Who hasn’t been amazed at the success of the Great British Bake Off (BBC or no BBC)? Not only did it spawn Bake Off: Crème de la Crème and Bake Off: The Professionals, it encouraged many of us to start home baking. But it’s not always possible to get it just right; if you’re one of those cooks whose cakes don’t rise to the challenge, here’s some advice to help you get it right…
1. Measure your ingredients accurately
Follow the exact weights given in a recipe and use digital scales that weigh in 1g increments. Remember, too much flour or sugar can have a negative effect on the finished product than you’d believe.
2. Don’t substitute or add extra ingredients
Don’t be tempted to substitute one ingredient for another; if a recipe states caster sugar and you use granulated sugar, you’ll end up with a crunchy, speckled sponge with a denser texture.
3. ‘Sell-by’ dates matter
If you use baking powder past its sell-by date, your cakes won’t rise properly. Check your baking powder by mixing 1xtsp into 4 x tbsp of hot water; if it bubbles up immediately it’s good to use.
4. Following the instructions to the letter
If a recipe says beat eggs and sugar together for five minutes, or to wait for butter to cool before adding it to a mixture, then there’s generally a good scientific reason behind it.
5. It’s important to know the difference between creaming, beating and folding
Creaming is most effectively done using an electric whisk. It traps air into the creamed mixture; the more you trap, the finer the texture of your cake.
Beating refers to the process of adding eggs to the creamed sugar and fat. The best way to do this is to beat all your eggs in a jug first, then pour them into the bowl a little at a time, so the mixture doesn’t curdle. As before, the aim is to keep as much air in the batter as possible.
Folding in flour and dry ingredients preserves all the air you’ve created in the cake batter so it can rise as high as possible. It’s best to use a spatula in a gentle figure-of-eight motion, until you can’t see any more flour, but don’t be tempted to over-mix.
6. Ingredients need to be at room temperature
Plan ahead and have everything out at room temperature for a few hours before you start baking. Remember, butter that’s too cold won’t cream properly and eggs straight from the fridge will make a mixture curdle.
7. Prepare the cake tin properly
Different types of cake use different lining methods. For a standard Victoria sponge, lightly grease the base and sides of the tin with butter or oil, and put a circle of baking parchment or greaseproof paper on the base, but it should be the same size as the base. If your sponge cake has a dark, crunchy edge, you’ve greased the tin too generously.
8. Use the right size tin
The size of the tin affects the cooking time and the result. If it’s too small your cake might burn at the top or overflow and still be raw in the middle. Too big and you could end up with a pancake.
9. How does your oven run?
All ovens vary to a degree, which is why a lot of baking times are approximate. Invest in a reliable oven thermometer to check.
With a gas or a conventional oven, cakes are best baked on the middle shelf, as the temperature of each shelf position varies. With a fan oven slightly lower temperatures are used as these ovens run hotter.
10. Don’t open the oven door too early
If you open the door too early you run the risk of having a cake with a permanently sunken middle; wait around 3/4 of the cooking time before even thinking about opening the oven. If you find your cake isn’t cooked, leave it for another 5-10min, depending on how close you believe it is to being done, before opening the door again.
On the other hand, if your cake is browning too quickly but is still raw in the middle, cover the top of the tin with foil for the remainder of the cooking time.