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The mere mention of cake conjures up happy memories, whether it makes you reminisce about a favorite birthday or recall sharing a wedge of sweetness with a loved one in a late night bakery. Cakes are one of the easiest desserts to make from scratch with just a few basic ingredients and simple baking pans designed to make creating different shapes and sizes easy and successful.
Start by choosing which kind of cake you want to make. You can bake single or multiple layers, flavor them with favorite fruits and nuts, fill them with jam or preserves, top them with a simple sprinkling of powdered sugar, or decorate them with drizzled icing or thick, creamy frosting. Whatever cake you choose, the goal is to make it moist, delicious, and attractive.
Chocolate cake is the most preferred cake, covered with chocolate or vanilla frosting. The easiest version is a single layer made in a 9X12 glass or metal baking pan, although it’s hard to beat the dramatic presentation of three or four layers of cake and frosting. Other family favorites include carrot cake with cream cheese frosting, banana nut cake, and coconut cake, all of which can be made in single or multiple layers. Butter-rich pound cake is good baked in a tube pan or you can make a Bundt cake in a special pan that imprints the cake’s surface with a fancy design. Pound and Bundt cakes are traditionally dusted with powdered sugar or drizzled with icing or liqueur that barely penetrates the crust and adds extra flavor.
Birthdays are traditionally celebrated with a cake topped with candles for the honoree to blow out while making a secret wish. Birthday cakes are usually made in the flavor preferred by the person being honored and often include requests for devil’s food, angel food, or ice cream cakes. Another popular request for birthdays is candy bar cakes that have favorite candies in the cake itself or are topped with pieces of candy bars.
Holiday cakes are often the centerpiece of buffet tables and decorated to reflect the season. Easter cakes are frequently decorated like Easter baskets, Thanksgiving cakes typically reflect the flavors of fall, and Christmas cakes with holiday flavors such as peppermint are common choices.
Admittedly not the healthiest breakfast choice, some cakes just naturally pair well with coffee, tea, or milk. Breakfast cakes include coffee cakes, which can be simple white cake with cinnamon-streusel topping, crumb cakes, fruit and nut laden types, or rich concoctions such as raspberry cream cheese coffee cake. These kinds of cake can also double as dessert cakes served after dinner with coffee or post-dinner cocktails, sherry, or dessert wines.
Cakes for Crowds
If you’re baking a cake for a large crowd or a family reunion, sheet cakes are perfect. Baked in an oversized rimmed pan that resembles a cookie sheet, they can be made ahead of time, travel well, and are easily cut into squares or rectangles right before serving. If you’re not sure how many people you’ll be feeding, bake several loaf cakes and slice them as needed.
Certain types of cakes don’t seem like cake at all. Flourless cakes are so rich and dense they often border on being candy. Upside-down cakes such as pineapple upside-down cake are more topping than they are cake and frequently baked in cast iron skillets rather than cake pans. Rolled cakes are thin layers of sponge cake spread with fillings, rolled into spirals, and cut crosswise into pinwheels.
Cake Mixing Tips
No matter what cake you decide to bake, following a few mixing guidelines ensures perfect cake every time.
- To guarantee even mixing, have all ingredients at room temperature. Eggs and butter combine much better with dry and wet ingredients if they set on the counter for several hours beforehand.
- Don’t hurry the butter/sugar creaming process. Mixing them until they are light and fluffy turns out airy, light cakes.
- Sift dry ingredients to prevent lumps in the batter. Baking soda, baking powder, and powdered spices often have small morsels in them that can ruin cake with hard, unsavory lumps.
- Stir in nuts, fruits, and raisins right before pouring the batter into the pan to prevent color bleeding. To keep them from falling to the bottom of the pan, lightly coat nuts, raisins, and dried fruit with flour before adding them to the batter.
Even the most perfectly mixed cakes will fail if not properly baked, so follow some simple baking rules.
- Preheat the oven for at least 15 minutes to make sure it’s at the right temperature. Use an oven thermometer to verify the temperature is correct.
- Place oven racks in the center of the oven.
- If using multiple pans, make sure they don’t touch to allow adequate airflow around them.
- Grease and lightly flour pans from which cakes have to be removed before frosting or serving.
- Ovens vary in temperature, so check doneness with a toothpick inserted in the center. If it comes out clean with no batter on it, the cake is done.
- Cool cakes on racks for 10 to 15 minutes before removing from the pan. The air circulating on all sides of the pan ensures even cooling and prevents the cake from falling apart when inverted onto a plate.