It’s the time of year when baking pans come out of the cupboard and the flour begins to fly. Part art and part science, cake baking benefits from a healthy mix of precision, technique and creativity. As such, it’s probably no mystery why it instills such a healthy fear in so many cooks.
Here’s a recipe to try, Pumpkin Spice Cake, and some tips for baking more successfully, even if you only do it once a year.
* Read the recipe: Read it through, measure ingredients and have equipment ready before you start. It is frustrating to discover that you are out of a key ingredient or do not have the necessary equipment after you have started the recipe. If you have everything lined up, it will clue you in if you forget to add an ingredient.
* Read the introduction: A cookbook’s introduction can hold valuable information, such as how the author measures flour and other such essentials. Some authors scoop the cup into the flour, then level it off with a straight edge; others spoon the flour into the cup until it is brimming over the top, then level it off. Scooping gives a tad more flour then spooning. If there is no indication of which the author uses, spoon and level off.
* Know your skills: Everyone starts somewhere. If you are a beginner, bake your way through the recipe in your mind. Ideally, select recipes that tell you what equipment to use for each step and what the batter or cake should look like at different stages, as well as how long to beat or bake.
* Use the correct pan size: Use the pan size called for. Too small a pan can cause batter to overflow; too large a pan can result in a pancake. Turn the pan over to read the size or measure inside the pan edge to edge.
* Use proper measuring tools: Measure liquids in glass or plastic measuring cups with spouts. Use stackable metal or plastic cups for dry ingredients and nested measuring spoons for teaspoons and tablespoons.
* Know your oven: Inaccurate oven temperatures have a hand in many a disappointing cake. Oven temperatures change, so buy and use an oven thermometer that can rest on the rack. Note any variation and adjust the setting to account for any differences.
* Do not crowd the oven: Leave about 2 inches between the pan and the sides of the oven so that hot air can circulate. If you must bake layers on top of each other, stagger them on the racks so that one is not directly above the other.
* Know your source: If you are a novice baker, stick to known recipe sources such as newspapers, cookbooks, magazines or well-established Web sites. Do not let your holiday dessert hinge on a recipe picked up in a chat room if you are unable to judge whether the recipe is sound.
* Fresh is best: Make sure that you use fresh ingredients, particularly baking powder and baking soda. If these have been open six months or more, replace them.
* Be careful with substitutions: If you are a beginner, do not substitute ingredients or leave anything out. This is especially true the first time you make a recipe, because flavor and texture can be altered.
* Details matter: “2 cups sifted flour” means to sift the flour then measure it. “2 cups flour, sifted” means to measure the flour then sift it, which yields slightly more flour.
* How to flour pans: Put 2 to 3 tablespoons of flour in each greased pan and coat the bottoms by holding the pan in one hand and tapping the sides with the other hand, rotating the pan as you tap. Then turn the pan on its side and continue rotating and tapping to coat the sides with flour. Turn the pan upside-down and tap the sides and bottom sharply a few times to shake out any excess flour.
* What is soft butter? Softened butter means just soft enough to hold the indentation of your finger.
* What size eggs? Use large eggs unless the recipe states otherwise