakes, too. This is why fatless whisked sponges have to be eaten very fresh, and richer cakes actually improve with keeping. Rich cakes also cut far better if left for a day or two in an airtight tin first.
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