Monday, January 17, 2011

Birthday Cake (part 1)

My husband's birthday is coming up at the end of the month so I need to make him a Birthday Cake. Now I love to cook, the kitchen is my “happy place”.  It's where my soul is soothed and if I'm cooking, I'm at peace, I'm in the zone and all is right with the world. All that being said, my passion is baking and cake decorating. I think it's the melding of the graphic artist in me and the baker in me. I love it. The creativity, the challenge, the sugar, oh my!

Being self taught in the arena of cake decorating I'm going to share here with you all I've learned over the past 15 years of trial and error. We'll start with this first post on the baking of the cake, but stay tuned, there is more to come on filling, icing and decorating. This isn't so much a recipe but instructions and tips for getting the best possible result. So pay attention, each step is important! There will be a test. . .ha ha, just kidding. Did I make you nervous, didn't mean too. Forgive me.

First of all I'm going to “out” myself as a user of boxed cake mix. I think because I'm a fairly proficient cook/baker that most assume that I make the cakes from scratch, but I don't. I've never hid that fact or tried to hide it but it's a common assumption. So I'm fessing up, and here are the reasons. Hey, they taste pretty good. They're easy and inexpensive. And when taking on a decorating challenge it simply saves time and steps. Maybe someday I'll try baking the cakes from scratch, but that's a lot of trail and error and we'll save that for another post. Now get ready to bake a cake.

Here is what you'll need to get started: A box of your favorite cake mix. Oil, eggs and water.  2 8-inch round cake pans (Get your self some good quality cake pans with straight, high sides. They aren't too expensive and give you a nice even cake.) Wax or parchment paper. (Either will work but wax paper is a lot less expensive.) Approximately 2 tablespoons of flour. And some “bake even strips”. (Those weird looking silver coils right there on the bottom left. They are sometimes called “magic strips” and you can find them at your local craft or cake supply store. Again, inexpensive and so worth it.)

First you need to soak the “bake even strips”. I just coil them loosely in a bowl filled with water. It helps to weight them down with a plate on top. The idea is to get them good and saturated.

Now to prepare your pans. Using the bottom of the cake pan as a guide, trace a circle onto the wax or parchment paper. Just use a knife to trace around, it will leave a mark on the paper that you can use as a cutting guide. If you use a pen, pencil or marker make sure it is “non-toxic”. Then cut out two circles the exact same size. Boy it's really hard to photograph wax paper. If you plan to bake a lot of cakes you can buy parchment circles pre-cut from a cake supply store, but this is just as easy and a bit less expensive.

Generously grease the bottom and sides of your cake pans. I like to use shortening because it won't brown the edges of your cake but you can use butter or vegetable oil if you like.

Now lay one of the wax paper/parchment circles in the bottom of the cake pan and smooth it down using a paper towel. You want to get any air bubbles out by starting in the center and wiping out towards the edges. Then grease the top of the paper. It should almost disappear on the bottom of the pan. Now sprinkle about a tablespoon of flour into the pan and shake it all around so the bottom and sides are covered in a light dusting of flour. Dump the extra flour out.  Prepare both pans in the same way. 
OK, that's a lot of prep, are ya ready to start mixing you cake?

Just a word on cake mixes: I ONLY USE DUNCAN HINES. EVER! In my opinion it's the best. The few times I've tried a different brand I've been thoroughly disappointed. So the recipe adjustments I'm giving here are for Duncan Hines. If you're using something different, sorry, but you're on your own. OK, rant is over, let's continue. 
Add the cake mix, water, eggs, and oil to a large mixing bowl, making the following adjustments from the directions on the box:  Preheat oven to 325°F, decrease water to 1-1/4 cups, use 3 eggs and 2 tablespoons vegetable oil. (These changes are Duncan Hines recommendations for making tiered cakes. The cake is a bit less moist, you'll never notice, but is much easier to handle and cut.) Trust me.

Using a hand held mixer, but turned off. Give the batter a good mix just to get things combined. Then turn you mixer on medium (mine goes from 1 to 5 so I set it on 3 here) and mix for one minute. Use a spatula to scrape down the sides, turn the mixer to low (1 on my mixer) and mix for one more minute and not one second more! Use a timer!

And here you go, nice smooth batter.

Now divide the batter into your two prepared pans. Use a measuring cup so you can get it as even as possible. To level out the batter give the pans a little spin on the counter. The centrifugal force will even the batter out to the edges. Now lift the pans off the counter about 1/2 inch and drop them down. Give them 2 or 3 firm raps on the counter. This will force the air bubbles to the top and you'll have less chance of having large holes inside your cake.

Now get your “bake even” strips, remember, the ones you were soaking in water. Wring them out good. They should be pretty damp but you don't want them dripping. Now wrap one around the outside of the cake pan, pulling it snug, and secure it with a pin. Do this to the other pan as well. Now into the oven they go. On the center rack, at 325°F, for about 30 minutes. Start checking them at about 28 minutes. Cake is done when a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Here's what they should look like when they are done. See how nice and even the cake rose in the pan. No big hump in the middle, no big cracks. You can thank the “bake even” strips for that. Now leave them be for at least an hour. You want them to cool thoroughly.

Once thoroughly cooled, the edges of the cake should have pulled away from the side of the pan. Run a knife around the edges just to make sure and flip the cake over onto the counter. (You may want to lay down a piece of wax paper to prevent sticking.) Now just peel off the paper circle and flip the cake back over. (Save that paper circle, you'll use it later.)

The cake should already be pretty flat on top but you can use one of these gadgets (wire cake leveler) to level it off or just use a serrated knife. Then if you want more layers go ahead and split one (or both) cake layer(s) in half. I  wanted 3 layers so I just split one, leaving me one thick layer and two thinner layers.

Remember that paper round you saved, you can use that between split layers (if you split them) to keep them from sticking together. And the last step. . .

Wrap the cake layers tightly in plastic wrap and pop them in the freezer. OK now, don't freak out about the freezer. If your cake is tightly wrapped and you have a decent freezer this will keep your cake nice and fresh tasting for a couple of weeks. It saves you from having to bake, ice and decorate all in the same day. Most bakeries, from the grocery to very high end establishments, send their cakes to spend some time in the cooler. Keeps 'em fresh, makes 'em easy to handle. And that's all I've got to say about that. 

Whew, that was a long post and a lot of steps just to bake a cake. Check back in a week or so and I'll continue on with how to fill, ice and decorate.
Happy Baking

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