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Cake : A Baker's Secrets: Be Sweet, Be Ruthless

November 10, 1994|SYLVIA THOMPSON

After months of intensive cake-baking, I have found the secrets of success. Now I bake cakes that are lighter and purer than any I can buy. You will too--I promise. This is what you must do.

* Arrange things so you'll have no interruptions. Air is the crucial ingredient in cake; the instant you stop beating the batter, the incorporated air begins to escape. This means time is of the essence, so be sweet, but be ruthless.

* Use the best ingredients. That means the freshest. Replace spices and baking powder every six months, flour and cream of tartar annually. Use unsalted butter. Although salt, a preservative, can disguise the fact that butter's been in storage, it will never have the quality of got-to-be-fresh sweet butter. And cake flour, made from soft wheat (bread flour is made from hard wheat), lets you produce an incomparably delicate crumb.

* Have the ingredients at their optimum temperatures when you add them. The effect of softening butter to the consistency of mayonnaise (short bursts of half power in the microwave work well) was one of my most exciting discoveries--it lets the butter whip to maximum airiness. Egg yolks and whites must be warm for whipping too. Warm them by covering the eggs (still in the shell) in hot water before you light the oven. Unless specified, all other ingredients should be at room temperature, about 70 degrees.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday November 17, 1994 Home Edition Food Part H Page 11 Column 1 Food Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Three Cakes--Recipes for the three cakes in last week's feature "A Baker's Secret" should have been attributed to Sylvia Thompson's "The Birthday Cake Book" (Chronicle Books: 1993).

* Measure with care. Measure liquid and soft solid ingredients in transparent measuring pitchers. For dry ingredients, use a nested measuring cup set, which has separate cups for measuring a half or quarter cup, rather than trusting the marks on the side of a whole-cup measure. Set the appropriate cup over wax paper and lightly spoon the dry ingredients into the cup (dipping the cup into flour, for example, compacts it). Sweep the top even with a chopstick or pencil.

* Mix at the appropriate speeds. Next to temperature of ingredients, I've found this to be the most critical element. Faster is not better. Follow indicated speeds precisely. (Speeds are given for portable mixers. If you're using a stand mixer, use one notch slower.)

* Don't overbake. Begin testing for doneness five to seven minutes before the recipe indicates. If your baking times are often at odds with the recipe's, have your oven recalibrated by the utility company.

* Serve the cake at the optimum time. Butter cakes are by far at their lightest on the day of baking. If you can't make and serve a cake the same day, bake a chiffon or sponge cake rather than a butter cake.


One last note: Turning a cake out of its pan can be scary. Do this: Run a table knife around the sides of the pan. Lay a cloth on the cake, then a rack or big plate over the cloth. Turn the whole thing over, lift off the pan, gently pull off the lining paper and lay a second rack, feet up, over the cake. Then turn over again, and the cake will drop top-side-up onto the rack. Remove the cloth and cool the cake away from drafts.

When you're ready to present a cake, don't fret about fancy decorations. A pretty platter, perhaps with a paper doily, and a wreath of edible or silk flowers and/or leaves around the base of the cake are all you need to make a heart-stopping presentation.

The three cakes that follow are models for their types. If you have a favorite cake flavor but a recipe hasn't lived up to expectations, apply these techniques to the ingredients. Then, if the cake isn't heavenly, look for a recipe in a trustworthy source with a different balance of ingredients and try again.


This model butter cake recipe is perhaps the best you'll ever eat--three sumptuous chocolate layers. To mix a non-chocolate butter cake, simply leave out the chocolate. For a two-layer cake, just use two thirds of the ingredients. Remember that butter cakes should be served within 12 hours of baking.


3 1/2 cups sifted cake flour

1/2 tablespoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 tablespoon salt

6 ounces unsweetened chocolate, chopped into 1- to 2-inch pieces

1 cup water

1 cup unsalted butter, softened to consistency of mayonnaise

2 cups granulated sugar

1/2 cup light-brown sugar, lumps crushed, packed

1 1/2 tablespoons vanilla

6 extra-large eggs, warmed in shells

1 cup buttermilk or soured milk (set 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice at bottom of measure and fill with sweet milk, let clabber), at room temperature

Milk Chocolate Frosting

Unsprayed or silk leaves, such as rose, geranium or strawberry, optional

Sift flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt together in bowl.

In medium heat-proof bowl over (not touching) barely simmering water, melt chocolate in water, stirring occasionally until perfectly smooth. Remove from heat.

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