Baking lesson with the God of Cake

In my last post, I interviewed Ryan, baker extraordinaire.

Yesterday, I got to take a private baking lesson with Ryan, and it would be an understatement to say my mind was blown. I shudder when I think of how haphazardly I used to bake. I now know how much tastier and prettier my cakes can be with slightly more patience and attention to procedure.

We baked a double-layer strawberry cake with strawberry cream cheese frosting, and while my penmanship leaves much to be desired, it’s by far the nicest-looking cake I’ve ever made:

BakingLessonfinishedCake

Marshall’s birthday also happens to be Valentine’s Day, which is why the cake is pink.

Here are the tips and tricks I learned from Ryan along the way:

Preparing the pans

  • Cut parchment paper rounds:
    • Fold parchment paper in half repeatedly until you get a narrow triangle shape.
    • Put the smallest angled-corner of triangle in middle of back of cake pan and cut to the pan’s edge. Voila – a perfectly-sized parchment paper circle.
  • Once you’ve placed the parchment paper in the center of each pan, coat the top of the paper with shortening.
  • Coat the sides of the pan (only about one inch up from the bottom) with shortening.
  • Dust the bottom and sides of the pan with flour: sprinkle some on the bottom; tap and tilt to distribute evenly. Tap excess into kitchen sink.

Creaming butter and sugar properly

  • Put room temperature butter into mixing bowl and press it into bowl with wooden spoon until soft.
  • Add granulated sugar. Stir as vigorously as possible until light and fluffy.
    • The creamed butter and sugar should look opaque and pale yellow, almost ivory-colored, like frosting.
    • It should NOT look translucent and grainy, like buttery mashed potatoes – this is what my creamed butter-and-sugar always looked like in the past, and it’s wrong! No wonder my cakes were tough before.
    • This process is critical to whip some air into the butter mixture to afford the cake a soft texture.
    • This creaming step is exhausting and time-consuming to do by hand, though this is how Ryan and I did it during our lesson. Afterwards, I promptly purchased an electric hand mixer. Someday, I’ll buy myself a stand mixer.

Baking the cake

  • Pour the batter into the parchment paper-lined, shortening and flour-coated cake pans.
  • Before placing pans into the preheated oven, ALWAYS put wet “Bake Even” strips around the pans.
    • You can also use wet paper towels wrapped in aluminum foil. This will help the cake bake flat rather than doming – my cakes used to dome all the time, and later, I’d have to slice off the domed tops with a leveler, which seemed wasteful to me.
  • NEVER open the oven to check on the cake until the surface of the cake has baked enough to no longer be shiny.
    • Introducing cold air into the oven before the cake has baked to a certain extent will cause the cake to “implode.”
  • As soon as the surface of the cake no longer looks shiny, open the oven and stick a toothpick all the way through to the bottom of the cake.
    • If the toothpick comes out with no batter (some crumbs are OK), the cake is done.
  • Put the cakes in their pans onto cooling racks. Remove the bake even strips. Leave for 10 minutes.
  • Take the cakes out of the pans and put them directly on the cooling racks. Remove the parchment paper. Allow cakes to cool directly on racks for about 30 minutes.
    • Transferring the cakes from the pans to the cooling racks can be tricky. Try putting the cooling rack upside down on top of the pan, then flipping over the rack/pan assembly. The cake should pop right out onto the rack.
  • Transfer one of the cakes to a round cardboard cake base.
BakingLessonRackedCake

Allow the cakes to cool in the pans (without the bake even strips) on the racks for about 10 minutes before transferring the cakes directly onto the cooling racks.

Frosting the cake

  • Adjust the stiffness of frosting by adding more powdered sugar if it’s too thin or adding milk if it’s too thick.
  • Use an offset spatula and a turntable to get a smooth frosted surface.
  • Start by adding frosting to the layer that will be in between the cakes:
    • Dump some frosting onto the middle of the top of the bottom cake layer. Spread it around using the offset spatula.
    • Make this layer as thick as you please, but remember to leave the outer 1 cm circle empty of frosting – when you add the top layer, the weight will squeeze out some of the frosting to fill the outer border.
    • If crumbs ever end up on the spatula, scrape it on the sides of a plate AWAY from the bowl of frosting. You never want those crumbs to end up in your frosting!
  • Carefully place the second cake layer on top of the first one, keeping them concentric.
  • Add a thin coat of frosting along the sides of the cake:
    • Try not to lift perpendicularly away from the cake – rather, “frost off” the cake gently, lifting upwards when frosting the sides.
    • The point is to get an initial coat so you don’t keep pulling crumbs off the cake – no need to obsess over making the coat thin.
  • Finally, frost the top of the cake:
    • Dump frosting in the middle of the top layer, and spread the frosting around gently with the offset spatula.
    • Keep adding more and more frosting such that it drips down the sides and thickens the initial frosting coat. You can then neaten out the sides by placing the spatula squarely against one side of the cake and steadily rotating the turntable.
  • Decorate the cake:
    • Write/draw on the frosting with a toothpick first. If you mess up, you can simply smooth it over with more frosting.
    • Add some gel-based dye to leftover frosting. Screw a coupler with a piping tip onto a piping bag. Dump the colored frosting into the piping bag and twist the top of the bag to prevent the frosting from squeezing out of the top.
    • Push the colored frosting through the piping top by pressing at the top of the bag, just below the twist.
BakingLessonFrostedCake

How the cake looked after frosting, before decorating.

And of course, here’s the recipe I used for the cake. It’s actually a cupcake recipe that I adapted into cake (didn’t change much except baking time, the amount of sugar in the cake, and the use of cake pans instead of cupcake pans). I tried these cupcakes at a wedding last October and couldn’t stop thinking about them; turns out they were baked by one of Marshall’s high school friends, Kailin! Check out Kailin’s blog for her other sweet creations; I’ve had many of them, and they’re all delicious.

Angie’s Famous Strawberry Cake from Apple a Day

Cake ingredients:

  • 2 1/2 c. cake flour
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 c. unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1 1/8 c. sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/3 c. buttermilk
  • 1/4 c. oil
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 2 c. chopped strawberries

Frosting ingredients:

  • 1/3 c. chopped strawberries
  • 1 TBSP strawberry liquor
  • 1/2 tsp. lemon juice
  • 8 oz. cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 3/4 c. unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1 3/4 c. powdered sugar
  • 1/2 TBSP vanilla

Cake directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and prepare cake pans with parchment paper, shortening, and flour.
  2. Sift flour, salt, and baking soda in medium bowl.
  3. In bowl of mixer, cream butter and sugar until fluffy.
  4. Add eggs one at a time until combined.
  5. Add buttermilk, oil and vanilla until combined.
  6. Add flour mixture and stir until just combined.
  7. Fold in berries.
  8. Fill cake pans 3/4 way.
  9. Bake for approximately 25 minutes.

Frosting directions:

  1. For frosting, put berries, liquor, and juice in saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat and then reduce to a simmer for 5 mins.
  2. Let cool, then blend until smooth.
  3. In bowl of mixer mix cream cheese and butter until creamy.
  4. Add sugar, then vanilla.
  5. Add berry puree until smooth.
  6. Frost cakes when they are completely cooled.

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone!