Thursday, September 30, 2010

Adventures in Baking 101: Baking and Mixing Cakes

Baking class, week six. This week we'll be making two cakes: a basic white butter cake and a genoise. The genoise is a classic French cake leavened only with whipped eggs (i.e. no baking powder or baking soda to help it rise). I’ve never made a genoise and, because it’s not a typical American-style cake, find the prospect intriguing.

Chef Dennis is absent this week; I believe I heard that he’s on a cruise. Leading the class in his stead is Chef Sandy, Chef Dennis’s sous chef (i.e. second in command).

We start with the white cake and break into teams of two. My partner is Zed, a former journalism student who recently dropped out of college in his senior year with just a few hours to complete. Now he’s pursuing a cooking degree. Having just quit my job of twenty-one years without another job lined up, I can relate to Zed’s mindset; college just wasn’t working for him.

I start separating fifteen eggs while Zed gathers the other ingredients. Pretty soon our butter and sugar are getting a vigorous whipping in the bowl of the electric mixer. The recipe is not particularly difficult, but you have to watch for signs that the butter and sugar mixture is ready: it should lighten in color and have a fluffy consistency. Undermixing or overmixing will undermine the texture of the final cake. In the cakes I’ve made at home I’ve never been entirely sure when the proper stage is reached, i.e. how fluffy it should be or what it should look like, so we consult Chef Sandy to make sure it's OK.

The butter cream for the cupcakes.
With the chef’s blessing, we complete our batter and proceed to the “panning” stage. I fill the cake pans two-thirds full, as indicated by the recipe. Zed fills the cupcake tins two-thirds full (or so), and everything goes into the oven.
The final edible cupcakes, with attempts at decoration.
The ingredients for the next recipe, the genoise, are simple: eggs, sugar, vanilla and cake flour. The technique, however, is a little tricky for a novice baker. Whole eggs are gently whisked in a mixing bowl while being heated to 105 degrees Fahrenheit over hot water. When they reach the proper temperature they’re removed from the heat and whipped into a wondrously light, foamy mass, about triple in volume. The little air bubbles whipped into the batter help the cake rise and make the texture light and tender. Again, the recipe isn’t difficult but you’ve got to pay attention to what you’re doing.

I've made plenty of cupcakes in my life and
NOTHING like this has ever happened before.
Eventually our white cakes and cupcakes come out of the oven, and they’re not pretty. The cupcakes look like the scorched aftermath of a nuclear bombing. Most have overflowed their paper liners; in two instances the batter is completely blasted out of the tin. The coloring is uneven and they’re sort of flat instead of rounded. Not good. The round cakes are slightly better, but one cake overflowed and won’t come out of the pan cleanly, resulting in some messiness on one side. Hopefully we can make that look better next week when we decorate.
Hopefully these will improve with some decoration.
While I’m trying to figure out how these travesties took place, Chef Sandy is unphased and says we should look at this as a learning experience. Of course she’s right, but I have high expectations for myself and can’t help feeling disappointed. The chef speculates about what could have caused the blasted out cupcakes: 1) we didn’t mix the butter and sugar enough, 2) we didn’t scrape the bowl adequately, and there were unmixed ingredients at the bottom, and/or 3) the cupcake tins were overfilled (the most likely culprit in my opinion). Of course there’s also the fact that the oven doors were opened and closed a lot, which certainly didn’t help our little cakes rise.

In all the brouhaha about the butter cakes, we forget to check the genoise cakes in the oven, and they come out overbaked. Not inedible, but overbaked. That’s zero for three in my book.

Our last activity of the evening is to make a simple butter cream to decorate the cupcakes. I break out my pastry bag, and Zed and I try our hands at decorating the edible cupcakes we’re left with. The cakes and butter cream are rather generic in flavor but, after an evening of baking, taste pretty good nonetheless. If you served them at a kids birthday party or an office pitch-in I'm sure people would gobble them up. I guess that’s something.

Take home: six decorated cupcakes.

1 comment:

  1. Those poor cupcakes! I am liking the updated design of the blog though.