~ "Secrets" to Seriously Moist Cakes and Cupcakes ~
"It's a piece of cake" is an old saying that was popularized in WWII in reference to how easy the upcoming mission was going to be. "A cake walk" was military slang for a raid that turned out to be much easier than expected. "Takes the cake" is an expression that means "wins the prize". "If I knew you were coming I'd've baked a cake" is an expression of delightful surprise at having a special someone drop back into your life. Cakes really do play a significant role in all our lives!
"Anyone can bake a cake" is a true statement. Anyone can -- if they are so inclined. "Cake baking is not rocket science" is a misleading statement. While cake baking is not hard (a mixture of eggs, flour, sugar, butter, eggs and milk get mixed together), that's a naive way of explaining it to someone. Knowing how and when those simple ingredients get beaten together requires a basic knowledge of the chemical processes that take place, along with the proper technique. A better phase would be, "Anyone can learn how to bake a cake", because, in fact:
To learn how to bake a cake: You can read about it in a book (or on the internet) and leave yourself to the mercy of yourself, or, you can have someone physically teach you hands-on. The latter is by far the least painful -- I learned the first way and it wasn't always pretty. My grandmother didn't bake a lot of cakes, and, my mother (a product of her generation), relied upon boxed mixes. (I have no ax to grind with folks who use a boxed mix or "doctor up" a mix, just don't call yourself a cake baker, you are not -- baking out of a box has little to do with actual cake baking.) For better and worse, it was me, myself and I -- going "by the book".
Almost nothing is worse than following a recipe as written, having it bake up pretty as a picture, only to be disappointed by a dry first forkful. "As written" means zero ingredient substitutions, weighing and measuring each one precisely, combining them as instructed without over-mixing, using the specified size and type of pan, and, adhering to the temperature, time and cooling guidelines -- if you do not play by these rules, blame no one but yourself for the end result.
That said, unless you are a super-savvy home baker or a professional baker, if you are following a recipe that you have never used before, playing by the rules, for better or worse, is the common sense decision. Admittedly, it can feel like a roll of the dice (there are lots of untested recipes on the internet nowadays), but, all of us home bakers buck up and do it -- sometimes we get excellent results, other times, "not so much". We do it because it's in our best interest. The maiden voyage serves as mission control for changes we may want to make to it next time.
make no substitutions to the ingredients list
weigh and measure dry and wet ingredients properly and precisely
in the order listed, combine the ingredients as instructed
use the specified size and type of baking pan
adhere to oven temperature, baking and cooling time guidelines
Good recipe developers write cake recipes keeping in mind how the major ingredients react together (it's called chemistry). Always use the specified type of flour and sugar, the preferred shortening, and, the right size eggs. Unlike cooking, when baking, sometimes even a benign substitution, like the wrong size egg, can upset the balance.
Baking is a precise sport, the rule is: weigh dry ingredients and measure wet ones. It's especially important to weigh flour because each type is different in weight and texture: 1 cup of cake flour does not weigh the same as 1 cup of all-purpose flour, and, 1 cup of flour, sifted after weighing, does not weigh the same as 1 cup of sifted flour.
The typical mixing scenario is to stir the dry ingredients together with the leavening agent(s) then beat in the wet ingredients, either all at once or in increments. Chemical reactions begin almost immediately, and, under- or over-mixing causes problems. Long story short: mixing is about creaming fats and sugar together, adding protein for structure, then beating to aerate. At this point, the batter needs to go into the pans and get baked ASAP.
Pan size controls surface area and thickness. Changing the pan size affects the baking time and can affect the general texture of the cake, and, changing from a shiny metal pan to a dark one requires lowering the oven temperature by 25 degrees. Once baked, removing a cake from the pan too soon, or allowing it to cool in the pan too long will affect its texture too.
not mess around with the recommended type or amount of flour
substitute light or dark brown sugar for all or a portion of the granulated sugar
always choose butter over margarine or shortening
replace a portion or all of the butter w/an equal amount of flavorless vegetable oil
add an extra 2-4 tablespoons of flavorless vegetable oil to the recipe
use 1 large egg and 2 large egg yolks in place of 2 large eggs
use 4 large egg yolks in place of 2 large eggs
substitute buttermilk for milk
substitute sour cream or yogurt for 1/2-3/4 of the buttermilk or milk
add an extra 2-4 tablespoons of sour cream or yogurt to the recipe
Flour, sugar, butter, eggs and milk. Those are the key ingredients in most of the cakes we home-bakers make. My list is 100% approved by me. Making 1, 2 or even 3 of those changes to a cake recipe will do no harm, but, please know, you can only push the envelope so far when adjusting a cake recipe. If pressed to divulge my favorite three ways to get a cake recipe to turn out super-moist: vegetable oil, egg yolks and sour cream. Read on:
That said, my list does not apply to "special cakes", like angel food, chiffon or sponge cakes, or any cake that is not baked via the same method as a typical cake.
You really can have your cake and eat it too!
(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2015)