I love cake. Behind hot chips, it’s one of my guilty pleasures (slash obsessions). Carrot cake, chocolate cake, cup cake, they’re all good! With custard poured over the top, microwaved to make the icing melt or with cream or ice cream. So many options! But the perfect cake is not that easy to make. Like many other desserts, it’s all about quantity and ratio of ingredients that you add. And how these ingredients come together to make that perfect cake is today’s topic of discussion.
Cake has four main components: flour (yum…), eggs (yum), sugar (yum!), fat (YUM!), all of which come together to make a rich, fluffy textured cake. The best cake is one that’s moist, slightly crumbly, very light and just melts in your mouth (and if you can, made by Nigella Lawson).
While there are loads of different ways to prepare cakes, I’ll go with just the creaming method for today, where you mix together the sugar and fat (usually in the form of butter) to make that nice cream before incorporating the other ingredients.
All about the bubbles
The light texture of a cake comes from air that’s incorporated into your cake batter. Air is incorporated by beating sugar and butter together. The sugar (while adding delicious taste), provides a surface for air bubbles to form while the fat from the butter creates a film to trap the bubbles, creating a foam.
Caster sugar is often used in recipes as the granules are smaller, allowing more bubbles to form in the mixture. Other forms of sugar like icing sugar are unsuitable as their powdery surface discourages bubble formation.
Once air is incorporated and bubbles form, they need to be stabilized so they don’t pop. Eggs are used to reinforce air bubbles by stretching out to create strong walls, preventing bubbles from collapsing when the cake is heated. Just imagine the thin film of an egg white spreading out to protect the bubbles.
Flour is then the ingredient that brings it all together. Together with the proteins of the egg, flour’s stretchy gluten and starch combine to form the cake’s final structure.
That is the basis of the batter and with correct quantities, the batter should stick to the back of your wooden spoon to create a lovely silky texture. Overworking the batter will damage some of those air bubbles you formed, so don’t play with it too much! Once you’re satisfied, pop it in the oven.
It’s getting hot in here
Oven temperature is everything and at various temperatures, things are happening to the batter. At the beginning of the heating, the air bubbles begin to expand, and the stretchiness of the gluten allows the cake to expand with it. At about 60degrees, water evaporates slightly, further expanding those air pockets. At 80degrees, the eggs begin to coagulate/solidify (just like when you fry an egg), reinforcing those air bubble walls.
The gluten then loses its elasticity and the final cake texture takes form. Finally, once all of that is done, the outside of the cake browns and wham bam, you have the perfect cake. Of course, that’s assuming that you didn’t set the temperature too low, which would give a heavy cake as air cells won’t expand as much and may just collapse. Too high and the batter will cook too quickly for the air bubbles to expand, giving you a gross product.
There you have it, the perfect cake.
Of course, cake baking today is a lot easier than it was in the past, like before electricity. Imagine having to hand beat the sugar and butter together to generate lots of air pockets. It would take, literally at least a couple of hours.
Some cookbooks in the past even had ‘short cut’ ways where you could do it in an hour (wow!), although they then went onto suggest that you should just get your servant to do it… And of course, self raising flour and bicarb soda are slightly more modern ingredients that aid in the rising process.
Bicarb and self raising flour enable carbon dioxide to form, creating more air pockets for that light and fluffy taste. So be thankful that we have electric beaters and bake that perfect cake!
So as a tip to incorporate your new knowledge into your cooking:
- cream the sugar and butter well to incorporate as much air as possible
- Once you add the flour and eggs, don’t play with the batter too much
- Get the right oven temperature
And of course, make sure your measurements are exact! And there you have it!
Over to you:
- Do you use science in your cooking?
- If so, in what ways?
- Whats your perfect cake?