Read an Excerpt
The Appeal of
The words homemade cake recall the image of freshly baked layers, one stacked on top of the other and wrapped in a creamy frosting. Those layers would be soft and moist, and the frosting a rich wrapping for the delicate cake. No other sweet is exactly like an American layer cake, for the texture and grain of the cake, usually created by the definitive "creaming method," is a feathery work of art and, as desserts go, dreamy and soothing.
For a layer cake, the batter is baked in 8-, 9-, or 10-inch round baking pans; the resulting cake layers are cooled and topped with frosting. Most unbaked batters are remarkably smooth, light, and soft (with a texture that practically resembles a buttercream) and some are thinner but still silky and lustrous. A marvelous scent fills the kitchen as the layers bake and, in a short time, they are ready to receive a coating of frosting or icing. Whether the allure is one of sentiment or taste, the time-honored layer cake still pleases--the contrast of soft cake and suave frosting is simply irresistible. This is the kind of cake that entices you with its looks alone--standing tall on a cake plate or pedestal, it's the sweet promise of a home-baked dessert that's really so tempting.
Slices of layer cake look beautiful on large dessert plates, and can be presented at the conclusion of a meal or as a mid-afternoon or evening treat served with a hot or iced beverage.
The sheet cake--a must at birthdays, dinners where many cooks participate, picnics, school and charity bake sales--combines cake and frosting in a simple, single13 by 9-inch (or 9 by 9-inch) layer. This is a transportable cake. It cuts into manageable squares, either large or small, and can be covered over with a thick frosting, a pourable glaze, or a few shakes of confectioners' sugar.
To be sure, the sheet cake is one of the workhorses of the baking kitchen, for its uncomplicated assembly and serve-directly-from-the-pan convenience is a blessing to anyone who bakes. Of the two types of cake, a sheet cake appears a dash more homespun, but tastes no less delicious.
The sweets that you'll encounter in this book, all old and new favorites of mine, are festive, not fancy cakes. Each has a genuine flavor, having been created with basic ingredients, and represents good baking, pure and simple.
The Cake Pantry
Cake baking, in its most elementary form, functions very well with a standard mix of ingredients, all of which are available at the market. This includes good bar chocolate, plump vanilla beans, and decent heavy cream, once considered deluxe commodities. Stock up on flours, sweeteners, extracts, leavening, and spices and keep them stored together in a cabinet for easy accessibility (consider this your baking shelf). Ground spices and baking powder should be checked from time to time to confirm freshness, for, with age, spices lose their pungency and old baking powder is ineffective in elevating batters.
In my pantry, several shelves accommodate baking supplies exclusively, stored in their own packaging or transferred into storage containers. Bar chocolate, cocoa, extracts, syrups, honey, and such remain in their foil, can, glass, or paper wrappings, but I usually transfer light or dark brown sugar, cornstarch, baking soda, baking powder (if not already purchased in a self-sealing can), and dried fruit into sturdy storage containers with tight-fitting lids to keep it all fresh and appealing. And since I bake so much, all-purpose and cake flours, granulated sugar and confectioners' sugar, and some special ingredients (such as maple sugar) are stored in glass apothecary jars on my kitchen countertop so that I can reach them easily and see when supplies are low.
Stocking the pantry with the basics and storing baking supplies within easy reach streamlines the baking process.
These are the items that I rely on to make excellent cakes:
The recipes in this book use either bleached all-purpose flour and/or bleached cake flour. Bleached flour gives the baked cake a finer, more delicate "crumb." All-purpose flour is available in 5- and 10-pound bags and cake flour in 2-pound boxes. To answer the question of so many readers about the brands of flour I use in baking: I use Gold Medal all-purpose flour and Swan's Down cake flour.
The Oatmeal Cake on page 68 is made with "quick-cooking" (not instant) rolled oats. The "quick-cooking" oats are soaked in boiling water before they are added to the batter, a technique that creates a supple, downy texture in that particular sheet cake.
A variety of sugars, alone or in combination with one another, are used routinely in layer cakes and sheet cakes. They are: plain granulated sugar (packaged in 5- and 10-pound bags); superfine sugar (also know as "bar" or "dessert" sugar and available in 1-pound boxes); light brown sugar and dark brown sugar, available in 1-pound boxes (to measure, firmly press the sugar into cups used for measuring dry ingredients); and confectioners' sugar, also known as powdered sugar (available in 1-pound boxes). Granulated and superfine sugar should flow easily and brown sugar should be free of any hard lumps. If you have any doubts about the uniform texture of either light or dark brown sugar, strain it before measuring, for bits of hardened sugar will surely remain in the batter and ruin the texture of the baked cake.
For easy reference, know that a 1-pound box of confectioners' sugar
contains approximately 4 cups of sugar; a 1-pound box of superfine sugar yields about 213 cups; and a 1-pound box of either light or dark brown sugar holds about 214 packed cups.
Butter, shortening, and oil
Cakes with the most delicate grain and gossamer texture are made with fresh (not frozen and defrosted) unsalted butter, solid shortening (such as Crisco), or a mixture of the two. The character of butter is altered during the process of freezing and defrosting, and the change is reflected in the texture of the baked cake. On testing, cakes baked with frozen, defrosted, and softened butter yielded a denser, more compact cake, with a heavier "crumb." This quality is more obvious in layer and sheet cakes (made by the "creamed" method), and less conspicuous in bar cookies, such as brownies or blondies, when the butter is used in the melted state and the texture of the final product is dense, fudgy, or chewy. The Spiced Carrot Cake (page 64) uses plain vegetable oil (choose soybean or canola), as opposed to butter or shortening, which gives the baked cake a divinely moist texture.
Milk, cream, and cream cheese
Cakes and frostings use whole milk, evaporated milk (available in 5-ounce cans), half-and-half, buttermilk, light cream, sour cream, and cream cheese (available in 3-ounce and 8-ounce packages).
All of the recipes in this book use extra-large eggs.
Baking powder and baking soda, the choice, time-honored leavening agents, should always be measured in level amounts. Dip the measuring spoon into a container and sweep off the excess with the straight edge of a smooth-
surfaced, flat table knife or, preferably, a flexible palette knife. If your baking soda is lumpy, lightly press out the lumps before measuring; actually sieving the baking soda might alter the quantity and so leaven the cake improperly. It's wise to purchase baking powder in small quantities and replace it within 6 to 9 months in order to assure freshness. Store both baking powder and baking soda away from any direct heat source, in sturdy storage jars with tight-fitting lids.
Pure extracts contribute the best flavor and aroma to baked goods. The cake recipes in this book make appropriate use of vanilla extract and occasional use of almond extract and lemon extract.
Aromatic and full of intense flavor, a ground spice both colors and brightly seasons a cake batter. Spices are usually sifted along with the flour and leavening(s). With the exception of salt, it is essential to store spices in a reasonably cool, dark place.
The scent of spices past their prime is dull, and old spices are not worthy of adding to a batter; fresh spices, however, are pungent and zesty. Cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, and cardamom are used alone or as a medley in layer cakes and sheet cakes. Since bottled ground nutmeg has a lackluster taste, I grate whole nutmegs as needed for each recipe on a nutmeg grater. It's easy enough to do and vastly improves the taste of the finished cake. (A nutmeg grater is a small, arched section of metal, with fine holes and a built-in back or top pocket for accommodating two or three whole nutmegs.)
Nuts, fresh or dried fruit, and vegetables add character to baked goods and, frequently, identify and distinguish a particular cake. The cakes and frostings in this book make occasional use of almonds, pecans, English walnuts, and macadamia nuts.