You probably already know how to bake a cake. Most of us have had to whip up one for some occasion or another. But, as many novice confectioners have found, cake baking is a fickle art. Unless you're prepared for any and all eventualities, a three-tiered masterpiece can quickly turn into bittersweet disaster.
Don't worry, we've sorted through the overabundance of cake-baking supplies on today's market and compiled a list of 10 must-haves for baking a cake. We'll remind you of some basic (but often forgotten) necessities you probably haven't thought about since home ec class. These fantastic cake-saving aids will come in handy the next time your layered masterpiece or frosted tower starts to crumble.
What's the most essential element for baking any cake? Find out on the next page.
You can't free-hand or guesstimate baking a cake. Regardless if you're a first-time baker or Buddy Valastro, the Cake Boss himself, you simply gotta stick to the recipe.
Cakes are more than a random mixture of flour, sugar and eggs. They're a precise combination of ingredients, and if you don't have the recipe right there in front of you, you're more likely to craft a puddle of goo than a firm, attractive cake.
That said, don't be afraid to improvise. You can make some substitutions, and if you're an old hat at baking cakes, you can always throw a little something extra into the mix. For instance, you could try adding lemon zest to a pound cake recipe that you mastered years ago. No matter what creative additions you make to the batter, just be sure to use the recipe as a guide.
After you pick a recipe, but before you start baking your cake, you should make sure you have an organized workspace. This means your kitchen counters should be clear of everything except the tools you'll need for the job. You're almost certainly going to need a sifter, a whisk, a large mixing bowl, a spatula and both dry and liquid measuring cups.
Getting out these items before you begin will save you time when baking your cake, especially if you find that your whisk is missing or that your toddler has been using your mixing bowls as a makeshift drum set. It's always better to find (and wash) these items before you start than to be in the middle of the process and have to pillage the kitchen -- or even the rest of the house -- to find your absconded cooking tools.
Unless you're crafting a cake from a box, you're going to be mixing a fair amount of thick, hard-to-churn butter and batter. Therefore, you're going to need a hefty, sturdy mixer to combine the main ingredients. Trust us -- you don't want to try creaming all that stuff together by hand. It's exhausting work, and, truth be told, quality mixers just do a better job creating lump-free batter than any human hand. Before you turn on the mixer, ensure that it's sitting on an even, clutter-free surface. And remember that ingredients combine better when they're all at the same temperature.
Anyone who's ever scraped lasagna off the bottom of a pan or had warm-from-the-oven cookies crumble to bits when trying to remove them from a baking sheet knows how essential quality nonstick pans are. With cakes, it's even more important to use this kind of bakeware.
You can always scoop tarnished lasagna into a bowl or toss cookie pieces onto a plate, but if the bottom part of your cake gets stuck to the pan, the whole dessert will be ruined. Sure, you could try salvaging some tasty cakey bits and spoon some icing over them, but you need the cake whole and unblemished if you plan on presenting it at a birthday party or sharing a few slices with friends. And really, isn't that what cakes are all about?
You're going to need specialized supplies depending on the type of cake you're planning to bake. For a tiered cake with several layers, for example, you'll need parchment paper to help bake and move the various pieces, cardboard to separate each tier and multiple skewers to keep everything in place.
You can also purchase frosting bags and cake decorating kits to help you artfully craft and design your cakes. After all, if you're going to the trouble of baking a fancy recipe, you might as well go the whole nine yards with some decorative icing and creative designs. Just scrawling "Congratulations" or "Happy Birthday" on a cake ups the ante when it comes to presentation.
You'd think this would go without saying, but you'd be surprised how many people use questionable ingredients when baking. In fact, the culprits behind funky-tasting cakes are often much more innocuous than a stick of moldy butter or a batch of obviously stale flour.
Perfectly good eggs or butter stored next to stinky leftovers might cause your cake to taste and smell strangely, as these ingredients have the unfortunate habit of absorbing scents. You might not notice when buttering up a slice of bread or fixing scrambled eggs for your family, but a cake made with several sticks of rancid butter or a half-dozen odorous eggs will be enough to turn an otherwise perfect dessert into a suspicious-smelling confection that no one will want to eat.
It's hard to make a bad cake. Sure, some may be blander than others, but if it's baked properly and has icing, chances are it's going to taste OK. However, slathering frosting over something doesn't necessarily make it appetizing, and why settle for pretty good when you can have great? All you really need to turn a mundane cake into a flavorful, extravagant dessert is some special sugars and dyes.
Adding different sugars into the cake mix can change the texture and sweetness level, and dyes can transform a typical cake into a festive masterpiece! It's not hard to add a few drops of food coloring into a bowl of frosting, and a little extra effort can have a profound effect on your eyes and taste buds. As they say, you eat with your eyes first, so make sure your cake looks good enough to, well, eat.
You might not think of a cake as piece of luggage (good luck getting one through airport security!), but you're going to have to transport it, even if it's just a few steps to your fridge.
A typical cake plate and a dome will work fine if you're serving the cake at home, but you're going to need something more substantive if you're planning on taking the dessert on the road. A locking, covered container that won't smush your cake and will minimize icing loss is perfect, and it works regardless if you're stashing it in the fridge or taking it on a six-hour drive to visit your in-laws.
Accidents happen. It doesn't matter if you're a novice baker or a seasoned competitor on "Ultimate Cake Off," you need to be prepared when disaster strikes in your kitchen. Luckily, unless your cake collapsed or is lying bottom-up on the floor, you can probably fix the problem with the right supplies -- namely, extra frosting and some toothpicks.
Extra frosting can help repair or cover up damage caused by a crumbling base. It will also steady a slipping layer. You can pile on more icing if the baked layers aren't even or aren't as tasty as you intended and you need to add some extra flavor. Toothpicks can be used for many of the same purposes -- sans extra flavor, of course -- just be sure to remove them before serving or you may have another, more serious emergency on your hands.
The truth is, hastily baked cakes never turn out well. If you're pressed for time and are frantically struggling to bake something for a party or event, you're probably better off just picking up a cake from the grocery store or local bakery. Unless you're mixing ingredients together from a box, there's a good chance that haphazardly assembled ingredients will cause your cake to crumble, slip or even fail to rise. Of course, should that happen, you can always try to fix it with the aforementioned emergency supplies, but the final product will be better if you just take your time.
Valentine's Day is a time to live large. Check out these 10 rich Valentine's Day desserts worth the splurge.
- Darling, Jennifer Dorland, ed. "Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook. 2002. Meredith Publishing, China.
- Davidson, Allen. "Oxford Companion to Food." 2006. Oxford University Press, New York.
- Joachim, David. "The Food Substitutions Bible." 2005. Robert Rose, Toronto, Canada.
- Robson, James. "Forward" "The Great Big Butter Cookbook." Von Glahn, Diana ed. 2007. Running Press, China.
- Rombauer, Irma S, Marion Rombauer Becker, and Ethan Becker. "Joy of Cooking: 75th Anniversary Edition." 2006. Scribner, New York.
- Valastro, Buddy. Personal interview conducted by Chris Obenschain. (Oct. 29, 2009.)