Cake Primer   

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A Cake Primer

From the Cake chapter of the
King Arthur Flour 200th Anniversary Cookbook
by Brinna Sands

Cakes are the sweetest quick breads of all. About the only thing common to all cakes is the fact that they are called cakes. Although most of us might agree on what should go in a "cake," cakes can, literally, contain anything from soup to nuts. Conversely, every ingredient you might assume ought to be in a cake will be absent in some variation. The only two ingredients that you'll find in all of them are some kind of sweetener and a little salt to intensify flavor. (Some cakes don't even contain flour.)

Cakes can be made with butter, margarine, lard, vegetable oil, or not fat at all. They can be made with one egg or a dozen, with just the whites or yolks, or with no eggs at all. They can be flavored simply with vanilla, or with other extracts, liqueurs, spices, fruits, vegetables or nuts. They can be enjoyed straightforward, light and simple; they can be a vehicle for elegant toppings or icings; they can be the binding for a profusion of fruits and nuts. All these and more can be called cakes. So with this rather broad spectrum, we'll try to find a way to organize them.

Cake Considerations

A "traditional" cake contains flour and an equal amount or more, by weight, not volume, of sugar with a little salt to intensify flavor. From there, the variation in ingredients is infinite.

King Arthur "Cake" Flour

According to some, the best flour for cakes is heavily bleached with chlorine which, among other things, toughens the protein so that it can hold more of those ingredients (sugar and fat) which put stress on a cake's structure. King Arthur Flour does not pretend to be a "cake flour." Not only are we opposed to adding chemical bleaches to our flour, but because King Arthur is milled from hard wheats, it contains more protein than cake flour. It will, however, produce cakes that have excellent flavor and texture. But they are characteristically "King Arthur Cakes" with a fuller body and greater "substance." Here are a couple of ways to make King Arthur Cakes as light as possible.

Aerating the Flour: The first is to incorporate as much air into the flour as possible at the outset. All flour is pre-sifted through many layers of silk screening before it is bagged and shipped from the mill. During shipment, all flour settles and compacts. Our mothers and grandmothers used a sifter to restore flour to its original sifted state. Today it is still desirable to accomplish this even when flour is labeled "pre-sifted," but here's a simpler way to do it.

Before you measure, fluff up the flour in the bag with a spoon. Then sprinkle it into a "dry" cup measure, and scrape off the excess with the back of a knife. Flour measured this way weights 4 ounces per cup. Flour scooped from a bag will weigh as much as 5 ounces per cup. Our recipes, unless otherwise specified, are written for 4 ounce cups of flour. If you used the scoop and sweep method in one of our recipes, your cake might better be used as a door stop! Four-ounce cups of flour also contain significantly more air which is the first leavening agent in a cake and where a "light" cake begins.

Adding Cornstarch: A second way to lighten a cake made with King Arthur Flour is to approximate the characteristics of "cake flour" more closely. To do this, spoon 2 to 4 tablespoons of cornstarch into a one cup "dry" measure. Sprinkle in your King Arthur Flour until it is full and scrape off the excess with the back side of a knife. Blend this thoroughly and you'll have pure, golden, never bleached, never bromated King Arthur "Cake" Flour. While this technique will produce lighter cakes, many King Arthur fans use our flour straight because they prefer "King Arthur Cakes." And many of us who prefer robust cakes use some whole wheat flour in place of unbleached all-purpose.

Cake Leavens

Baking Powder: Cakes used to be leavened by yeast or by the air that was beaten into the eggs and/or butter in them. (The electric mixer has taken most of the drudgery out of this part of cake making.) Although getting air into cakes manually is still important, most cakes today depend on the leavening power of baking powder which is a combination of baking soda (alkaline or "sweet") and an acid ("sour") in powder form. When this magic powder is mixed with a liquid and exposed to heat, it begins to bubble and foam. It's producing carbon dioxide, just as we do when we exhale and just as yeast does when it's making bread rise. Cakes that contain an acid in another form, such as sour milk, buttermilk, or fruit juice, need only the "sweet" half of baking powder, the baking soda.

Yeast: "Chemical" leavening has been used for over a century now in most cake baking, replacing yeast. WE have included a couple of recipes for old yeast leavened cakes in the section. They take longer to make but are unique in texture and flavor. In the same mode, you will find recipes in the Sourdough Chapter for an incredibly dark, moist chocolate cake as well as a "Friendship Cake" leavened with its own special sourdough starter.

Cake Types

There are several classic cakes which we have organized according to their density, the lightest to the most compact. A cake's density is determined by several factors: the way it's leavened, the absence or presence of a fat and its type, and those ingredients which contribute to its structure as opposed to those which are held in the structure. The two basic ingredients that create a cake's structure, or skeleton, are the flour and the eggs. Everything else determines its "body type" and "personality."

Although there are other ways of differentiating between cake types, density is a readily observable one. There are many, many more cakes in the world and many that won't fit into any of the cake categories. But if you keep this "density scale" in mind, it will give you a starting place and some perspective with which to understand these and other cakes in your life.


Copyright 2001 The Baker's Catalogue, Inc.
Norwich, Vermont 05055