- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 6, 2004

As a research biochemist for Vanderbilt University Medical School, I learned that analysis is essential … even in selecting a good recipe.

I love to try new recipes, and I hate it when they don’t work or if, after all my efforts and money invested, they taste ordinary. In the early days of my cake-baking, I would go crazy when I precisely followed a recipe from a good cookbook and it did not come out right. So years ago, I began applying some of the science I learned in college. The result is that I’ve become pretty good at spotting a loser cake recipe before the ingredients are in the oven.

Here are some of the secrets I discovered myself, as well as a few learned from master bakers I’ve worked with or interviewed. They were happy to provide me with insider information that I will share with you. But don’t tell anyone.

Following that, I’ve provided two recipes. The first is a recipe from a book. Then I offer my new and improved version, following the rules I’ve collected for proper cake chemistry.

LEAVENING RULE



This is the most important rule. Many substandard recipes have too much leavening. If there is too much leavening, the bubbles get too big and float to the top and pop, and the cake falls or is very heavy. Cakes, muffins or quick breads should have no more than 1¼ teaspoons baking powder per cup of flour or ¼ teaspoon soda per cup of flour.

PERCENTAGE GUIDES

You can also use bakers’ percentage guides to compare amounts of ingredients in a recipe so that you can determine scientifically if the recipe looks good. For example, the percentage guide for fat is that the weight of the fat should run 30 to 60 percent of the weight of the flour. This percentage guide can be very helpful. If the weight of the fat in your cake is less than 30 percent of the weight of the flour, the cake will be lean, not rich at all. On the other hand, if the weight of the fat is 70 percent of the weight of the flour, you know that the cake will probably be greasy. You should cut the fat a bit or find another recipe.

BAKERS’ FORMULAS

There are three formulas concerned with the fact that the structure-forming ingredients (the flour and the eggs) must be in balance with the structure-wrecking ingredients (the sugar and the fat).

The first formula shows a relationship between the sugar and the flour. The weight of the sugar should be equal to or greater than the weight of the flour.

The second formula shows a relationship between the eggs and the fat. The weight of eggs should be equal to or greater than the weight of fat.

The third formula concerns the liquid. There must be enough liquid in a cake to dissolve all the sugar, with some left over to help the starch swell. This will be accomplished if the weight of the liquid, including the eggs, is greater than the weight of the sugar.

In the first recipe that follows, I checked the leavening proportions. The leavening was fine: 1 teaspoon baking powder per cup of flour.

However, when I look at the percentage-guides formula, the weight of 1¼ cups sugar (about 8½ ounces) compared with the weight of 2¼ cups of flour (about 11 ounces) was incorrect. The weight of the sugar was less than the weight of the flour when it is supposed to be equal or more. This told me that the layers might be dry. Everything else looked fine, though. So I decided I could improve the cake just by increasing the amount of sugar. I added ¼ cup to make the weight of the sugar almost equal to the weight of the flour.

Here are the other changes I made when I created my version of the cake:

I switched to self-rising flour because normally it’s a slightly lower-protein flour, which produces a more tender cake. Also, it contains leavening that is perfectly distributed throughout, helping to produce a cake with perfect texture. Because the flour contains the leavening, it allowed me to cut one ingredient.

I changed the 3/4 cup milk to ½ cup whipping cream plus ⅓ cup buttermilk because I love the taste of cream and buttermilk in baked goods. I like buttermilk for its acidity and for the fact that it creates more steam than cream when it is baked.

I wanted the layers to be really moist, so I cut some of the butter and substituted a little oil. Oil coats the flour proteins and prevents their forming gluten, which ties up water, removing it from the cake.

I also added more flavoring.

After the original golden layer cake, I include Shirley’s golden cream cake, my version of the cake. Try it or the other cake and remember to follow the insider rules. But don’t tell anyone who told you.

Golden layer cake

This recipe makes two fairly good 9-inch layers that can be cut in half horizontally and iced to make a layer cake. It contains egg yolks, so it is not as dry as some cakes, thank goodness.

Nonstick cooking spray

3/4 cup (6 ounces) butter (4.8 ounces fat, butter is only 80 percent fat)

1¼ cups sugar

8 large egg yolks

2¼ cups flour

2¼ teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

3/4 cup (6 ounces) milk

1 teaspoon vanilla

Arrange a shelf in the lower third of the oven, top with a pizza stone or a heavy baking sheet, and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray two 9-by-2-inch round cake pans with nonstick cooking spray, and line them with parchment circles. Lightly spray the top of the parchment.

In a mixer, beat butter until soft and fluffy. Add sugar and continue to cream until very light. While creaming, feel the bowl. If it does not feel cool, place in the freezer for 5 minutes, then continue creaming. Beat yolks in, one at a time.

In a separate bowl, stir the flour, baking powder and salt together well with a fork. Beating on low speed, starting with the dry ingredients, alternately add the dry ingredients and the milk to the butter-egg mixture until everything has been added. Beat in the vanilla.

Pour batter into prepared pans, and smooth the tops. Drop the pans, one at a time, onto the counter from a height of 4 inches. Place on the stone or baking sheet and bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out dry, about 25 minutes.

Place cakes on a rack and leave in the pans to cool for 10 minutes. Remove from pans to finish cooling. Layers may be cut in half horizontally to form 4 layers. Makes 4 layers for a 9-inch cake.

Shirley’s golden cream cake

This is my new and improved version. The cake layers are incredibly moist and wonderful.

Nonstick cooking spray

⅓ cup (3 ounces) butter (2.4 ounces fat)

1½ cups (10.5 ounces) sugar

¼ cup (1.8 ounces) vegetable oil

8 large egg yolks (5.2 ounces)

1 large egg (1.75 ounces)

2¼ cups (11 ounces) self-rising flour

½ cup (4 ounces) heavy whipping cream (1.4 ounces fat)

¼ teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons vanilla

Zest of ½ lemon, optional

⅓ cup buttermilk (4 ounces)

Arrange a shelf in the lower third of the oven, top with a pizza stone or a heavy baking sheet, and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spray two 9-by-2-inch round cake pans with nonstick cooking spray, and line them with parchment circles. Lightly spray the top of the parchment.

In a mixer, beat butter until soft and fluffy. Add sugar and continue to cream until very light. Drizzle in the oil, and continue to beat. Beat the yolks in, one at a time, then the egg. Beat in most of the flour, then on low speed add the whipping cream and remaining flour. Stir the salt, vanilla and lemon zest (if desired) into the buttermilk, and add all to the batter. Pour into prepared pans, and smooth out the tops.

Drop the pans, one at a time, onto the counter from a height of 4 inches. Place on the stone or baking sheet, and bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out dry, about 25 minutes. Place on a rack. Leave cakes in the pan to cool for 10 minutes. Remove from pan to finish cooling. Layers may be cut in half horizontally to form 4 layers. Makes 4 layers for a 9-inch cake.

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