That homemade cake life
Step away from the box
For centuries people have made cakes to mark special occasions. These confections have evolved from rough, yeast-leavened cakes made by Romans to more elaborate, layered pastries created by 16th-century German bakers, which resembled what is often served today. Since the 1930s when they were introduced, boxed cake mixes have become so prevalent that generations of home bakers have never learned how to make a simple cake from scratch. And convenient as those mixes may be, nothing compares with the flavor of real eggs, butter and flour.
If you’ve never made a “from scratch” cake, let this be your invitation. With these user-friendly tips, you’ll find that baking a cake can be as fun and easy as it is delicious.
- Read the recipe all the way through and assemble your ingredients.
This is sound advice when starting on any culinary project, but especially when baking. It’s frustrating to get halfway through a recipe, only to realize that you’re missing an ingredient. Likewise, taking the time to assemble your utensils, equipment and pans will streamline the process.
- Let your ingredients come to room temperature.
When making cake batter – unlike biscuit and pie dough – ingredients need to be at room temperature. Most modern cake recipes start with whipping (or “creaming”) softened butter and sugar to incorporate air into the batter. If you then add fridge-cold eggs, they will cause the fat in the butter to harden, and the batter won’t properly emulsify. If you’re the type to plan ahead, simply set your measured ingredients on the counter for an hour. More impulsive bakers can accelerate things by cracking eggs into a small bowl set inside a larger bowl of warm tap water and waiting about 5 minutes. You can warm other ingredients in a microwave on low power, being careful not to melt butter or overheat liquids. Remember, you want them to be room temperature, not hot.
- Use parchment for pan release.
Parchment paper is one of my baking essentials. Use a pencil to trace the bottom of your cake pan onto the parchment, cut with scissors and place in your greased cake pan. This almost guarantees your cake will turn out beautifully, not half-stuck to the bottom of the pan.
You can use a commercially made baking spray, but I like this easy, DIY pan release. Mix equal parts soft butter, flour and vegetable oil and store in a wide-mouth Mason jar in the fridge. Any time you need to grease baking pans or casserole dishes, you’re set. This works especially well for Bundt pans with elaborate detailing.
- Measure (or weigh) and mix flour correctly.
Modern flour doesn’t need to be sifted, but it should be whisked. Flour scooped out of a bag with a measuring cup can weigh several ounces more than sifted flour. This is why it is always more accurate to weigh baking ingredients rather than measure them by volume.
Combine and whisk dry ingredients before adding them to the liquid ingredients. This ensures that the salt, baking powder and other ingredients are evenly distributed without having to over-mix.
- Use a scale for even layers.
Use a baking scale when pouring batter into the pans to ensure that the layers will be even.
- Freeze it.
Wrapped well in plastic wrap, cake layers will freeze beautifully for about a month. I always make cake layers and freeze them ahead, mostly to lighten my prep load with planning a celebration meal, but also because it makes the cake layers so much easier to work with. Even large sheet cake layers can be maneuvered easily once they are frozen hard.
- Frost it.
Fill a piping bag or zip-close bag with icing (my favorite recipe is below) and pipe a dollop onto the center of your cake plate. Place parchment paper triangles where the perimeter of the cake will sit, then place your first layer, smoothest side down, in the middle of the plate. If you are going to use a filling such as jam or fresh fruit in the layers, pipe a dam of icing around the perimeter of the cake layer to contain the filling. Once all the layers are assembled, pipe a blob of icing on the top, then use an offset spatula to smooth a thin layer on the top and sides of the cake. This “crumb coat” prevents specks of crumbs from contaminating the top layer of icing. Pop the cake into a fridge or freezer for 30 minutes to harden, then apply the final layer of icing. A revolving cake stand or Lazy Susan helps achieve a smooth surface.
The charm of a homemade cake is only enhanced by its imperfections. Present your cake proudly, even if your attempt at writing “Happy Birthday” is a little squiggly or if the cake leans slightly to one side. A cake made with love and real butter beats a “perfect” store-bought cake any day.
Vanilla Birthday Cake
- 1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1¾ cup sugar
- 3 cups cake flour
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 4 large eggs, at room temperature
- 1¼ cup milk, at room temperature
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- ½ teaspoon almond extract
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Prepare two 9-inch cake pans with pan release and parchment paper.
Combine flour, baking powder and salt in bowl and whisk. Set aside.
Cream butter and sugar in a mixer until fluffy. With the mixer running, add eggs one at a time. Scrape down the bowl, start the mixer, add the milk/extracts and flour alternately in thirds. Divide the batter between the pans and bake 30-35 minutes. Cool completely before freezing or icing.
Swiss Meringue Buttercream
- 5 egg whites
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 1¼ cup sugar
- ¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 1 pound butter (softened)
- 9 ounces melted chocolate, cooled (for chocolate frosting, optional)
Combine the egg whites, sugar, salt and cream of tartar in a clean mixing bowl and place over a pot of simmering water. Whisk constantly until the mixture is foamy and has reached 180 degrees (it should be hot to the touch). Immediately transfer to a mixer and whip on high until the meringue forms stiff peaks and the mixture has cooled to room temperature. With the mixer on medium speed, add butter one tablespoon at a time. When all the butter is incorporated, add the vanilla (and melted chocolate, if using). This icing is very stable, freezes and pipes beautifully.
Contact Ashley Meyer at email@example.com.