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.
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.
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.
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.