Saturday, May 27, 2017

(Part 4) 1001 Tips for Making Your Own Wedding/Celebration Cake - The Mixing Stage

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1001 Tips for Making Your Own Wedding or Celebration Cake

Part 4 - The Mixing Stage

This is Part 4 of my attempt at providing 1001 Tips for Making Your Own Wedding or Celebration Cake.

Part 1 dealt with The Design & Planning Stage,
Part 2 dealt with the Ingredients going to the cake,
Part 3 dealt with The Oven, The Pans, and the Pan Prep,

...and this part deals with fun and yummy part - actually mixing the batter...

Now that all your ingredients ready, your oven pre-heated, and your pans prepped, it is time to start mixing. And if you happily thought the science lesson ended with the Chemistry of Ingredients then you are going to be sad, cause there is a lot of chemistry involved in the mixing process too.

The first step in any cake recipe's direction section is to pre-heat the oven, and next the step is usually the flour prep.  But I sometimes prepare the flour mixture even before I prep my pans.  Why?  Well because it takes so damn long.  All the sifting, all the weighing, all the combining of baking powder, and then still more sifting.  It is time consuming.  Sometimes I even prepare the flour the night before I plan to bake the cake.

In Part 2 I talked about the importance of sifting the flour before you measure it.  I went on and on about how using  unsifted flour can destroy your cake. But another important but often overlooked step in scratch cake baking is combining the flour with other dry ingredients.

Big Tip #1 - When adding baking powder, salt, or baking soda to the flour, whisk once and sift twice

I was never a big proponent of Self-Rising Flour until I started researching scone making. One of the tidbits I picked up was that it is better to use Self-Rising Flour than All Purpose Flour. The reason was that the manufacture, with their heavy equipment and machinery, could do a much better job of evenly mixing the baking powder and salt into the flour than could a home baker using a whisk or a sifter. Theoretically the baking powder in the Self-Rising would be fresher too. In the normal kitchen you can go through a 2 pound bag of flour faster than a can of baking powder.

But while I do use Self-Rising for scones, I just can’t use it for cakes.  Instead I whisk and sift the dickens out of the flour to make sure my salt and baking powder is mixed evenly through the flour. First I whisk for a minute to break up the clumps of baking powder and roughly mix the baking powder through the flour.  Then I sift twice (maybe even three times if the cake is for someone else) to evenly distribute the leavening agents through the flour. If you scrimp on the sifting, the salt and baking powder (leavening agent) doesn't get evenly distributed. This will give you a cake with holes, tunnels, an uneven crumb, and maybe even a mouthful of undissolved baking powder.

So in scratch cakes, don’t skip the sifting step, it is important for a number of different reasons.

Big Tip #2 - Don’t change the order that ingredients are added to the mixing bowl 

How you combine your ingredients will impact the final structure of the cake. (No really, it will.) The order that the ingredients are added defines the mixing "method" being used, and each method will produce a vastly different type of  cake.   Essentially the different methods are manipulating the chemical reactions between ingredients to get a certain texture in the cake.  One mixing method will give you a light, airy cake, whereas a different mixing methods (using the same ingredients) will give you a dense, tender cake.  So don't second guess the directions.  There is a reason for the mixing madness.

There are about 10 different "Mixing Methods", but the most common in wedding cake baking are:
  • Creaming or Conventional Method - First solid fats (butter or shortening) are creamed with the sugar until light and fluffy (3-10 minutes). The creaming method produces a light, fluffy cake because the physical process creaming traps a lot of air bubbles in the mixture. (see section on air bubbles below) In this method the eggs are added next (one at a time and fully incorporate before adding the next egg), and then a well sifted flour mixture is added alternating with the liquid (water/milk). 

  • Reverse Creaming - There is a sub type of creaming that whisks flour and sugar together and then creams in the solid fats. The goal of this method is to reduce the formation of gluten as much as possible. This method produces a cake that is even softer and more tender than the conventional creaming method.  Remember that gluten is a structure builder in a cake and it forms when the two proteins in flour are moistened with water and agitated through mixing.

  • Two-Stage Method - In this method the flour and fats are first creamed together, then the sugar and a little bit of the liquid is added.  The bulk of the water (along with eggs and flavoring) is added as a last step. This method produces a dense yet tender cake that is almost velvety in texture. The texture is tender because very little gluten is allowed to form, and it is dense because very few air bubbles are introduced.
    • Two-Stage Method cakes usually call for a lot more liquid, than a Creaming Method cake so you can't change a Creaming Method cake to a Two-Stage Method cake without making some adjustments.  
    • Two-Stage Method cakes are sturdier than Creaming Method cakes, so they are a good option for the bottom tiers of large multi-tied cakes.

  • Muffin or One-Stage Method - In the Muffin method all ingredients including liquid fat (oil), melted solid fats (butter), flour, sugar, and water are stirred together in one step. This method produces a tougher cake because more water comes in contact with flour to form gluten. The cake will have a coarser crumb in part because the batter doesn't have a lot of air bubbles, and the stronger gluten strands allow the greater expansion of the few air bubble that are present. The key to the Muffin Method is to keep stirring to a minimum. The more you stir, the more gluten will form, and the tougher the cake will become. Box cake mix use the One-Stage Method.

  • Chiffon Method - Egg whites are beaten/whipped with sugar until soft peaks form. As the last step the beaten egg whites are folded into the batter. The beaten egg whites act as an added leavening agent to produce a lighter cake because -- you guessed it -- air bubbles. 
So how and when the ingredients are combined really does have an impact on your final cake.  If you change the order that the ingredients are added to the mixing bowl, you will end up with a completely different kind of cake.

And a note on mixers -- If you don't already have a stand mixer than get one.  Mixing a box cake mix with a hand mixer or a spoon is doable, but if you want to cream butter and sugar together or whip egg whites, then you need one of these Kitchen Aid bad boys

Big Tip #3 - The number and size of Air Bubbles determines the cake's "Crumb"

Air is important.  We need it to live and breathe, and fluffy cakes need it to rise.  The rise doesn't necessarily come from the air itself, but rather from the tiny air bubbles/pockets/cavities that get trapped inside the batter.

During the creaming process air is beaten into the mixture of sugar and fat. As the two ingredients are beaten together, a bazillion tiny air bubbles get sandwiched between the sugar crystals and the fat. If your batter has lots of little air bubble trapped inside, then the leavening gases (steam, carbon dioxide, air) that are forming in the cake have lots of little places to accumulate. With lots of room for the leavening gases to spread out and expand, none of the bubbles will get very large. If your cake has lots of air bubbles that don't get very large, your cake will have a fine or tight crumb/texture.

In the Muffin Method there is no creaming of the fat with sugar, so there are very few air bubbles introduced into the batter. The only air that gets trapped comes from the stirring process.  Because of the reduced number of air pockets, all the gases must squeeze into those few available places. When the huge volume of accumulated gas starts to expand, the air bubbles will be stretched larger and larger. When the cake/muffin finishes baking you are left with the large air pockets or a coarse crumb cake.

Big Tip #4 - Creaming - The more you beat the better, but  don't let the heat from friction melt the butter/shortening

Recipes will tell you to beat/cream your fats and sugar till they are light, fluffy, and pale in color. But how long does that take? Some experts say 3 minutes, some say 5 minutes, and some even say 10.

The purpose of the creaming is to beat as many air bubbles into the mixture as possible, so theoretically the longer you cream the better. BUT don't cream the mixture to the point where heat from friction starts to melt the fats (butter and/or shortening). If the fat melts, you will lose all the lovely air bubble you just created. If you suspect softening/melting of your fats, you can place the bowl, beater, and contents into the freezer for a few minutes and let it stiffen before you finish the creaming process.

Also remember that you can adding a teaspoon or two of powdered whole milk or powdered heavy cream to the fat as it is creamed will caused the fat to trap more air.  And a High-Ratio shortening will trap and retain a lot more air bubbles than regular frying shortening (aka Crisco) that you buy at the grocery store.

The Eggs...

Eggs are like the Rodney Dangerfield of cakes: they don't get the respect they deserve.  Recipes say to add an egg to the mix, and you think - it is one little egg, how important can it be??  But don't underestimate the egg, it provides more structure than the gluten (think cooked egg whites), it provides moisture, the yolk provides emulsifier that keep the fat bound to water, and when beaten the eggs act as a leavening agent.  So don't pooh-pooh the egg, it does a lot.

  • Use fresh eggs when mixing your batter - Fresh eggs will whip up lighter and fuller than older eggs. Fresh eggs are also slightly acidic which helps stabilize the egg proteins which is one of the cake's structure builders. As an egg ages it slowly becomes more alkaline which make the protein strands less stable.

Mixing Whole Eggs into the Batter:
  • Egg yolks contain a natural emulsifier that helps keep fat and water from separating. Because of this emulsifier, eggs are often added to creamed butter or shortening to keep the mixture stable. The emulsifiers in egg yolks help bind together ingredients (water and fat) that would normally repel each other.
  • But make sure your whole eggs are at room temperature when you add them to your batter.  Adding cold eggs to your creamed mixture will cause the emulsion to “break”. When the emulsion breaks, the water in the egg (eggs are 75% water) will separate from the fats and they can never be rejoined.
  • Only add one egg at a time; adding the eggs too fast will also cause the emulsion to break. 
  • Fully incorporate each individual egg into the fat before adding the next egg.  Remember that eggs contain 75% water, and if you add too much water to the fat too quickly, it will cause the emulsion to break.
  • A broken emulsion will make the mixture look curdled. 
  • Once the emulsion breaks, it is broken for good. Adding additional ingredients like flour may make it look like the water and fats are once again bound, but they are not. A poorly emulsified cake will not rise properly and will have a coarse, hole-ridden crumb.
  • So when adding whole eggs to the creamed mixture, use room temperature eggs, add them one at a time, and fully incorporate one egg into the batter before the next is added.

Mixing Beaten/Whipped Egg Whites into Batter:
  • In Chiffon type cakes, egg whites are beaten to the soft peak stage and then folded into the batter.  Because of the air beaten into the mixture, beaten egg whites act as a leavening agent and will help the cake rise.
  • Egg whites are often beaten with sugar.  Sugar stabilizes beaten egg whites and keeps them  from collapsing and losing the air that was carefully beaten into them.   
  • The sugar also increases the temperature at which the egg whites set or coagulate.  If the egg whites don't set as fast, more time is available for the cake to rise. 
  • But sugar can also retard the foaming of the egg whites, so sugar must be add a little at a time.  First beat the egg whites till they get foamy, and then add the sugar 1 tablespoon at a time.
  • Before beating the egg whites, allow them to sit in a bowl for 30 minutes till they reach room temperature.  Room temperature egg whites will beat up higher and faster than cold egg whites.   
  • Cake recipes usually call for egg whites beaten to soft peak stage.  In this stage the peaks barely hold their shape, and the peaks flop over when the beater is lifted.  
    • You want soft peaks instead of firm/stiff peaks because egg whites beaten to the stiff peak stage will form clumps that are much harder to incorporate into the batter.
    • If you leave any clump or streaks of egg whites in the batter these clumps will form large holes or cavities in the finished cake.
    • Stiff peak eggs whites will actually produce less leavening and rise in the cake than soft peaks. All the beating will stretch and weaken the cell walls of the egg proteins which will cause them to collapse when the cake cools.
    • Stiff peak egg whites will cause the cake to be drier than cakes made with soft peak egg whites.
    • But don't under-beat the egg whites either, because under-beaten egg whites will cause the cake to be denser than expected.  Why? Well, not enough air was beaten in.  
    • So don't under-beat or over-beat the egg whites, keep them at the soft peak stage.
  • Fold don't stir the egg whites into the batter.  Stirring will force the air out of the egg whites, and you need the air to help the cake rise.
  • Another trick to help incorporate egg whites into the batter is to pour the thick batter over the egg whites instead of plopping the fluffy egg whites into the batter.

Why do some recipes alternate the addition of flour and milk? 

For example the recipe may instruct you to:
“Add 1/3 of the flour and mix till incorporated, add 1/2 the milk and mix, add 1/3 flour and mix, add remainder of milk and mix, add final 1/3 of flour and mix only until flour starts to disappear.”

or the directions might  say,
“alternate the addition of flour with milk. starting and ending with flour.” 

others might may say to "front load" the flour,
"Add 1/2 the flour, then 1/2 the milk, then 1/4 the flour, then 1/2 the milk, then the final 1/4 flour."

So what is this all about?  Well, the purpose of this back and forth between the flour and liquid is to control gluten development.  Remember that gluten forms when flour comes in contact with water, and the more gluten that forms, the tougher the cake will become.  You want enough gluten for the cake to hold it shape, but not enough to make it chewy.

For example:  The first 1/3 (or 1/2) of batter goes into a bowl that only contains creamed butter (and/or shortening), sugar, and eggs. With very little water present all the flour particles will be coated with fat which creates a waterproof barrier around the flour. When water is finally added to the mix, the water won’t be able to hydrate the flour, and if the flour doesn't hydrate then the two proteins in flour can't combine to form gluten.  So this first 1/3 of the flour will be gluten free.

Next the liquid is added, and then more flour. This second addition of flour sucks in all the water it can handle and as the batter is mixed and agitated the flour proteins start forming gluten like gluten making machine.

More liquid is added, then the remainder of the flour. This last 1/3 of flour has the liquid to start forming gluten, but because at this stage the batter is mixed very little (only enough to incorporate the flour into the mix) and it goes quickly into the hot oven, there is not much time for this last 1/3 of flour to form much gluten.

This alternating addition method also maximizes the amount of carbon dioxide leavening gases trapped in the batter. Why? Because the first stage of the double acting baking powder starts reacting as soon as it touch water. By staging the addition of the flour (which contains the baking powder) you stagger the creation of the gasses. So controlling both of these chemical reactions helps to produce a lighter, fluffier cake.

Don’t over mix the batter – Everyone always says this - but why???

There are several reasons why:
  • Baking powder and soda work by reacting with other ingredients in you batter and creating carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide is trapped inside the batter, and as the cake bakes the expanding gas lifts and lightens the cake. If you mix the batter too much the carbon dioxide can escape and your cake will bake up dense and flat. 
  • Over mixing encourages gluten development which will make the cake tough and chewy. 
  • Over mixing will weaken the cell walls of the protein and starch molecules and cause the cake to collapse after it cools. 
  • In the traditional creaming method, once the flour is added, you mix gently till the flour just disappears. The goal here is to incorporate the flour into the batter while mixing it as little as possible. 
  • Don't let the batter sit - Go from mixing, to pan, to oven as fast as possible.  The longer it sits, the more of leavening gases can escape and the flatter your finished cake will be.
  • Most baking power used by home cooks is Double Acting, meaning some of the carbon dioxide is produced during mixing and some is produced during heating. But most home use baking power is also Fast Acting, so 60-70% of the carbon dioxide is produced during mixing and only 30-40% is generated during heating. If you let your batter sit too long before placing it in the oven, all the lovely carbon dioxide will escape from the loose cake batter and you will end up with a sunken, dense cake. 
So now that the batter is mixed, next comes the transfer of the batter to the pans.

This step may sound easy, but like every other step it has pitfalls.

PS:  If you want to read more about the science of cooking and baking.  Try How Baking Works,  The Science of Good Cooking, The Baking Bible, or any of the Alton Brown Good Eats books.

Happy Baking,

Friday, May 26, 2017

(Part 3) 1001 Tips for Making Your Own Wedding/Celebration Cake - The Oven, Pans & Pan Prep

Disclosure: We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.

1001 Tips for Making Your Own Wedding or Celebration Cake

Part 3 - The Oven, Pans, & Pan Prep

This is Part 3 of my attempt at providing 1001 Tips for Making Your Own Wedding or Celebration Cake.

Part 1 dealt with The Design & Planning Stage,
Part 2 dealt with the ingredients going to the cake,

and this part deals with kind of boring topics of Ovens, Pans, and Pan Prep


The Oven

Big Tip #1 - Test the calibration of your oven

So you turn on your oven, set the temperature, and figure you are golden... But not so fast. How do you know the temperature of your oven is really what it says it is? Mine is waaayyyy off.  If I set the temperature to 350 degrees, the actual temperature only reaches 325. If I want 350 I need to set the temperature at 370.

To test your oven’s temperature buy a portable oven thermometer and place it on the rack. Does the portable thermometer register the same temp as the oven’s readout? Test the temperature in different sections of the oven to see if you have any hot spots. Also test the areas around the bottom, center and top rack to see if there is a difference.

More Oven Tips
  • Preheat the Oven. Yes I know you’ve heard it before, but preheat the oven. Once the buzzer goes off indicating that the requested temperature has been reached, allow the oven to sit for 10-15 minutes before placing your cakes in the oven. My oven heats super fast, but not all sections are heated equally. I need to allow time for the heat to soak into four corners of the oven.
  • Convection ovens are supposed to speed cooking and get rid of hotspots, but using the convection setting on home ovens can be problematic when baking. Why? Well the constantly blowing fan will actually blow the tops off your cupcakes and cause them to bake up asymmetrical. To a lesser degree the fan will also disfigure your cakes. It is not a very attractive look. 
  • Opening the door will also make a convection oven cool down faster than a conventional oven - remember, the fan is pushing hot air out every time you open the door. 
  • But even on a conventional oven don’t open the door too often. Opening the door allows moisture to escape (and moisture keeps the tops from browning too much), and opening the door also introduces a blast of cold air that can cause the cake to collapse. 
  • Professionals say to never open the oven door during the first 20 minutes of a cake baking.
  • Only open the oven door near the end of bake cycle.  At this point the structure builders inside the cake have had a chance to strengthen and set. 


  • Aluminum pans are the most common type of pan because of their low cost and it ability to conduct heat well. 
    • But because they are a good conductor of heat aluminum pans tend to burn cakes. 
    • To reduce the risk of burning, use a heavy-gauge pan. 
    • Double walled pans are the best because they have an insulating zone of air between the two walls of aluminum.  This insulation keeps the sides and bottom of the cake from browning too much.
    • Light colored pans absorb less heat than a dark pan, so light colored pans won't brown the cake as much.  
    • If you want to encourage an un-domed cake, use light colored pans. Dark pans will absorb more heat which will cause the sides and bottom of the cake to bake faster than the center, this in turn will cause the cake to dome in the center. 
  • Silicone is a poor conductor of heat and for this reason cakes will bake slower and brown more evenly in silicone pans. But because the silicone is flexible, the heavy batter inside can force the pan to warp and the cake to turn out misshapen.  Silicone is also difficult to move from counter to oven when filled with batter. 

Pan Prep 

Preparing your pan for baking is an important step that should not be taken lightly. 
  • If the recipe tells you to grease the pan, then spray the pan with something like Wilton's Bake Easy which is a aerosol spray of oil and flour. Don’t use the old fashion method of solid shortening/butter and flour as this can create a tough skin on the sides and bottom of your cakes. 
  • Always, ALWAYS line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper
    • Cut the parchment from rolls to fit your pan or buy pre-cut rounds and squares. 
    • Never bake a flat bottomed cake without placing parchment on the bottom of the pan. 
    • The parchment keeps the base of the cake from sticking to the pan, and it also reduces browning of the bottom. 
    • I like to spray the bottom of the pan with Bake Easy first, and then place the parchment. The spray makes the parchment stick and keeps it from sliding around. Once the parchment is in place, I spray more Bake Easy on top of the parchment and half-way up the side of the pan. 
  • Should the sides of the pan be sprayed? This is a touchy issue. Some people say to always spray the sides of the pan and other people say to never spray the sides of the pan. I guess the answer is both depending on the type of cake, and the look you are after. 
    • For angel food and chiffon (cakes with beaten egg whites) the sides of the pan should not be greased. For these delicate cakes you want the batter to cling to the sides of pan; the cake will actually "climb" the wall of the pan as it bakes. Having a dry, non-slippery surface to climb will help the cake rise to its full potential. 
    • If you don't grease the sides then you need to detach or release the cake from the side of the pan after baking. Run a thin offset spatula between the cake and the side of the pan to separate the clinging cake from the pan.
    • For other, non-chiffon type cakes, grease the sides of the pan. Greasing will allow the cake to shrink slightly and pull away from the pan as the cake finishes baking. 
    • But note that if the sides of the pan are greased, the cake will bake with sides that are tapered inward. If you want the sides of the cake to be relatively straight (without a slight tilt inward), then don't grease the sides of the pan. 
  • Use flower nails as heating cores on larger cakes. 
    • On cakes larger than 10” use 3-4 flowers nail as heating cores. 
    •  A heating core helps the center of the cake cook at the same rate as the outer edge. 
    •  The core will prevent the situation of under baked center and over baked edges. The metal nail heats up and introduces direct heat to the center of the cake. 
    • The flat base of the nail goes under the parchment paper, and the “nail part” pokes up through the parchment paper. 
    • Putting the base of the nail under the parchment paper keeps it from getting embedded in the cake. 
    • Make sure to spray the exposed nail section with Bake Easy to keep it from sticking to the cake. 
    • If using flower nails, you will also need cooling racks with an open wire mesh to help de-pan the cakes. And make sure your cooling rack is large enough to handle that 10" or 12" or 14" cake!!! Trust me -- trying to hold to regular size racks together while de-panning a cake with flower nails sticking out of it DOES NOT WORK.  Had a messy  learning experience there.
  • Always, always use Bake Even Strips.  These gems will keep your cake top flat and prevent the sides from burning. 
    • These strips are special heat-resistant cloth that you soaked in water and then wrapped around the outside of the pan. 
    • The strips stop the cakes from forming a dome as it bakes. Domes on cakes are BAD, and should be avoided at all cost. See Stacking section for reasons why. 
    • The science behind the Baking Strips - Baking Strips are used to reduce cake doming. Cake domes form when the edges of the cake bake faster than the center. When the aluminum pan heats up, the heat is transferred to the batter sitting next to the pan which in turn causes that thin section of the cake closest to the pan to bake and set rapidly. Contact with the hot metal causes the edges of the cake to harden long before the leavening gasses trapped inside the cake have a chance to do their magic and start lifting the cake. Once the gases start expanding, all of the energy and “lifting” power is transferred to the center of the cake because the edges are already set and inflexible. This produces the dome seen on many cakes. 
    • The beauty of the Bake Even Strips is this the water saturated cloth keeps the edges of the metal pan cool, and stops the edge of the cake from baking prematurely. 
    • When the entire cake bakes at the same rate, the top will be perfectly flat and the side of the cake won’t have crispy brown edges. 
    • So never, ever bake a cake without Baking Strips, unless a domed cake is what you are after. 
    • You can even get extra-long strips for the larger pans for 12, 14 and 16" pans.
    • If you want a DIY version I have been told you can cut up strips of kitchen towels, soak them in water, and then pin them to the pan. I’ve never tried it, but people swear that it works. 
    • In conclusion, don't ever, ever bake a cake without these strips – they really work. 

 So this is the end of the "prep" section. Are you still awake??  Continue on to the next post to get tips on mixing the batter.

Happy Baking,


Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Rolled Fondant - Just how many brands are out there???!!!

Yowza!! Just how many ready-made brands of rolled fondant are out there???

I'm starting to lose count of just how many commercial brands of rolled fondant are on the market. It seems like every few months a new one is being introduced. I needed a list to keep track of them, so I started this (hopefully everygreen) post.

Below is a summary of all the brands that I can name. If you know of any other fondants that are readily available in the USA, just post a comment and I will add it to the list…

Here are 21 fondant brands in alphabetical order:

Disclosure: We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.

  1. Cake Craft Fondant
  2. Choco-Pan
  3. CK Fondant 
  4. Dream Fondant by Choco-Pan
  5. Duff Goldman Fondant 
    • Rumor has it that this is Fondarific in different packaging.  Both Duff and Fondarific need to be microwaved to soften, so it might be true.
    • See my review here 

  6. Elite by Fondx (discontinued?)
  7.  Fantasia Fondant (Introduced in 2016)
  8. Fat Daddio’s Pro Series Fondant
  9. Fondarific Fondant
  10. Fondx Fondant
  11.  Massa Americana and
  12.  Massa Grischuna 
    • Marketed by AUI Fine Foods (Albert Uster) 
    • Made in Switzerland 
    • Not made by the same company as Carma Massa below 

  13. Massa Ticcino Tropic by Carma
  14. Mona Lisa Fondant 
  15.  Pettinice Fondant
    • Marketed by Bakel’s 
    • Made in Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, South Africa 
    • See my review here 

  16. Renshaw Fondant
  17. Satin Ice Fondant
  18. Tylina Sweetshop
    • Sold at Michaels
    • review coming soon

  19. Wilton Original
    • Discontinued when Wilton Decorator Preferred came out
    • See my review here

  20. Wilton Decorator Preferred
  21. Via Roma Bakery

Whew! That is a long list. It would be nice if you could go to one site and get a sample of each, but no such luck.  If you want to do your own comparisons and find your perfect fondant, you will need to do a lot of shopping. But that's a good thing, right? I love shopping for cake stuff…

Happy Decorating,


Sunday, May 7, 2017

Renshaw Fondant Review

I know you guys are getting tired of my never ending  parade of fondant reviews, but I've tried a new one that gets pretty high marks.  Not perfect mind you, but good enough to "maybe" become my goto fondant. 

If you haven't been following my Never Ending Fondant Comparison let me summarize.  Over the last 5 years I have tried about 12 different fondant.  Some were good, some where okay, and some were downright bad.  One  I considered a 5 stars fondant (Via Roma) till I got a few bad batches.  Sad, Sad Days.  If you want to read the other reviews you can find them here:  The original  7 fondant comparison, the Via Roma review, the Cake Craft review, the Carma Massa review, the Dream review,  the Fat Daddio review, and the Fantasia review.

So back to the current review.  The fondant being reviewed has a lot of Pros and only one Con that I can name.  The fondant is soft yet firm, stretchy yet strong, it colors well, and has a nice finish with no bubbles or elephant skin.  So what, you may ask, is the name of this standout fondant - well it is called  Renshaw

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Renshaw?  Rennnnshawww?  You've never heard of Renshaw?  Well neither had I till someone mentioned it on another of my fondant reviews.  It comes from the UK and the company has been around since 1898.  Wow.  Anyway, onto the review...

Renshaw Fondant

In my non-expert analysis of these various fondants, I use ten different criteria: Taste, Texture, Rolling, Coverage, Draping/Smoothing, Cutting/Trimming, Drying Time, Tinting, The Final Look, and a recently added criteria: Humidity/Refrigeration/Moisture test.

Taste - The taste of this Renshaw white fondant is what I would call understated.  It has a mild sugary taste with no other noticeable flavors.  The list of ingredients on the package has "Natural Flavoring" as the last item.  This "Natural Flavor" doesn't taste like vanilla or almond or even white chocolate.  It just tastes mildly sugary, like a not-to-sweet buttercream.

Actually the taste is a little nondescript, but in a good way.  I have come to the conclusion that a fondant with a lot of flavor distracts from the taste of the cake.  And hey - who are we kidding -- no one actually eats the fondant.  Everyone I've watched eating a fondant covered cake just peals it off and pushes it aside.

The mouth-feel of the Renshaw is soft and velvety.  It has a melt-in-your mouth quality that I like.  When eaten with the frosting and cake the Renshaw fondant just kind of melts away and is indistinguishable from the frosting.  It doesn't have any bold flavor of its own so all you taste (and feel in your mouth) is the cake and frosting.  This is a fondant that people may actually eat! 

Texture – Out of the box and foil wrapper this fondant is very soft and squishy. You can pinch off pieces with no effort. When you first take the fondant out of the package it is a little sticky and damp, but after working it for a few minutes it loses the tackiness and becomes dry and silky.  It feels like soft bread dough.

The fondant is very easy to knead, roll, and shape; and like the Fat Daddio and Dream fondant I reviewed a few weeks ago, it easily picks up textures from leaf veiners, impression mats, or even paper towels.

The Renshaw fondant is also very elastic and stretchy.  It almost acts like taffy.  I like stretchy fondants because they doesn't rip as easily when covering the cake.  Another curious thing about this taffy oops I mean fondant is that it doesn't seems to gouge as much as other super soft brands.  The Via Roma fondant has this same non-gouging quality.  Maybe it is the stretchiness of the fondant that keep the marks from showing??  Maybe when you dent the fondant with a fingernail it just melds itself back together??  I don't know what makes this fondant resistant to gouging, but I like it!

Rolling – Because the Renshaw fondant is so soft it is very, very easy to roll.  I would call it a breeze.  You definitely won't get a workout rolling out this fondant.  The Renshaw also didn't produce any air bubbles when rolling.  <<Happy, Happy Dance >>   Not a single air bubble appeared in the fondant as I rolled it out. Some fondants are so frustrating to roll because huge bubbles form when the fondant is kneaded and conditioned.  The professionals say you can pop the bubbles and they disappear, but I've never had much luck doing that.  The outline of the bubbles always seem to show.

Another plus with the Renshaw is that its elasticity keeps the edges soft and smooth as it is rolled bigger and bigger.  No split, cracks, or ragged edges with this fondant.  Everything stays smooth and even.

And the Renshaw didn't stick to the plastic mat that I use to roll out the fondant.  It pulled off without any problems. The instructions on the Renshaw package says to lightly dust the rolling surface with cornstarch or powdered sugar to keep the fondant from sticking, but I didn't dust and I didn't have any problems with it coming off.

Coverage – In all the fondant tests I've conducted, I use 5 ounces of fondant and roll to 1/8” thick.  For the Renshaw I was able to roll the 5 oz to a little less than 10 inches round.  In comparison to other fondants this is a little on the low side.

I also noticed that at 1/8" thickness, the fondant was too thin.  I could actually see through it.  It looked almost translucent.   When placed on my dummy testing "cake" (which is actually a tiny metal tube pan) you could actually see the gray color of the metal through the fondant.  The fondant also pulled a little out of shape as it was hanging on the rolling pin.  Again, it doesn't do that if you roll it thicker.

So 1/8" is definitely too thin for this fondant.  The instructions on the packaging also back this up.  The package doesn't give a recommended rolling thickness, but it does say that the 1.5 pound package will cover an 8" round cake.

Draping/Smoothing - When placed on the cake dummy, the fondant seemed to float above the top of the cake.  The fondant settled nicely along the top edge and draped into a few loose folds around the sides.  I think the elasticity of the fondant keeps it from settling into more folds and drapes. 

The Renshaw was also very easy to smooth.  A few fluffs of the drapes and everything smoothed out nicely.  The fondant doesn't seem to stick to itself, so the folds and drapes were easy to pull apart and realign.  And even though the fondant was rolled too thin, I didn't get any rips or tears or the dreaded crepey elephant skin. 

Cutting/Trimming – The fondant cuts easily with no major edge problems.  Even with my dull pizza cutter it slices nice and clean.  But the Renshaw does get a little sticky when you add gel food coloring to it, so the tinted fondant doesn't cut as cleanly.

Drying Time – One of the best things about this fondant is the way it dries - or doesn't dry.  It is very unique.  As you roll and work with the fondant, the surface seems to dry and gets firm to the touch.  Fondant cutouts hold their shape without drooping and sagging.  Below is a rectangle piece of fondant that is 1/4" thick.  It is freshly rolled and cut, yet it still holds it shape and doesn't sag too bad when suspended over the side of the box.

After allowing the rectangle to rest and harden for 30 minutes, I got even less slumping.

But the strange and exciting thing about this fondant is that even though the outside skin of the fondant dries and allows it to hold its shape, the INSIDE of the fondant DOESN'T DRY OUT!!  How cool is that???

I had a small 1/2" ball of Renshaw fondant sitting on the counter for 4 days.  The outside of the fondant was dry and firm to the touch, but when I squished it between my fingers it became soft and pliable again.  I was actually able to roll it into a thin disk.  That is pretty amazing.  Most fondants (except maybe Fondarific) would dry rock solid after sitting that long.   The fact that the outside dries enough to hold a shape while the inside stays soft and squishy is truly unique.  And because it stays soft even when exposed to air means you don't have to rush to roll and place the fondant, and if you make a mistake you can pull it off and re-roll without having to worry about the fondant drying out and cracking (or getting elephant skin).  <<shiver>>

Tinting – No major problems with tinting.  The Renshaw took both Wilton food color gels, and Americolor well.  All the colors I tested looked fine, and the shades seemed true to the color indicator on the bottle.  But I did encounter a few other tinting issues: 1) the fondant does get a little sticky when you add gel food coloring to it.  I was trying to tint to a very dark blue and the fondant was as sticky as cookie dough, but it did settled down after a few minutes of kneading. 2) the fondant seems to bleed color onto the underlying buttercream more than other fondants I've tried.

Final Look – Overall the finished look of the Renshaw fondant was very nice.  It dried to a soft matte finish that hid most of the blemishes.  (Note: fondants that keep a glossy finish show more blemishes and problem areas than fondants that dry to a matte finish.)

A few hours after covering the dummy I did noticed that the 1/8" thick fondant had sunk into the nooks and crannies on the top of my metal cake dummy (see picture above), but when I re-rolled and covered the dummy with a thicker round of fondant, there was no sinking.  1/8" is just too thin for this fondant.

Humidity/Refrigeration/Moisture Test

Humidity and Heat is a big problem in my neck of the woods so I wanted to document how the fondant react to refrigeration and humidity.  The moisture test is actually to test how the fondant reacts to the underlying frosting be it buttercream or ganache.

This is a test cake covered in Renshaw fondant after it was refrigerated overnight and then taken out and set on the counter.  The temperature of the room is about 72 and the humidity is like 100%.  Hey it is New Orleans in the summer!!!  The fondant did fine in the refrigerator.  When removed and set on the counter, the fondant was a little damp and clammy, but it soon dried off.

Next I took the cake outside to see how it would react to an hour in the 90 degree heat.  --It was not a pretty sight.  The Renshaw fondant almost melted under the extreme conditions.  The cake itself didn't fair much better.  The top tier has ganache under the fondant and it held up okay, but the bottom tier, which is American Buttercream, started to collapse.  Good this this was just a test cake.  (PS: I also shook the cake quite a bit.  I wanted to simulate a bumpy ride in a hot car.)

Once back inside the cool house, the Renshaw fondant on the ganache covered tier dried out and cut cleanly and smoothly...

But the Renshaw fondant on top of the buttercream stayed wet and gooey.  The fondant seemed to pick up the moisture from the underlying buttercream, and even after sitting for hours at room temperature, the fondant never dried out. It was very difficult to cleanly slice a piece of cake.

So Renshaw can be refrigerated, but when exposed to heat and humidity it works better with a base of ganache than a base of high-moisture frosting like buttercream.


Some of the big pluses with this fondant include: 1) it was super easy to work with, 2) it didn't rip or tear as I worked with it on the cake, 3) it didn’t form any “elephant skin” as it dried, 3) it didn't show many marks or gouges from my fingernails, and even when I did accidentally mark the fondant, the marks were easy to smooth out because the fondant is so elastic and stretchy, 4) the ability of this fondant to dry on the outside but not on the inside is really helpful, and 5) the taste was pretty good.

The only minor nits I have with the fondant is 1) its sickness when gel color is added, and 2) the coverage.  It needs to be rolled thicker than other fondants, and the same volume of Renshaw doesn't cover as large and area as other fondants.  

So Renshaw, in my un-professional opinion, is one of the better fondants I've tried.  I'm going to test it out on my next few cakes and see if I can crown it my "Goto fondant".  

Happy Baking (and Decorating),



Saturday, May 6, 2017

(Part 2) 1001 Tips for Making Your Own Wedding/Celebration Cake -- The Science of Ingredients

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1001 Tips for Making Your Own Wedding or Celebration Cake 

Part 2 – The Science of Ingredients

This is Part 2 of my attempt at providing 1001 Tips for Making Your Own Wedding or Celebration Cake.

Part 1 dealt with the Design & Planning stage, and this part deals with… drum roll please….


Have you ever wondered why some recipes call for All Purpose Flour and some want Cake Flour?
Have you ever wondered why you cream together the butter and sugar? 
Have you ever wondered why, Why, WHY did the center of my cake collapse!!

If you have those kinds of questions then keep reading.  This post tries to explain the chemical reactions that take place between the ingredients, and hopefully my rambling might explain the when, where, and why things can go wrong.   So hang onto your hat and start channeling your inner Alton Brown, this post is about to get a little science-y. 

The Chemistry of Cakes – it is all about the Gluten

Big Tip #1 - Don’t try and tweak a cake recipe too much

A cake recipe is a precise chemical formula. It is a choreographed dance between flour, sugar, eggs, liquid, and fat. Tweaking or changing an ingredient in a cake recipe can produce a tasty surprise or a stunning flop. If you are going to bake from scratch you should know a little about the dancers that are performing your mixing bowl:
  • Structure Builders / ToughenersFlour (gluten & starch), Eggs, and Cocoa Powder - These are the structure builders in cakes. Think of them as a skeleton. They give a cake both structure and strength, which in turn allows the cake to hold the new, larger shape produced as gases inside the batter expand during baking.
    • Too little in the way of structure and the cake will collapse as it cools.
    • Too much structure and the cake will be tough and unpleasant to chew.
    • In today’s world everyone knows about gluten, but did you know that dry flour doesn’t contain gluten? Flour has two proteins (glutenin & gliadin) that join together to form gluten only when the flour is hydrated (ie exposed to water).  Water turns the flour proteins into a flexible web of interlocking gluten fibers.  The more water you add, the more structure will form, and consequently the tougher the cake will become.
    • Physically stirring the batter accelerates the formation of the gluten web, so the more you mix the batter, the stronger the gluten web becomes which again toughens the cake. This is why that box cake mix tells you to only mix for 2 minutes, and the brownie mix says to stir for 50 strokes.  They don't want you to overdevelop the gluten and end up with a tough brownie or cake.
    • The starches in flour also form structure when exposed to water, and
    • Egg proteins coagulate and form structure when exposed to heat. 

  • TenderizersSugar, Fats (butter, shortening, lard), Oil, Baking Powder – Tenderizers are ingredients in the cake that interfere with the structure builders (aka gluten, starch, and egg proteins).
    • Fats and oil surround the flour proteins which prevent them from absorbing water and turning into gluten.  In essence the fats waterproof the flour proteins.  If gluten and structure can't form, the cake will be tender.  Thus the fat tenderizes the cake by limiting the size of the gluten web that forms.
    • Sugar is highly hygroscopic which means it absorbs water like a dry sponge.  If the sugar traps some of the water then there isn't as much around to convert flour proteins to gluten.  So like the fat, the sugar tenderizes the cake by limiting the amount of water available for gluten formation.  
    • But like any good thing, tenderizing can be taken too far.  If the fat and sugar stops all gluten formation, then the cake will collapse under its own weight.  The ratio of structure builders to tenderizers is a delicate balance. You want enough tenderizers so the cake is soft and easy to chew, but not too much or the cake will collapse due to lack of structure.

  • MoistenersWater, Milk (and milk products), Egg, Butter, Oil – All of these ingredients (except the oil) add moisture to the cake through water, and water has an extremely critical role in the cake making process.
    • Water dissolves and hydrates many of the other ingredients in the batter.
    • Do you know that whole milk is 88% water, eggs are 75% water, and sour cream is 71% water?
    • Water sticks to and dissolves the sugar, 
    • Water activates the baking powder, 
    • Water hydrates the gluten in flour and allows it to form structures.
    • Too much water will encourage excess gluten development which will toughen the cake.
    • Too little water will keep the flour from hydrating and also keep the sugar from dissolving.  Both of these conditions will cause the cake to sink when removed from the oven.
    • Any sugar crystals left undissolved by water will also form a sugary crust and excess browning on a cake.  This is fine, and even encouraged, in pound cakes, but not something you want in a white wedding cake.
    • Oil is the only moistener that contains no water.  Instead oil moistens because the fat is a liquid at room temperature. 
    • Oil is a superior moistener than water because any water not tightly bound to sugar, gluten and starch is turned into steam and escapes during baking.  

  • DriersFlour, Corn Starch, Sugar, Cocoa Powder – These ingredients absorb moisture and pull it out of the cake. Flour needs to absorb moisture to generate gluten strands and structure, and sugar needs moisture to dissolve. If the recipe has too much in the way of “Driers” and not enough “Moisteners”, the cake will be dry, sunken, with sugary, brown crust.

  • Leavening AgentsBaking Powder, Baking Soda, Whipped Egg Whites – These ingredients help the cake to rise. As heat and chemical reactions cause the gasses to expand, they lift and lighten the cake.

  • Notice that some ingredients are in two categories. Flour is both a structure builder and a drier. Oil is both a tenderizer and a moistener. Egg White is both a structure builder and a leavening agent. It is this complex relationship of ingredients that makes scratch cake baking and recipe development both troublesome and rewarding.

More About Flour

  • Un-sifted flour can destroy your scratch cake – no really, it can!!!  Do you get inconsistent results when you bake from scratch? The culprit may be the flour and how you are measuring it.
    • Home cooks in the US use volumetric measurement; we use measuring cups and spoons for both liquid and dry ingredients. This is a problem when measuring flour because flour settles; it becomes denser and more compact over time. Think of flour like a balloon. When the balloon is full of air it is plump and round and probably as big as your head, but without the air it is as flat as a pancake. The balloon itself weighs the same regardless of its fullness or size. Same with flour. As the milling air originally trapped between the particles of flour escapes, the volume of flour gets smaller and smaller. If you fill a cup with sifted flour and let it sit for a month, you may find that you only have 7/8; after 3 months you might have 3/4s of a cup!
    • If your scratch cake flopped, it may be because you unknowingly added too much flour.
    • Ideally you should weigh your flour.  Weight is a better way of getting consistent results cake after cake.
    • But most recipes don’t give you the weight of the flour, and even if they did it wouldn't be completely accurate because different flours have different densities and weights. For example, for Swans Down Cake Flour one cup of sifted flour weighs 120 grams, but one cup of sifted Martha White Bleached flour weighs 140 grams.
    • So what is a home baker to do? Well the only way to insure you are using the appropriate amount of flour is to SIFT THE FLOUR BEFORE YOU MEASURE. When you sift, you reintroduce air into the flour and this will give you a more reproducible measurement.
    • If you don’t sift, you don’t know how much the flour has compacted and how much flour you are actually putting in your cake batter.
    • One trick I have started using is when I open a new bag of flour I sift and weigh one cup of flour.  I then write this number on the packaging. From then on I can just weigh out the amount of flour I need without bothering to sift before I measure.  Of course I still need to whisk and sift the flour when I add the baking powder and salt, but this trick eliminates one step!
  • The wrong flour can destroy your cake - Okay, that may be an exaggeration, but the wrong flour can really change the taste and texture of your cake.  The two main types of flour used in cake baking are Cake Flour and All Purpose Flour.
  • What in the heck is Cake Flour?
    • Cake Flour is milled from soft red winter wheat or soft white wheat.  It uses the absolute heart of the endosperm (essentially free of bran and germ) which give the flour a finer grain, whiter color, lower protein content (6-8%), and slightly higher starch content.
    • Protein is used in gluten formation.  So the lower protein content in Cake Flour means less gluten development, and less gluten development results in a tender cake with a higher volume.
    • Cake Flour is bleached with both chlorine gas and benzoyl peroxide.
    • The chlorine treatment does a lot:
      • The chlorine treatment weakens the gluten structure, and makes it easier to break under the pressure of expanding leavening gasses.
      • The chlorine treatment alters the starch molecules in the flour which allows the starch to absorb more water. With less free water in the batter, the batter thickens and can trap more tiny air bubbles during mixing. The bubbles are important because they defines the "crumb" of the cake.  Air bubbles also provides the cavities where all the powerful leavening gases accumulate before they start to lift the cake. 
      • The chlorine treatment also lowers the pH of the flour which reduces browning of the cake.
    • The benzoyl peroxide treatment makes the flour a bright white color.
    • The chlorine and benzoyl peroxide treatments alter the taste of the flour too.
    • Because of the unique properties of Cake Flour, it is typically used in High-Ratio cakes. A High-Ratio Cake has a high ratio of liquid and sugar to flour (it has more tenderizers than structure builders). Without Cake Flour, a High-Ratio Cake would likely rise and then collapse during baking and cooling.
    • Some say you can "make" cake flour by adding corn starch to flour, but that doesn't really work. The added corn starch may dilute the overall protein content and increase the amount of starch, but it doesn't add any of the chlorine gas effects.
    • Interesting note: flour bleaching agents are banned in EU and UK so no Cake Flour for them.
  • All Purpose Flours - How many brands of All Purpose (AP) flour can you name? 5? 10? 15?
    • Do you know that each brand of flour has a different protein content (usually in the range of 9-12%)? 
    • Some brands are a mixture of soft and hard wheat, some are just soft wheat, and some are just hard. Generally the harder the wheat, the higher the protein content.
    • The brand of flour you select will alter the taste, texture and crumb of the cake depending on how much protein that particular flour contains. For example, White Lily AP is made from soft winter wheat and has a protein content of 9%. Martha White also has approximately 9%. Gold Medal and Pillsbury have 9-10%. King Arthur Unbleached AP has 11.7%.
    • So if your cake recipe calls for All Purpose flour, try to use a flour with the lowest protein content you can find. The flour you use WILL impact the texture of the final cake.

Sugar, Sugar, Sugar

The main purpose of sugar in cakes is for sweetness, but sugar also has other important functions:
  • Sugar is highly hygroscopic meaning that it attracts and binds to water. If the water binds to the sugar there is less water available to convert the flour proteins to gluten.
  • Sugar is considered a tenderizer because it inhibits the formation of structure building gluten. The more sugar added, the more tender the cake.  But too much sugar will stop all gluten development which will ultimately cause the cake to collapse.
  • Sugar contributes to browning through the process of caramelization and Maillard browning. Caramelization is the simple browning of sugar,  but the Maillard browning reaction requires the presence of both sugar and milk proteins. 
  • Because of Maillard browning, cakes with milk (vs water) are more prone to browning. A nice sugary brown crust is treasured in pound cakes, but not good for a white wedding cakes.
  • To reduce browning an acid can be added to lower the pH of the batter.  Common cake acids include Cream of Tarter, vinegar, buttermilk, lemon juice, etc.
  • To increase browning (for pound cakes) raise the pH by adding an alkali like baking soda.
  • Sugar acts as a leavening agent because air gets trapped around the irregularly shaped sugar crystals. The process of creaming fats with sugar also introduces air into the mixture. (see more on leavening below)
  • Sugar stabilizes whipped egg whites. The sugar keeps the egg whites from collapsing and losing the air that was carefully whipped into the whites. Sugar also stabilizes beaten whole egg that are used in chiffon cakes, and egg yolks that are used in custards.
  • Sugar increases the temperature at which eggs whites coagulate or set which allows more time for the cake to rise.  Once the eggs whites coagulate, the cake can no longer rise. 
  • When used in small amounts, sugar promotes microbial growth, but when used in high enough quantities it inhibits microbial growth. This is why high sugar frostings and icings that contain dairy products (milk, cream, cream cheese) don't require refrigeration. (Note: different States have different rules on refrigeration requirements of cream cheese frosting.  Check with your State to be sure.)

Types of Sweeteners:
  • Granulated sugar is the most common sugar used in baking.  It is made from either sugar cane or sugar beet.
  • Powdered sugar is pulverized granulated sugar with about 3% added cornstarch that keeps it from clumping. (Remember that sugar is hygroscopic and will even absorb moisture from the air.  The corn starch stops this absorption.)  Powdered sugar is about 10 times as fine as granulated sugar. It is commonly called 10X sugar.  Powdered sugar is typically used in frosting rather than cake batters.  
  • Fondant sugar is an extremely fine powdered sugar. Fondant sugar is 100 times finer than powdered sugar and contains no corn starch. As the name implies it is used to make fondant.
  • Brown sugar is granulated sugar with about 10% added molasses.
  • Simple Syrups are made by mixing equal parts liquid and granulated sugar and then heating till the sugar is dissolved and the liquid is reduced.
  • Glucose Corn Syrup is a clear syrup produced from the breakdown of starch molecules. Corn Syrup isn't as sweet as granulated sugar, but it does act like sugar (tenderizes, moistens, browns). Corn Syrup is used to thicken products and prevent the recrystallization of granulated sugar. Corn Syrup can also be added to cake batters to tenderize (inhibit gluten production) without making the cake as sweet as granulated sugar. Corn Syrup is added to glazes and icings to make them flow better, add a glossy sheen, and add bulk without making them overly sweet.

Got Milk? 

If a recipe calls for whole milk, can you substitute 2%, skim, or even water? If a recipe calls for water, can you substitute milk? Well, the answer is yes and no. Whole milk is 88% water so the substitution probably won’t drastically impact the overall structure of the cake, but it might affect the look and taste. In addition to water, whole milk contains about 5.0% Lactose, 3.5% Milk Fat, and 3.5% Protein. The 12% of milk that is not water is know as the Dry Milk Solids (DMS).

The primary purpose of the milk (and milk products like sour cream, buttermilk, etc) is to add moisture (water) and moistness (a liquid sensation in the mouth)  to the cake. Remember that moisture (water) is necessary for the formation of gluten and for the hydration of starch and sugar.  But the milk solids in milk products serve other purposes as well:
  • The solids in milk causes browning of a cake. The combination of milk protein and sugar are the basis for the Maillard reaction which gives baked items their golden brown crust. To reduce the amount of browning on a cake you can lower the baking temperature or add an acid like Cream of Tarter, vinegar, or lemon juice.
  • Milk products delays staling in baked goods.
  • Milk gives a richness of flavor and helps blend flavors.
  • Milk firms up the cake crumb making it more resilient and easier to handle.
  • Milk products also strengthens the cell structure of egg whites keeping them from stretching and breaking during baking.
  • Powdered whole milk added during the creaming of fats and sugar will helps trap more air into the mixture. Trapping more air will produce a finer cake crumb.
  • Milk solids also stabilize the creamed mixture of fat and sugar. The milk solids include emulsifiers that keep the fats and water bound together. Without the emulsifiers the fats and water may "break" or separate.

What’s your favorite FAT?

Cakes can be made with different fats including butter, margarine, lard, shortening, and oil.  Each will give their own unique texture and flavor to the cake, but all are used to tenderize a cake.

So is one fat better than the other? Some people think that cakes made with butter are the best, but does the science backup that thinking?
  • Butter
    • Butter is by far is the best tasting of the fats.  Nothing is better for flavor and mouthfeel, but butter is expensive.
    • Butter is not very healthy because it is high in saturated fat (more than lard) and cholesterol, 
    • And because of its low melting point, butter it is not the best option for getting fluffy cakes with a lot of volume and a fine crumb.
    • Butter is more suited for dense cakes rather than light, fluffy cake.
    • If a recipe doesn't indicate which type, then always use unsalted butter. Different brands of butter will have different amounts of salt, so if you use salted butter you are never sure how much salt you are actually putting in the cake.
    • Don't use salted butter in buttercream, it is just too much salt for frosting.
    • In the US butter has a minimum of 80% butterfat. The rest is typically water (16%) and milk solids (4%). 
    • To make a moist cake you need a lot of liquid.  You also need this liquid to stay in the cake during baking and not turn to steam and escape.  Shortening does a better job of trapping moisture and air than butter, so a cake made with butter will be drier than the same cake made with shortening.
  • Lard is another fat, but because of its crystalline structure it is not suited for fine-crumbed cakes. Lard is used mostly for pie crusts.
  • Margarine is imitation butter. It has a similar composition of butter (80% fat and 16% water), and is healthier and cheaper. But margarine doesn’t have the same pleasant mouthfeel as butter and tends to leave an oily or greasy feel to the mouth.
  • Shortening
    • Shortening is the same as margarine minus the water. 
    • Because shortening can trap and retain more air and liquid, a cake made with shortening will be moister than the same cake made with butter. 
    • Common grocery store brands are considered "All Purpose Shortening". They can be used in everything from cakes to a deep fryer.
    • You can also buy High-Ratio shortening that has added emulsifiers which helps the shortening trap and holds more air and liquid. This makes it well suited for both cakes and frostings. The High-Ratio shortening makes frostings creamier and fluffier, and makes cakes that are moister and more tender. Opt for the High-Ratio shortening if you can find it. 


Eggs, like flour, are structure builders. Eggs are actually just as important as gluten for building a well structured cake.
  • Heat from baking interacts with the protein in eggs and cause them to coagulate and form a network of interconnected strands of protein.
  • Without eggs, most cakes would collapse.
  • Use fresh eggs - Fresh eggs will whip up lighter and fuller than older eggs. Fresh eggs are also slightly acidic which helps stabilize the egg proteins which part of the cake's structure builders. As an egg ages it slowly becomes more alkaline which make the protein strands less stable.
  • Whipped egg whites are excellent at trapping air because egg whites can expand up to 8 times their volume during whipping. Air bubbles in the batter are essential part of leavening. (see section on leavening below.)
  • But make sure you don’t over whip your egg whites.  Over whipping will stretch and thin the cell wall of the proteins, and during baking these thin cell walls will break and collapse.
  • Sugar helps to stabilize whipped egg whites and keeps them from collapsing or weeping.
  • Egg yolks contain a natural emulsifier that helps keep fat and water from separating. Because of this emulsifier, eggs are often added to creamed butter or shortening to keep the mixture stable. The emulsifiers in egg yolks help bind together ingredients (water and fat) that would normally repel each other.
  • But make sure you follow the recipe directions and only add one egg at a time!!! And make sure you fully incorporate each individual egg into the fat before adding the next egg!!!  And don't use cold eggs.  Adding cold eggs or adding the eggs too fast will cause the emulsion to “break”. When the emulsion breaks, the water in the egg will separate from the fats and they can never be rejoined. 
  • When the emulsion "breaks", the mixture will look curdled.
  • Once the emulsion “breaks”, it is broken for good. Adding additional ingredients like flour may make it look like the water and fats are once again bound, but they are not. A poorly emulsified cake will not rise properly and will have a coarse, hole-ridden crumb.
  • Despite the fact that eggs are 75% water, too many eggs will make a cake dry. Remember that the protein in eggs builds structure, and the additional structure will dry out the cake. The water in the eggs will convert to steam and escape during baking. This steam will lift the cake and cause it to rise, but it will also dry out the cake. This is why adding an extra egg to a brownie mix will change them from dense, moist and fudgy to lighter, cake-like, and drier.
  • Over whipping egg whites will also dry out a cake. If the recipe calls for egg whites whipped to soft peaks, stop at soft peaks and don’t over whip to stiff peaks.

How to get your cake HIGH...

Cakes are light and porous because gases trapped inside the batter expand (due to heat and chemical reaction) and stretch the flexible cell walls of the gluten, starches, and egg proteins. This process of gas expansion is called leavening. Leavening is what gets your cake high.

There are three types of leavening gases in cakes: steam, air, and carbon dioxide.

  • Steam is created when the water in the batter is heated beyond the boiling point. Water expands to over 1600 times its volume when it goes from a liquid to a solid state, so water and the resulting steam is a major leavening gas in cakes.
  • Carbon dioxide is created when Baking Soda comes in contact with an acid like vinegar, lemon juice, buttermilk, etc.
    • Baking Powder is a mixture of Baking Soda and a dried acid like Cream of Tarter. When the baking powder comes in contact with water the water hydrates the dried acid which in turn reacts with the baking soda in the baking powder mix to produce carbon dioxide.
    • Most baking powders are Double Acting, so carbon dioxide is first activated when the baking powder come in contact with water and then again when it is heated. 
    • Check the date on your baking powder – make sure it isn’t expired or close to it. 
      • Once a container is open, high humidity can also weaken the baking power. 
      • To test the effectiveness of the baking powder, place 1/2 teaspoon of baking powder in bowl and pour 1/4 cup of boiling water over it. If it starts to bubble violently then it is still good. If it just bubble little, get a new can. 
      • You don’t want to ruin your cake because of an old baking powder.
  • Air is the third leavening agent. 
    • Air is introduced into the cake batter through physical processes.
    • When flour is sifted, air is trapped between the particles and the flour fluffs up. This is another reason to SIFT your flour!
    • When sugar is creamed with fat, air gets trapped between the grains of sugar and smears of fat forming tiny air bubbles or pockets.
    • When egg whites are mixed, huge amounts of air is introduced which expanding the egg whites 3,4 or 5 times their original volume.
    • Even the act of stirring the batter or folding other ingredients into the batter traps air inside the mix.
    • Air bubbles / air pockets are very important to the final density, height, and crumb of the cake. The more air pockets trapped in the batter, the finer the texture or crumb of the cake.
    • Air pockets are ONLY formed during the mixing process.  Once mixing stops, no more air pockets are created. 
    • Once in the oven, heat causes the air sitting inside the pockets to expands a tiny bit, but the trapped air is not the real magic of the air pockets.
    • Instead the real purpose of these air pockets is to give the other gasses a place to collect. As the steam and carbon dioxide form, the gases will collect in all available air pockets.  Once inside the air pockets, the steam and carbon dioxide gases start expanding, and expanding, and expanding.
    • The expanding gas pushing on the walls of the air pockets, enlarging the size of the bubble and forcing the cake to rise.
    • The number and size of the air pockets is very important because they determine the "crumb" of the cake.  A large number of small air bubbles will give you a fine crumb, a smaller number of large air bubbles will give you a coarse crumb.
    • Without air pockets the gasses have no place to collect.  Eventually the gasses will form massive bubbles and tunnel their way to the surface of the cake.  Once at the surface they explode like lava erupting from a volcano.   If you find worm-like tunnels in your cake it means you didn't mix the batter enough, and not enough air bubbles were formed.

Whoa my fingers are tired, if you made it this far I guess your eyes are tired too.  Who knew there was so much chemistry and physics involved in combining Flour, Fat, Sugar, Liquid, and Eggs.   

But don't take your Alton Brown hat off just yet -- you will need it for the equally scientific process of Mixing the Batter.

Next up is Part 3 - Oven, Pans, and Pan Prep

PS:  If you want to read more about the science of cooking and baking.  Try How Baking Works,  The Science of Good Cooking, The Baking Bible, or any of the Alton Brown Good Eats books.

Happy Baking,