Why "Real" Baking

why i believe in real baking, i.e. baking from scratch as opposed to a mixi suspect that the two main reasons people bake from a mix is 1) that they think it's faster and easier and 2) it's practically foolproof. there may even be some who grew up with the flavor of a mix and actually prefer it. i grew up without a cake baking tradition, in fact, my grandmother used the oven only to store pots and pans. there was NEVER anything baked in that oven until I went to the university of vermont, took a course in basic food, and came home thanksgiving vacation with the intention of making my father's favorite--a cherry pie. it was a disaster of melting bubbling soap that I hadn't realized was stored in the broiler beneath. in short, i learned scratch cake baking on my own--from scratch.

it's o.k. to prefer cake mixes if you really do prefer them. my take on the mixes is that since they contain emulsifiers which give them what is known in the industry as tolerance, i.e., the ability to keep their texture despite additions of various extra ingredients, these emulsifiers result in an unpleasantly metallic after-taste. to my palate, the flavor of a cake baked from scratch is incomparably superior. and making a cake from scratch takes maybe 10 minutes more prep time than one from a mix. but as far as the foolproof aspect, let me tell you how to achieve that in a scratch cake. there are only two important things to know:

1) use bleached cake flour or bleached all-purpose flour. if you use a scale, the weight is the same. if you are using cup measures, and you have all-purpose bleached flour, for every cup of cake flour use 3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons of all-purpose. if you want the cake to be as tender as one with cake flour, use 3/4 cup of all-purpose and 2 tablespoons of cornstarch. the all-purpose flour i use is gold medal, but if you happen to have a southern or regional brand the protein content may be as low as cake flour so you will not want to add the cornstarch as it may weaken the cake's structure and cause it to collapse. the reason that it is essential to use bleached flour is that unbleached has particles that are smooth and round and the butter slips right through them and lands in a gummy layer at the bottom, causing the cake to fall in the center while cooling. the bleaching process, however, roughens these flour particles enabling them to hold the butter in even suspension.

if you measure the flour instead of weighing it, use a measuring cup with unbroken rim. place it on a counter and use a sifter or strainer to fill it with flour, allowing it to mound over the top. use a long metal spatula or knife to run it over the rim, thus removing any excess flour. never lift the cup or shake it during measuring as this packs more flour into the cup which would result in a denser drier cake. that's all you need to know about flour for cakes and it's really quite simple.

2) have the butter softened but cool, i.e. it feels cool to the touch but when you press it with your finger it will flatten. this is a wide range of temperature, between 65 and 75 degrees. most kitchens are warmer than 75 degrees so to be on the safe side you can let the butter soften in a cooler room. if the butter is too cold or too warm the cake's texture (crumb) will not be even. here is my favorite of all my yellow cake recipes. it's the right amount for a standard 9 inch by 2 1/2 inch springform pan but if you have only a 9 x 2 inch pan, just be sure to fill it only half full and bake the remaining batter as 2 cup cakes. (15 to 20 minutes) if you still prefer your favorite mix, you have my full permission to use it, but not if the only reason is that you don't trust a "real" cake!