Baking a Cake

Having the right equipment makes cake baking easier. For most home baking needs, the basics are few. Measuring cups and spoons, a mixing bowl and spoon, a whisk for beating egg whites, and a pair of round cake pans or a tube pan are all you'll need for many recipes. Although batters can always be mixed by hand, they are more easily whipped up with a handheld electric mixer or in a stand mixer.

Begin with the freshest ingredients possible. When making cakes, this pertains mainly to the butter, eggs and milk. If your baking powder or soda is more than 6 months old, replace it to guarantee effectiveness. Be sure to use the right kind of flour called for in a recipe, and never use high-protein bread flour to make a tender cake.

Preparing the Pans
Properly prepared pans are a crucial part of cake baking. A poorly prepared pan can mean a cake will stick to it and refuse to emerge without tearing. Most recipes say to grease (or butter) the pan, and some say to flour it as well. Even if the recipe only calls for greasing a pan, it is always a good idea to line and flour the pan as well. (Note that some cakes, such as angel food cakes, are baked in dry pans.)

To prepare a cake pan:
1.Cut waxed or parchment paper into a round or rectangle that will fit snugly in the bottom of the pan. Use the pan as a guide for tracing the right shape and size.

2.Rub the inside bottom and sides of the pan with butter, margarine or vegetable shortening, or spray it lightly and evenly with unflavored cooking spray.

3.Lay the paper form in the pan and rub it with a little butter, margarine or vegetable shortening, or spray it with a little cooking spray.

4.Sprinkle some flour on the paper form and on the sides of the pan. Holding the pan over the sink or work surface, turn and tilt the pan to distribute the flour evenly. Gently tap the excess flour from the pan and discard it. If you are baking a chocolate cake, use cocoa powder in place of flour to avoid a contrasting white dusting on the brown cake.

Mixing the Ingredients
Every recipe is slightly different, but for most cakes the following techniques are recommended. Before mixing, measure out and prepare all ingredients according to the ingredient list. Unless the recipe directs otherwise, the ingredients should be at room temperature. Start preheating the oven.

Stand mixers are valuable tools for making large quantities of cake batter or cakes that call for prolonged and vigorous beating to incorporate maximum air. If using a stand mixer, fit it with the paddle attachment (also called a flat beater) to cream the butter and to mix the batter, and the whisk attachment for whisking egg whites or cream. If using a stand or handheld mixer, use a rubber spatula to scrape the flour up from the bottom of the bowl several times during mixing as well as from the sides.

Do not overmix the batter. Mix it just until the flour is no longer visible or, if folding egg whites into the batter, until only a few streaks of egg white remain.

Filling the Cake Pans
When making layer cakes requiring two or more pans, pour equal amounts of batter into each, using a rubber spatula to smooth the surface. To ensure an equal amount of batter in each pan, use a kitchen scale. Weighing each filled pan and evening them out is the only way to end up with perfectly even layers. (Be sure to account for any difference between the weight of the pans when empty.)

Once the pans are filled with batter, handle them gently. Though some cooks tap them once on the counter to release any large air bubbles, banging them roughly can release too much air from the batter and cause a cake to fall, or sag in the center.

Baking the Cake
Set the pans on the center rack in the preheated oven. Use an oven thermometer to check the accuracy of your oven, and adjust the temperature knob to compensate. If baking more layers than will fit on one oven rack, place the racks as close to the center of the oven as possible.

Do not open the oven door during baking until it's time to check for doneness. A considerable amount of heat escapes every time the oven door is opened. Also, banging an oven door shut can cause a cake to fall. Begin checking 8 to 10 minutes before the cake is supposed to be done.

Cooling the Cake
After removing the cake from the oven, set the pan on a wire rack and let the cake cool for about 5 minutes. Then place the wire rack on top of the cake and carefully invert the cake in its pan.

If the pan doesn't lift easily from the cake, give it a slight shake. The cake should fall from the pan. If necessary, before inverting the cake, loosen the sides of the cake with a table knife or tap the bottom of the pan, or both.

Peel the waxed or parchment paper from the bottom of the cake and discard. Let the cake cool completely before frosting and serving. If you are using a glaze, it should be poured onto the still-warm cake.

Storing and Freezing Cakes
Wrap cooled, unfrosted cakes in plastic wrap, place in an airtight container or under an airtight cake dome, and store at room temperature for up to 2 days.

Store frosted cakes in the same manner as unfrosted ones unless the frosting contains cream, in which case the cake should be refrigerated immediately. If the frosting contains butter, it should be left at room temperature for no more than 2 hours.

If a cake requires refrigeration, cover it loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate it for up to 3 days. To keep the plastic wrap from sitting directly on the frosting, insert evenly spaced toothpicks in the cake and rest the plastic on them. Let most cakes come to room temperature before serving.

To freeze cooled, unfrosted cakes, wrap them in freezer-weight plastic wrap and freeze for up to 2 months for foam cakes and others with little fat. Butter cakes, which contain more fat, will keep for 6 months.

To freeze frosted cakes, put the cakes in the freezer until the frosting hardens. Wrap them carefully in freezer-weight plastic wrap and freeze for up to 1 month.

Let frozen cakes, still wrapped, defrost in the refrigerator or at room temperature. When they are partially defrosted, unwrap and let them come to room temperature before serving.

Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Kitchen Companion: The A to Z Guide to Everyday Cooking, Equipment and Ingredients (Time-Life Books, 2000)