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Baking basics for beginners | Chiffon to Pound Cake

Cake always gives people a light and delicate, melt-in-your-mouth feeling, and it exudes a lazy and comfortable mood all over.

Cakes have long been the most popular dessert, from the classic pound cake to the current trend of semi-cooked cheesecake. It has conquered the taste buds of foodies.

However, eating cakes only satisfies our appetite. When you put the batter into the oven, and after a series of wonderful chemical reactions, the aroma of the cake is finally ready, the feeling of achievement is overwhelming.

  • Category

Cakes can be divided into high-fat and low-fat cakes if they are classified according to the proportion of fats used in the ingredients.
However, as the main ingredients of a cake are usually eggs and flour, and the type of fat varies, it is not very beginner-friendly and confusing to classify cakes in this way. I think it makes more sense to classify cakes by the way they expand.
We can classify cakes into the whipped egg category, the whipped butter category and the use of a swelling agent category, however some cakes are not made in any of these three ways, such as Fernandes, brownies etc.
This is because there is a fourth way of expansion, which is water vapour. All cake batters contain water, and this water evaporates into gas when heated to allow the cake to expand.
Also, some cakes use more than one type of expansion at the same time, for example some chiffon and sponge recipes include baking powder, so it is important to distinguish which is the primary and which is the secondary.

Whipped eggs

The most common types of whipped egg cakes are chiffon, angel food and sponge cakes, which differ in the way and degree of whipping because of the different textures required for the finished cake.
Chiffon cakes require the egg whites to be whipped to dry peaks
Angel cakes require the egg whites to be whipped to wet peaks
For sponge cakes, whip the whole egg until the lines do not disappear.

Whipped butter

The most classic of the whipped butter cakes is the pound cake, which can also be collectively referred to as a butter cake.
The common denominator in all these cakes is that the butter is softened to the right degree and then whipped. The butter is not whipped as much as the eggs, so the cake will be less puffy and more solid than the latter.

Expansion agents

The main expansion agents used in cakes are baking soda and baking powder, while stinking powder (ammonium bicarbonate) and yeast are rarely used.

There are also many types of cakes that rely on the addition of expansion agents, such as madeleines, muffins, chocolate cakes and devil cakes.

  • Raw Materials

Raw material properties

Cake ingredients can be divided into dry and wet materials according to their water content and hard and soft materials according to their structural properties.

Obviously, flour, sugar, milk powder, cocoa powder, nut flours and the like are all dry ingredients that absorb varying degrees of water when mixed with liquids. Wet ingredients are also easy to understand: liquids like water, eggs, milk and so on.

Grease is a special type of ingredient, it is insoluble in water and there are solids and liquids, so it cannot be included as a dry or wet ingredient, although we usually emulsify the liquid oil into the liquid.
The purpose of adding wet ingredients to cake ingredients is to allow the dry ingredients to dissolve and mix well so that the starch can absorb the water and paste, giving the cake a moist texture. The right ratio of dry to wet ingredients will give the batter the right consistency for a successful cake.

Hard materials are the materials that serve to support the structure of a cake.
For example, a cake is like a house and the hard ingredients are the steel and concrete that hold the house together. There are two main types of hard ingredients in a cake, namely eggs and flour. Because eggs contain a lot of protein, when the protein is solidified by heat it has a strong support. The flour, on the other hand, is mainly composed of starch, which undergoes a process from pasting to gelling when heated, and which also forms the supporting structure.

Soft ingredients are ingredients that soften the tissue of a cake.
For example, like fats, sugars and swelling agents. Fats and oils provide an oily texture, while sugar has a good moisturising effect and also has the effect of softening the gluten.
The swelling agents, on the other hand, loosen the protein and starch structure.
All these soft ingredients give the cake a fluffy and delicate texture, with the oils and sugars also preventing ageing and spoilage.

Hard ingredients and soft ingredients go hand in hand and you cannot have one without the other. If there are too many hard ingredients, the cake will tend to be dense and not fluffy enough
If there are too many soft ingredients, the cake will not have enough support and will tend to shrink and collapse.
Therefore, it is important to have a reasonable mix of hard and soft ingredients in the ratio of ingredients.

Flour

Usually we use the weight of the flour as a reference for all the ingredients in a dessert, also known as the baking percentage. The weight of the flour is used as 100% to determine the percentage of the other ingredients.
The advantage of this is that it gives you a better idea of the weight of the other ingredients and the proportion of ingredients in the recipe.
The flour used to make cakes is called cake flour, or low gluten flour, and it is very low in protein, usually under 9.5%. You will see corn starch used in some cake recipes because of its lack of gluten protein, so it is used in some cakes that emphasise loose tissue, such as light cheesecake.
In other cakes, you can mix corn starch with low gluten flour if you want to reduce the gluten content.

Eggs

The fresher the eggs used to make the cake, the better, as freshly laid egg proteins are sticky and ideal for whipping. When, after a period of time, the thick proteins in the eggs turn into watery proteins, the whites become thinner and the degree of frothing is reduced.
Eggshells are not as safe as you might think. They have many air holes that allow air and microorganisms to enter freely, so sealed and refrigerated storage is the best option.
The size of eggs varies from one egg to another, and the weight of a foreign egg suitable for a cake is usually between 1.8 and 2.5 ounces, so it is not strict enough to write how many eggs are used in a recipe.

There are also pasteurised egg liquids or egg white and yolk powders on the market, but these are generally used for commercial baking.

Grease

Cakes made with butter have a firmer but creamy texture. Cakes made with liquid vegetable oil are lighter in texture and there are many different types to choose from.
For an unctuous taste you can choose corn oil, soya oil, salad oil, etc., while for a strong flavour you can choose peanut oil, sesame oil, olive oil, etc.
Different fats can emulsify to different degrees. Butter emulsifies better and blends well into the liquid (provided it is properly softened), while vegetable oils need to rely on the help of emulsifiers such as egg yolks and light cream in order to emulsify fully.

Margarine has excellent whipping, crispness and emulsification properties, but is rarely used in home baking due to its lack of flavour, poor meltability and unhealthiness.

Sugar

The cake batter is all relatively well hydrated to dissolve the coarser granulated sugar, so there are many sugar options available.
You can use granulated sugar as well as fine icing sugar, brown sugar, sugar syrup and so on.
The advantage of adding sugar syrup is that it allows the cake to retain more water and has a more moist texture. Many Japanese cake recipes use syrups such as corn syrup and honey for this purpose. For egg-based cakes, it is important to be careful with the amount of sugar, as it has a stabilising effect on the whipping bubbles.

Dairy products

Dairy products are often a good match for cakes. Ingredients such as milk, light cream, milk powder, cheese, condensed milk and yoghurt can be added to a cake to give it a richer, creamier flavour and a melt-in-the-mouth texture. These dairy products will also contain emulsifiers such as casein, which will give the cake batter a more even texture.

Others

Adding fruit and vegetable powders or the juice of fruits and vegetables to the cake ingredients can give a colourful finish to the cake.
Not to mention popular products such as matcha powder and cocoa powder, we can also add pumpkin puree to make pumpkin cakes, carrot juice to make orange cakes and spinach juice to make green cakes. These colourful cakes are also wonderful as a side dish for babies and are both attractive and nutritious!

Dried fruits and nuts can also be added to the cake, but be careful of their size when adding them, as too large particles tend to settle to the bottom of the batter and make the cake rough, so chop them up before adding them.
Before adding dry ingredients to the batter, moisten them with water or liqueur and leave them to dry before adding them to the batter, to avoid them absorbing the water in the cake and giving it a dry texture.

The expansion agent is not a major ingredient in cakes, but it has to be added in certain types of cakes, such as madeleines and muffins. It is important to keep a strict control on the amount it is added though, too much in proportion can affect the taste of the cake.
If only baking soda is added to a cake as a swelling agent, it needs to be neutralised by certain acidic ingredients, otherwise the cake will have an alkaline taste. Common acidic ingredients include brown sugar, honey, yoghurt, cocoa powder, chocolate, fruit juice, etc.

  • Production Process

There are usually three main steps in the process of making a cake, which are whipping, mixing and baking.
If the cake uses only a rising agent to help puff it up, then the whipping step can be omitted.

Whipped

Whipping refers to two main categories, namely whipping eggs and whipping butter. Of these, whipped eggs are subdivided into whipped egg whites and whipped whole eggs.

Whether whipping egg whites or whole eggs, add the right amount of caster sugar to make the whipped bubbles more stable.
When making chiffon cakes, you can chill the egg whites and whip them so that they are more stable.
And when making sponge cakes, raising the temperature of the whole egg mixture to around 40℃ will allow the whole eggs to whip more easily.

Once the eggs have been beaten into place, mix the batter immediately, as it will leave water for a long time. This is caused by the water sinking under the influence of gravity, so that the bubbles created by the beating will break very easily.
Although caster sugar has a certain ability to retain water, it does not completely prevent this from happening.

Whipping the whole egg

To whip the butter you need to soften it first, but not melt it completely. Again it is necessary to add caster sugar or icing sugar, which serve to allow air to fill the butter more easily and to stabilise the moisture in the butter. A suitable room temperature for whipping butter is between 20 and 25°C. If the temperature is too low or too high, it is important to work quickly to avoid affecting the whipping state.

Stirring

The purpose of mixing the batter is twofold
1. to mix all the ingredients well
2. to bring the batter to the right texture.

If you pause too long in between, the batter will be stratified, the larger particles will sink to the bottom and the lighter bubbles will rise up and break, also known as defoaming. The batter should therefore be mixed in the shortest possible time and then baked in the oven.

Usually mixing will be accompanied by emulsification and the most common emulsifiers used in cake batters are egg yolks and dairy products.
The order in which the ingredients are added is not always the same and often follows the recipe, although flour is usually added last to reduce the number of times the flour is stirred and to avoid excessive gluten formation.
In addition, a “Z” stirring technique after adding the flour can reduce gluten production.
Flour has a stabilising effect on the emulsion and in some batters with large amounts of liquid, flour is added alternately with the liquid so that the ingredients are better mixed.

Emulsification is the homogeneous mixing of otherwise incompatible water and grease, how is this done?
It usually involves breaking up a relatively small amount of one side into very small particles, dispersing them in the other side and then relying on an emulsifier to keep it stable.
There are two forms of emulsion, the oil-in-water droplet type and the water-in-oil droplet type.
Cake batters with a low fat content are oil-in-water droplet type, while cakes with a high fat content, such as pound cake, form a batter that is oil-in-water droplet type.
In either case, the finer the particles are beaten, the more stable they will be, otherwise they will easily revert to an immiscible state.

If you are mixing the whipped eggs with the other ingredients, do so by tossing the batter – in short, turning it from the bottom to the top like a stir-fry. Use a spatula instead of a hand whisk and toss instead of mixing in a circular motion to avoid the batter frothing when mixing.

Baking

The baking process in the oven can be divided into three stages: puffing, setting and browning.

The oven needs to be fully preheated before the batter is sent into the oven.
When the batter enters the oven, the air bubbles in the batter expand with heat, the water forms water vapour and the expansion agent breaks down with heat to produce carbon dioxide, all three forms of which make the cake expand. The expansion of the cake will last for several minutes as long as it is kept at a certain temperature.

When the temperature in the batter reaches above 60°C, the proteins start to solidify and the starch starts to absorb a lot of water and swell at this point.
As the temperature of the batter continues to rise to 80°C, the proteins are completely solidified, while the starch turns from paste to thickening and finally gels to form a solid. These are the two hard ingredients mentioned earlier, forming the main structure that supports the body of the cake so that it does not collapse.

Although the internal temperature of a cake does not usually exceed 100 degrees, the temperature of the crust is more than 100°C.
This is because the crust is heated to a higher degree and the moisture evaporates very quickly.
When the temperature reaches 120°C, the surface of the batter begins to undergo a strong merad reaction, a reaction between carbonyl and amino compounds that turns the ingredients brown in colour, hence the name non-enzymatic browning reaction.
The carbonyl compounds are mainly reducing sugars such as glucose, fructose and maltose, and the amino compounds are mainly amino acids and proteins. Therefore when sugar, eggs and dairy products are added to the batter, all of them make the reaction more intense and consequently the colour of the cake darker.

This stage of browning is usually noticeable later in the baking process, once the cake has started to darken, this is when it is time to pay attention to the timing of removing the cake.
As every oven has a different temperature difference, you cannot adjust your oven exactly to the temperature of the recipe.
The only way to bake ingredients at a temperature closer to the recipe is to test your oven temperature difference with an oven thermometer.

The average baking temperature for cakes is between 160 and 190°C. Too low a temperature will not cook the cake easily and will cause problems such as under-expansion and collapse.
Too high a temperature will tend to scorch the surface or cause the cake to crack significantly.
The higher the oil and sugar content, the less likely it is to be baked, so reduce the temperature and increase the time to bake.
The larger the cake, the longer it will take to bake, for example an 8 inch cake will usually take about 10 minutes longer to bake than a 6 inch cake.

Once the cakes have been baked, they should be cooled according to the recipe. Some cakes need to be inverted, some need to be unmoulded immediately and some need to be chilled in the fridge.
High-sugar cakes can be stored in an airtight environment at room temperature for 2 to 3 days, while low-sugar cakes need to be stored in an airtight refrigerator.
Either way, they should not be stored for long and should be enjoyed as soon as possible after baking.

  • FAQs

I. Failure to whip eggs

R. This is common in egg white whipping. The key to successful whipping is to ensure that the egg whites are free of impurities and that the amount of sugar added to the egg whites is sufficient.

A. Separate the egg whites and yolks thoroughly, do not mix the yolks into the egg whites, and add 40 to 50% of the weight of the egg whites as sugar.

2. The batter is easy to defoam when mixing
R. 1. Egg whites not whipped in place; 2. Incorrect mixing technique

A. 1. The degree of whipping depends on the type of cake, but at least it should be whipped until the bubbles are very fine and wet, so that the egg whites have a certain degree of hardness.
2. To prevent the batter from defoaming, usually use the tossing technique.

3. The cake is not cooked or burnt
R. Generally the baking temperature and time are not well grasped.

A. Use an oven thermometer to test the temperature difference in your oven, then set different temperatures and times according to the type and volume of the cake. For chiffon, bake at a lower temperature and longer time, for sponge and pound cake use the middle temperature and time, while small muffins and madeleines need to be baked at a high temperature for a short time.

4. Cake collapses after baking
R. 1. Insufficient baking time.

2. No heat shock out of the oven

A. 1. If you are afraid of scorching the cake, lower the baking temperature and increase the baking time.

2. The purpose of shocking the hot air out of the oven is to let the air bubbles inside the cake and the outside air pass through, which can slow down the volume shrinkage after cooling.

5. The finished product is not fine
R. 1. The batter is not mixed in place.

2. The mixing process is defoaming or the batter is left to stand for too long

A. 1. Don’t under-mix the batter because you are afraid of gluten or defoaming, but mix the batter well to form a fine tissue.

2. Master the correct mixing technique and don’t leave the cake batter for a long time.

6. Cake texture is too dry and hard
R. 1. The amount of oil and sugar added is too little.

2. The baking time is too long and the water loss is serious; 3. The cake is seriously deflated or the expansion agent fails.

A. 1. Cake is originally a high oil and sugar dessert, do not excessively reduce the amount of oil and sugar added; 2. Shorten the baking time appropriately; 3. Beat the eggs in place, avoid defoaming when mixing, check the effectiveness of the expansion agent before adding it.

  • Summary

Once you have mastered the properties of the ingredients and the balance between them, as well as the three cake making processes of whipping, mixing and baking, you are basically fully introduced to cake making, but this is only the beginning of your baking journey.


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