Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Week 2: Cakes

Cake is my great nemesis in baking. They take so much time and effort to assemble; you need the perfect batter, frosting, and decorations while also fending off saboteurs trying to sneak a bite. And when you step back to look at the final product, there is always something off. The center is underbaked, or a crust formed along the edges, or the frosting was runny. Just how do you achieve that sugary, melt-in-your mouth bakery frosting?

Fortunately, I was feeling confident about my next baking endeavor. Armed with Bakewise and Betty Crocker, I figured almost nothing could go wrong. I have split this post into three sections: The Cake Itself, The Frosting, and The Final Product.

The Cake Itself

Bakewise says that cake should have four ingredients: flour, sugar, eggs, and fat. But Shirley Corriher also recognizes that eggless cakes are possible with a little extra flour and some tricks to support structure and gluten formation. Making a cake takes some baking math. The weight of the flour should be equal to or greater than the weight of the sugar. The weight of the eggs should be equal to or greater than the weight of the fat. And finally, the weight of the total liquid should equal the weight of the sugar. In order to test this math, I selected my favorite chocolate cake recipe. It's from The Joy of Vegan Baking, but I will reprint the ingredients here since it is published on the author's website.

1-1/2 cups (188 g) unbleached all-purpose flour

3/4 cup (150 g) granulated sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 cup (30 g) unsweetened cocoa powder

1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1/3 cup (80 ml) canola oil

1 tablespoon white distilled vinegar

1 cup (235 ml) cold water

This recipe compensates for eggs by adding water and vinegar, whose acidity is neutralized by the baking soda. (See my Cookie post for more about baking soda). Corriher explains why these so-called wacky cakes work. "When you add the water, the oil floats, which allows the water to get to the flour and form gluten when you stir. The acidity from the vinegar helps flour proteins to coagulate and set the cake nicely," (Bakewise, 82).

The first math rule checks off for this chocolate cake. The flour weighs more than the sugar. The second math rule doesn't apply. The third math rule is violated; the total liquids weigh double what the sugar weighs. For this reason and others, I stopped reading the math section in Bakwise. I have cake recipes that work and not being a big cake person, I was willing to let the knowledge of perfect cake-making slip by.

The Frosting

Not all frostings are the same. There are seemingly endless variations from ganache to fondant to glazes. For now, I am only going to discuss buttercreams. In my experience working at a bakery, they used the same frosting to frost the cake as they did to make roses and other small decorations. Personally, I don't know how they made such a multi-purpose icing, but I wasn't able to replicate it. Instead, I discovered that I needed two frostings. Why? Because of how they're made.

Butter gives the aptly titled buttercream its rich, warm flavor. The blueprint for vegan buttercream is one cup Earth Balance to eight cups confectioner's sugar. (You could probably subtract one or two cups for a less sweet buttercream). However, because butter is also soft, frosting made with only butter will be too soft to use for decorating. Your roses will soften into blobs before you're done making the last petal. You should use an Earth Balance based buttercream to frost the cake and a shortening based buttercream to make decorations. If you want a more flavorful decorating frosting, add a ¼ teaspoon of butter flavoring to it.

Fine confectioner's sugar is important to good buttercream. Bakers use 4X to 10X powdered sugar. Bakewise neglects to reveal whether store-bought confectioner's sugar falls in that range, so to be safe, you should sift your powdered sugar. Besides ensuring your sugar is fine, sifting removes any lumps in the sugar. (Confectioner's sugar contains three percent cornstarch, so lumps will happen).

A final important point about buttercreams is to beat the frosting for three to five minutes. Beating it adds air to the frosting. And the longer I beat the frosting, the creamier it became.

The Final Product

Frosting and decorating a cake requires the proper tools. If you're serious about cake decorating, you should buy a turntable, spatula, flower nail, and pastry bag and tips. A turntable allows you to turn the cake easily and quickly to reach all sides, allowing for a smooth finish since you don't have to stop frosting and walk around to the other side to finish. (In all honesty, I used a pizza pan turned upside down!) A spatula for decorating cakes is different than the kind you use to serve pizza or scrape down bowls. It is flat, wide, and about six inches long. The flower nail is essentially a mini-turntable for making roses. When I worked at a bakery, I loved to watch the cake decorators make roses. They sat there chatting as they spun the nail in their left hand and made frosting petals with their right. Amazing.

Now that you have your tools ready, make sure you have frosting on hand and you have removed your cake from the pan in a way that creates as few crumbs as possible. A cake with crumbs on the sides or with chunks out of it is very difficult to frost. You should wait at least 10 minutes before removing the cake from its pan, and the cake should be mostly cool to the touch. Run a paring knife around the edge of the cake two times, turning the pan with your left hand. Don't stop and start over. Now hit the bottom of the pan on your counter a few times to loosen the cake bottom. The cake should be ready to come out. Put your right hand on the top of the cake and flip the pan over, catching the cake with your right hand. It's OK to shake the pan a little if it is still sticking. Quickly flip it over onto a cutting board or parchment paper, or onto your turntable. I learned this technique while working at the bakery. They only let me do it when the main cake flipper was gone, and boy was I nervous every time!

My chocolate cake domed a bit. (Betty Crocker says my oven temperature was too high – I believe that). If this happens to you, simply slice off the hump so your cake is flat. This YouTube video showed me how to cut through the cake without creating a lot of crumbs. Basically, take a long serrated knife and make small cuts inward using sawing motions. Cut all the way around the cake before slicing through the entire layer. Watch the video to see what I mean. For me, the hump came right off. I wouldn't recommend doing this to your top cake layer as there will be crumbs and frosting will be very difficult.

OK, so now everything, including the cake, is ready to go. Let's frost the cake.

Step 1: Making the Layer Cake. Put two dollops of your buttercream on top of the first layer. Spread it almost to the edges before placing the second layer on top.

Step 2: Sealing the Crumbs In. Crumbs ruin frosting by collecting

in it. To prevent this from happening to you, put two dollops of frosting on top of the cake. Using your spatula, spread it all overthe cake in a thin layer. You should still be able to see the cake below. Don't worry about it looking pretty. No one will see this layer. Now put the cake in the fridge for 10 minutes for the frosting to dry.

Step 3: Frosting It. Take the rest of the buttercream and dollop it on top of the cake. Spread it all over. Utilize your turntable and spatula to smooth the frosting on the sides. Slowly spin the turntable with your left hand while holding the spatula steady on the side of the cake with your right hand (Reverse if you're left-handed). For the top, move the spatula back and forth for a final smooth finish. You're done! Now you can get down to the business of decorating.

Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to learn how to make roses because my rose tip had rusted out! There are many self-help videos on YouTube and ExpertVillage which show how to make roses. I can offer this advice: do not make your decorating frosting too stiff. Because it might break your pastry bag. Um, like I did with mine. Who knew frosting could be too stiff?! All this time my problem had been that it was too runny! Anyway, piping was not easy, especially after it broke!

My only other mistake with the cake was that somehow it slanted. Maybe my slicing through the hump wasn't even enough. See the slant below.

Still, it was VERY good! Credit must be given to Joy of Vegan Baking (cake recipe), The Magnolia Bakery Cookbook (pre-veganized buttercream recipe), and Wilton's Pure White Icing recipe (pre-veganized decorating buttercream; make sure to use the shortening-only variation).


  1. So, did you measure your cake ingredients by weight or did you use measuring cups?

    Congratulations on your frosting success -- frosting was my nemesis for a long time. It always turned into glaze because I always added just a bit too much liquid too soon, so the sugar crystals melted instead of staying suspended whole in the fat. I've also found that using Earth Balance butter at too warm a temperature will also lead the creation of glaze instead of frosting. Finally, I've also learned that a KitchenAid stand mixer is a wonderful cooking companion for making frosting easily.

  2. I used measuring cups and made the weight comparisons based on the weight given for each ingredient in the cake recipe.

    I've had those frosting problems, too.