Saturday, May 02, 2009

Masterclass - making better cakes

Firstly, a welcome to PoppyP. Hope you stay with us Poppy. There have been thousands (literally) of recipes put on this site since it began, and many have been gathered together by 'type' (eg. chicken; lamb, cakes, vegetarian etc) so if you wish to look for anything specific it (well, date it was published) might be able to be found if you search the latter end of March this year. Not all recipes have yet been included, but more are edited into the list on a regular basis.

Good to hear from you again Ceridwen, and was not aware that wild plants were being gathered in great numbers to be sold to restaurants. However this should not put anyone off gleaning a few for themselves. Many garden weeds are very persistent - dandelions, chickweed etc, so why not make use of them if they are there. It is strange how 'free food' can one day be looked upon as only fit for the poorest people, yet a week later believed good enough to feed the wealthy. As you say wild plants are a 'new and different' food served in the top restaurants, but the 'food' itself is not new. Just the idea, and why should we let the toffs have it all when we can serve it for no cost whatsoever?
It is the same with many foods - oysters were once so abundant that in Victorian times the beggars on the street used to eat them. In more recent times, lamb shanks were practically given away, now they are quite expensive. In my childhood, a chicken was only served for a special occasion. Fashions change, but luckily for us the wild plants will still keep going.

One thing about weeds (or wild plants if we wish to think of them this way), they have developed over millions of years and now seem quite immune to all slugs, snails, pests etc. or even inclement weather. We can dig up the perennial weeds, but one tiny little piece of root left in the soil and the next year sees it again growing and growing and growing..... The annual weeds seed themselves and use any way they can to get the seeds moving further afield (think of dandelion clocks - and the stickly 'cleaver' balls that cling to ourclothing, and unless the 'weeds' are removed before the seeds are set, we get more and more plants growing the next year. They are very prolific and determined to procreate, so let us make them work for their living.

When we sow 'proper' vegetables of the leafy variety, we are lucky if they manage to last a week after sprouting, what with slugs being almost as persistent as weeds (which sit there smug as you like knowing they are safe). If certain wild plants are known to be edible (and nutritionally good, and these flourish on our plots, then why not let them grow, for picking and eating when young is one way to keep them under control. for like most plants, the more we pick, the more leaves grow as all the plant knows is to keep going until its seeds have flown away. Just stop it seeding and it will grow on all year.

Thanks also to SweeterRita for details about canned foods. One thing - cans rarely (if ever) have a 'use-by' date on them, although most have a 'best-before' which means that a certain amount of time is allowed after that before the products are considered unplatable. But are they even then, ever unsafe to eat? Many professionals would disagree, for if a food is canned, it has been sterilized and there is virtually nothing that should be able to happen to it. However, it has been known for cans to 'blow' and my personal opinion is don't keep canned tomatoes or tomato products longer than recommended. Most canned foods do have a good shelf-life, but even so, when buying, check the b.b.dates on the cans at the back of the shelf (those with earlier dates are always brought to the front) and buy the ones that will keep the longest.
You mention Spam being the canned meat that first comes to mind. My first thought was corned beef - of which we use quite an amount. This keeps fairly well, although I do chill it in the fridge before slicing otherwise it crumbles. Sardines and similar oily fish can have six or more years shelf-life before being used and so worth buying while the price is right.

Today the Masterclass is on cake-making. Most of us bake cakes and are completely happy with the results, but here is some info that might help us to improve them even more. There is such a difference between the tuition that a trainee (professional) cake-maker gets, and the domestic cook who just has to rely on what a cookery books says, and none of these seem to give enough 'useful' information..

Wheat produces the best flour for cakes because it contains complex proteins, which combine in the presence of water to produce gluten - the substance that helps dough to rise. Different strains of wheat vary in the amount of gluten their flours yield, and general-purpose flours (8 - 10% gluten) combine hard and soft wheat in proportions suitable for cakes and pastries.
Hard wheats make stronger flour (11 - 13% gluten) and best suited to bread-making.
White wheat flour is the most widely used for cakes and pastries, being milled to a very fine powder that has a tendency to pack down in storage (so always sift the flour before using) and produces a very find crumb when baked.

Fats add flavour to to cakes and pastries, but more importantly tenderise or 'shorten' them. When fat is added to flour and distributed evenly through, this prevents the long and elastic strands of gluten forming. Depending upon the amount of fat used and how well blended with the flour, a baked cake can be tender enough to 'melt in the mouth'.
Of the fats used, butter adds the most luxurious flavour. Other fats suitable are the soft margarines, and in the 19th century lard was a commonplace substitute for butter, and still used today in some traditional farmhouse cakes.

Cake batter is an intricate structure of the ingredients used mixed with millions of tiny air bubble that have been beaten in. When baked, the moisture in the cake turns to steam and the air expands. More obvious in a sponge cake where whole eggs and sugar have been beaten together - or just egg whites alone - folded into the remaining ingredients and baked immediately, and less apparent in a denser cake such as gingerbread where less beating is needed.

When a recipe for a cake does not contain enough eggs to leaven it, chemical assistance is usually necessary. All chemical leavenings produce carbon dioxide (a substance that expands on heating in the same way a steam). The one most commonly used is baking powder, followed closely by bicarbonate of soda and to make good cakes we need to be aware of their different uses.

Firstly, baking powder used to be made by mixing bicarb. with a mild acid such as cream of tartar. Modern baking powders still have bicarb as the base, but with now a combination of acids - one which reacts when moistened (releasing gas to aid the mixing), another slower-acting which releases very little until heated in the oven. Some of these are called 'double acting' powders with heat being necessary to complete the chemical reaction, with most of the carbon dioxide not freed until the cake batter is heated.

tip: to make a simple baking powder, mix 1 tablespoon of bicarbonate of soda with 2 tablespoons of cream of tartar, the one drawback being that it will start to 'fizz' as soon as mixed with liquid, so the cake should be baked immediately after mixing or the powder may have exhausted itself before the cake is heated enough to 'set'.

The quantity of baking powder varies from recipe to recipe, but a good rule of thumb is that the plainer the cake the more baking powder used. The richer the cake, the less B.P. used. Using too much or too little upsets the balance of the ingredients, so always measure the raising agent carefully, and make minor adjustments to the recipe after you have assessed the results.
Unfortunately chemicals can leave an unpleasant aftertaste to a cake, but if only small quantities are used, the spices and other flavourings in the cake batter should mask these.
When using self-raising flour, there is less chance of 'aftertaste' as the raising agents used have been very carefully adjusted to suit the balance, however some recipes require more to be added, so always make sure the spoons are level and not heaped when measuring.

Bicarbonate of soda (aka baking soda), needs acid to give the necessary reaction, and when used to make baking powder, the acids are still present but in dehydrated form. When the bicarb is used alone the acid needed to get it to work has to come from kitchen staples such as milk, yogurt, soured cream, creme fraiche, buttermilk etc. all containing lactic acid that will trigger the reaction. Vinegar - being an acid - will also do the same. There are natural acids in honey, treacle and syrup, and these too will react with the bicarb.

know your oven:
All ovens vary and not always accurate when it comes to temperatures. Generally speaking, modern ovens are fan-assisted, so the air circulates round giving uniform heating. Older ovens have the top and back parts hotter than the bottom, but this also depends upon the heat source,
so best to cook cakes on the middle shelf, turning them if necessary to give even baking. With fan ovens any shelf should be able to be used and no turning needed.
In any case do not bake more than two large cakes at a time, for no oven can generate enough heat to compensate when overloaded. For perfect pastry and cakes, dry heat is essential so avoid baking items such as these when a steam-producing dish (such as a stew) is in the oven at the same time.

sponge cakes:
One of the favourites to eat, but not necessarily the easiest to make. Their exceptional lightness is due to the millions of air cells created by the whisking process, and to the moisture from the butter and eggs that converts to steam and expands the batter when in the oven. No chemical leaveners are necessary.
There are two ways to make this type of cake. Beating whole eggs and sugar over heat then adding flour will produce a slightly sticky and soft-textured cake. Or - first beating the egg yolks with the sugar (again over heat), then separately adding the flour and beaten egg whites, will produce a firmer cake that has more 'crust'. In both cases, the cake will be light, airy, and springy in texture, but whichever method is chosen, the secret is to whisk in as much air as possible into the eggs and sugar and the cake should be baked immediately to prevent the mixture deflating. There are no shortcuts. If you want a very light cake you have to whisk for as long as necessary, not just for a short time. When in the oven the air in the cake will expand causing it to rise, and the more air the more it will rise.
(Melted butter can be added - depending upon the recipe chosen - and this will result in a richer cake that will stay moist for 2 - 3 days).

Warming the eggs and sugar in the bowl over hot water is a time-saving technique. As the two are beaten together, the heat begins to 'set' the eggs, enabling them to trap and hold large quantities of air, and more rapidly increase in volume. Be sure the base of the bowl does not touch the water otherwise the eggs will cook/scramble. Whisk constantly for anything from 5 - 10 minutes (the longer time when using a balloon whisk, the lesser time if using an electric whisk)m but certainly long enough for the mixture to become lukewarm. It can then be removed from the heat, but continue to whisk until the mixture has tripled in bulk and when the whisk is lifted a ribbon of mixture falls from the beaters in a thick ribbon, lying on the surface.
When folding in the sifted flour, do this with a metal spoon and very gently, a little at a time. Start folding from the centre of the mixture, drawing the spoon along the bottom of the bowl and bring it back up round the sides. If butter is being added, this needs to be first melted, then added alternately with the flour.

creamed, rubbed and melted cakes:
The proportions of a cake's ingredients usually determines the method of mixing. Cakes containing a large amount of butter (half, or more than half of the weight of flour used) usually start off by creaming the butter with the sugar. A less rich - and more economical - cake is made with less butter in proportion to the flour, so the fat and flour is then rubbed together to distribute the butter more evenly.
The melting method is mainly used when making moist cakes such as gingerbread, and to blend the sweet ingredients (treacle, syrup, honey etc) more easily, they are gently heated with the butter until melted, before the flour is folded into them.

All these cakes vary in texture, colour and flavour, but in all cases the cake batter must rise in the oven or they will end up heavy and almost inedible. When a high proportion of eggs is used, they provide enough natural leavening, and their moisture - when converted to steam - also helps the cake to rise. Cake with a low proportion of eggs need a chemical raising agent.

rich fruit cakes usually have a high fat content, and always contain eggs. Usually made with equal amounts of flour, butter and brown sugar, the preparation begins by creaming the butter and sugar, then follow the recipe.
The density of a fruit cake means that it will need a longer baking time. To prevent the surface of the cake from browning too quickly, the oven temperature needs to be kept low. Ideally, put the cake into a warm oven (179C/325F/gas 3) for the first 20 minutes, then reduce the heat to 150C/300F/gas 2 and bake for a further 40 minutes, then reduce it even further, down to low 140C/275F/gas 1 and continue baking the cake for the rest of the time - which can be four hours in the case of a large cake. When cooked, a skewer inserted into the cake should come out clean.

Cakes that use the rubbed-in method contain a relatively low proportion of butter - less than half the weight of flour, and also often contain no eggs, so a chemical raising agent is needed to make the cake rise. A recipe is given as an example:

Vinegar Cake:
8 oz (225g) butter
1 lb (450g) flour
8 oz (225g) sugar
8 oz (225g) raisins
4 oz (100g) sultanas
1 egg (optional) beaten
6 fl oz (175ml) milk
3 tblsp white vinegar
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
Rub the butter into the flour until crumbly. Stir in the sugar and fruit, and then the egg (if using). Put 5 fl.oz (150ml) milk into a jug and stir in the vinegar. Warm the remaining milk and stir in the bicarb. then add to the milk in the jug. Stir this mixture quickly into the cake mixture and pour into a greased and floured cake 9" (23cm) cake tin, and bake at 190C, 375F, gas 5 for 30 minutes, then lower the temperature to 150C, 300F, gas 2 and continue baking for a further half hour or until firm to the touch.

That is the recipe as it would appear in a cook book - and normally this is as far as any recipe would go, but for those of us who wish to work to a more professional standard, we need to know more about the 'order of play' and why and how the ingredients work together.
Because of the length of explanation we can appreciate why a 'method' is normally written in short-form, but this doesn't mean to say we are better off not knowing.
Vinegar Cake: Start by lining a cake tin with a double thickness of greaseproof paper - this helps to protect the cake during the long cooking time.
Prepare the fruit by putting them into a bowl with the sugar. Sieve the flour into another bowl, adding cold butter cut into cubes, and lightly rub together with fingertips until crumbed.
Overworking the rubbing-in will make it oil, and result in a tough cake.
Although the cake is called this by name, the vinegar does not contribute to the flavour. The acid in the vinegar reacts with the bicarb. causing it to release carbon dioxide that helps the cake to rise. If the soda was added to the vinegar directly, the mixture would froth up too quickly and much gas would be lost. To prevent this, the soda is first dissolved in a little milk. The vinegar added to the remaining warm milk and the two mixed together. The large volume of milk helps to slow down the chemical reaction, so less gas is wasted before the liquid is added to the dry ingredients.
The consistency of the cake batter is important, for if too liquid the cake will end up heavy and damp, too stiff and it will be dry and crumbly, so when adding the liquid to the dry ingredients work quickly and start by adding some of the liquid, stirring it in with a spoon and adding more liquid until the mixture is just thick enough to drop off the spoon when gently shaken. The leavening of the cake will not be noticeably affected if you do not use every last drop of milk.
to cool and store:
Allow the cake to cool in the tin for 10 minutes before removing. Peel off the paper and leave to cool on a cake airer, and allow it to get completely cold before serving or it will crumble when cut.
Because a cake made with a low proportion of butter loses moisture more than a richer cake, it is best eaten the same day of making. However, wrapped in foil, vinegar cake will keep fresh in an airtight container for a few days.

Not much needs to be added to a recipe made using the 'melting method'. Suffice to say that the chemical agent is usually bicarb. as this reacts naturally with the honey, treacle, syrup to produce carbon dioxide bubbles.
An important thing to remember is that because of the cake's high proportion of sugar, it will to burn easily, so always bake (say gingerbread) at a moderate heat (no higher than 180C...) until firm and springy to the touch. DO NOT OPEN THE OVEN DOOR during the early stages of cooking or the rush of cool air will lower the temperature too much and cause the cake to sink.

So that is the Masterclass for today, and hope some of the information will help when it comes to 'inventing' your own cake recipes. Certainly it has helped me feel more in control, and have found that 'creaming' the butter and sugar together for longer than I normally used to (now until the mixture is almost white and very light and fluffy- and this can take 5 minutes) has made for better textured cakes. Having said that, the 'all-in-one' creamed method of beating all the ingredients together still makes a cake 'good enough to eat', as almost any home-made cake will be. This should not stop us trying to make a cake that 'is even better to eat'.

Enjoy your baking, and hope this has inspired some of you to bake a cake for this coming holiday weekend. Let us hope the weather keeps fair enough for a possible picnic or barbecue. Until tomorrow - when we meet up again.