A cookbook can change your life. Two years ago I reviewed one called “Southern Cakes,” which did just that.
Like most people, I’d always thought making a cake from scratch was only for the heroic. In fact, Nancie McDermott’s book showed me that all you have to do is beat butter and sugar to a cream, beat in some eggs and add flour and milk in alternating batches, and there’s your batter.
Wow, really have to lie down and recover after all that.
I’m a different person now. People see me and say, “Hey, Cake Guy!” Because I’m usually carrying a cake around with a goofy grin on my face.
Once I’d grasped the basics (and tried just about every recipe in “Southern Cakes”), I moved on to Rose Levy Beranbaum’s “The Cake Bible,” and “The Art of the Cake” by her mentors Bruce Healy and Paul Bugat. Both books are crammed with sophisticated techniques, and I now follow Beranbaum’s foolproof method of making butter cream frosting. Her discussion of the chemistry and physics behind her recipes is invaluable.
But many of the cakes in Beranbaum’s book don’t tempt me, and none of those in Healy and Bugat’s do. Namely, the classic French bakery cakes.
French cakes are impressive-looking, but they strike me as chilly and fussy.
And they use a lot of ingredients that leave me cold -- spun sugar, marzipan, kirsch, candied fruit, chestnut puree (sorry, but I think of it as a kind of porridge). Gack. And look at all the stuff they leave out. There’s not a single coconut cake in “The Art of the Cake”!
The French idea of frosting basically seems to be something that lies flat so you can decorate it. They have no use for our unruly American frostings -- no cream cheese frosting, no good old American seven-minute icing. And all that piped frosting they do -- forget it. In my book, real men don’t know a star tip from a drop flower tip.
Though we got cake making from the French, we Americans have created our own repertoire. Notably, we make our cakes light with the use of baking powder (French cakes are mostly leavened with beaten egg white), so our cakes tend to be taller. French cakes are usually little short one-layer jobs anyway, and any cake under 4 inches high just makes me sad. The high egg-white content of French cakes makes a lot of them dry and chewy, so they have to be soaked with syrup before being frosted.
The French approach has been taken to an extreme by Charm City Cakes, the wild Baltimore bakery featured on the Food Network’s “Ace of Cakes.”
Though I appreciate the cleverness and skill and all-around wackiness, I watch the show pretty much the way I watch shows about people erecting bridges over dangerous gorges. I never think of their cakes as, you know, food. All that fondant icing, which is nothing but sugar syrup boiled to the consistency of putty; all that gum paste and royal icing, which are just structural elements. As chef Michel Richard has observed, they don’t seem to be cakes for eating but for looking at.
Here are the steps on my way to becoming the Cake Guy. Pay attention. This could happen to you.
First, I bought some good 9-inch pans, and I started keeping fresh baking powder on hand. Freshness makes a big difference in everything connected with cake.
Then I started hanging out at restaurant supply places. I invested $4.50 in a package of 100 (9-inch) parchment paper circles; totally worth it -- butter your pans, then put in the parchment paper and butter it, dust everything with flour, and your cake will always come out of the pan in one piece, no matter how delicate the batter.
I found a little cake tester for $2.50 and some long, narrow spatulas for frosting. OK, the angled spatula was $12, which seemed steep, but it works better in close quarters. I bought a round French cake rack, which is very useful for transferring a cake layer from its pan to a cooling rack, though I was starting to run out of space in my kitchen.
I bought this thing to wrap around my cake pans so the layers would bake up with a flatter surface, though I’ve hardly ever used it.
Pretty soon I couldn’t pass a restaurant supply place. One day I was a little early on my way downtown, so I stopped off at Surfas in Culver City, telling myself it was just to kill 15 minutes. First thing I knew I’d bought a small food mill. Well, it is handy if you’re making a quantity of fruit puree too small to be done in a food processor.
A couple of days later I picked up a sugar sprinkler, a little worried that this might be a utensil too far. When I bought a package of 50 (10-inch) cardboard cake rounds (essential for carrying a cake to somebody else’s house), I realized that cakes were kind of taking over my life.
But I don’t care. I’m Mr. Popularity now. I’m the Cake Guy.
As Easy As 1, 2, 3, 4
Your basic American yellow cake is made from flour, sweetened with sugar, given structure with eggs, enriched and tenderized with butter, leavened with baking powder and flavored with vanilla and a little salt. You may have all the ingredients to make a cake on hand right now.
The most common recipe is known as 1-2-3-4 cake, because it uses 1 cup each of milk and butter (that’s two sticks of butter), 2 cups of sugar, 3 cups of flour and 4 eggs. (Actually, it also needs one-half teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon vanilla and 2 teaspoons of baking powder, so I suppose it’s really the 1-2-3-4 plus 1/2 -1-2 cake.)
The usual technique starts by creaming the butter and sugar -- a complicated, impressive, highly technical process that consist of putting both ingredients in the mixer on high speed for maybe two minu tes (the butter should be at room temperature, neither cold nor melted). Then you add the eggs one by one and beat for a minute or two. Wow, how hard was that?
Finally, you mix the flour with the baking powder and salt in one bowl, and add the vanilla to the milk in another, and slowly beat both mixtures into the butter and egg mixture, alternating the flour and milk, just until the flour is incorporated.
For a lighter texture, many recipes add the yolks to the batter separate from the whites, which are beaten and folded into the batter after the flour (I rarely bother). Other recipes mix the sugar with the flour and add the butter, eggs and milk to it, or mix the sugar with the eggs first before beating in the rest. However you do it, the liquid should always be added to the flour last and the batter should be mixed just until the flour is absorbed.
If you’ve turned your oven to 350 degrees, you’re now half an hour away from having a couple of cake layers. As soon as they’re cool, you can frost them and bask in glory.
Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Generously grease the interior of two (9-inch) round cake pans, bottom and sides, with butter. If possible, line the bottom with parchment paper and grease the paper as well.
Sprinkle about 2 teaspoons flour into each pan and shake around until the interior is thoroughly dusted. Turn the pans upside down over the sink and tap against the sink to dislodge any excess flour.
In a small bowl, stir the cocoa into the boiling water, stirring until smooth. Set aside until it cools to room temperature.
Meanwhile, in the bowl of a stand mixer, or in a large bowl using an electric mixer, beat the 1 cup butter until fluffy, 1 to 2 minutes.
Reduce the speed and add the sugar with the mixer running, continuing to mix until light and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes more. Add the eggs one at a time and beat into the mixture, then add the vanilla and mix until combined.
In a large bowl, combine the remaining flour with the baking powder and salt, stirring with a whisk or fork until combined.
Add one-third of the cocoa to the butter mixture and beat until combined, then one-third of the flour mixture. Repeat with the remaining cocoa and flour in two batches.
Divide the batter between the two prepared cake pans, smooth the surfaces with a spatula and bake in the center of the oven until the surface springs back when touched and the cake has started to pull away from the walls of the pan, about 30 minutes.
Transfer the cake pans to cooling racks or folded towels for 10 minutes, then overturn the pans onto a rack or plate and tap lightly to remove the cakes from the pans and paper. Turn the cakes right side up again and cool to room temperature.
Simple mint frosting and assembly
In the bowl of a stand mixer, or in a large bowl using a hand mixer, beat the butter until light and fluffy, 1 to 2 minutes over low speed. Add confectioner’s sugar and continue to beat until evenly incorporated. With mixer running, add salt and peppermint extract and mix. Add one-fourth cup of the milk and beat into the frosting, adding additional milk 1 tablespoon at a time, until the frosting has a light, fluffy, spreadable consistency. This makes a scant 8 cups frosting.
Assemble the cake: Put 1 cake layer, top side down, on serving plate. Cover the exposed surface with about 2 cups frosting, and spread the frosting evenly over the top of the cake to make the filling. Place the second cake layer on top of the frosting and frost the sides and top with the remaining frosting.
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