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Simple Tips for the Novice Cake Baker

Do you always admire those wonderful cakes you see in the bakery or the creations that are flaunted on the television baking shows that have become so popular? It takes years, of course, to become an expert decorator and create cakes like those but, before embarking on decorating classes, most bakers spend their time learning to make what’s under all that frosting. Truly, the perfect cake is only as good as what’s inside, and regardless of all the hoopla on the exterior, when all is said and done, people still remember the taste the most.

Creating a good cake from scratch starts with some simple steps and, before long, you’ll dispense with the boxed cake mixes in favor of one of your own wonderful creations. Some of these tips listed below have been around for decades and are most likely things Grandma was sure to do when baking her finest cake recipe.

Bakeware – Invest in a few good cake pans for your creations. It’s good to have a Bundt-style or tube pan, a few 8’ or 9” layer cake pans, and perhaps one square (8x8) and one rectangular (9x13) pan. For cakes, opt for the shiny metal variety as they produce a nice light-colored crust. Non-stick pans are okay but they absorb more heat and cakes can burn. If you use a non-stick pan, lower the cooking temperature about 15-25 degrees.

Oven – Always preheat the oven so that it reaches the desired temperature before you place the cake inside. A cold oven will affect the way your cake bakes. Also, when it’s time to bake, place the cake as close to the center of the oven as possible. This will insure even baking. And remember, don’t open the oven during baking as the sudden change in temperature can also affect the cake.

Preparing the pan – Almost all cake recipes demand that the pans be greased before the batter is added. Some call for greasing and flouring. Butter remains the best and tastiest lubricant for the pans. Flour should be used sparingly and any extra should be shook out of the pan to avoid excess flour build-up on the outside of the cake. For chocolate cakes, consider dusting the pans with cocoa instead of flour. Low-fat butter sprays are okay (some contain flour, too) but sometimes leave an aftertaste.

Preparing the ingredients – Generations of cake bakers have discovered that things like softened butter and room temperature eggs often work best when it comes to making the perfect cake. So, get used to taking your cold ingredients out of the refrigerator at least a half-hour before you’re ready to mix for optimal results. It’s also a good idea to sift dry ingredients to avoid lumps.

Measuring – Adhere carefully to the measurements in the recipe and be sure to use the right equipment. A liquid measuring cup should NEVER be used for dry ingredients and vice versa. Also, use measuring spoons and not flatware spoons when measuring spices, etc. – there’s a big difference!

Baking – Many cakes fail because they’re not quite cooked or wind up being overcooked. Ovens vary and not all will heat to the temperature that’s displayed. It’s a good idea to hang an oven thermometer inside to see how accurate your oven might be. Generally, you can use a cake tester or toothpick to determine the done-ness of your cake (stick it in the middle and see if it comes out clean). Most cakes will also pull away from the sides as they reach the right level of done-ness.

Cooling – Some recipes will provide you with special cooling instructions. Generally, however, the cake can cool in the pan on a wire rack for about 10-15 minutes before being removed from the pan. After being removed, leave it on the rack and cool entirely before frosting or dusting with powdered sugar.