As Britain tightens the belt in preparation for a new austerity era, Andy Connelly finds comfort and solace through the science and magic behind the cake.
“I’m inclined to believe that cakes and ales are most popular in perilous times and when sorrow is abound.” Anthony Trollope
Sharing generous slices of homemade cake with friends and family is a beautiful way to bond. You can use some magic scientific transformations when you bake a cake to make something delicious, sweet, and delicate that everyone will enjoy.
My mother taught me how to bake cakes, just like many others. I fondly remember scooping the fairy cake mix into paper cases and dipping my fingertips into the chocolate icing.
This airy, light cake may seem to be an old tradition, but it is a relatively recent invention.
Ancient Egyptians were probably the first bakers to have been killed. Cakes were essentially bread at this time but with honey, egg, and fat added to give them the distinctive essence of cake – richness and sweetness. The first English cakes were still bread. Their main distinguishing features were their round, flat shape and the fact that they were hard on both sides due to being baked.
The cakes we know today were only invented in the 18th and early 19th centuries, when eggs and chemical raising agents, such as bicarbonate soda, replaced the leavening powers of yeast. Raising agents were more effective than yeast and took less time to prepare.
The English poundcake is the classic risen cake. It is on this that the Victoria Sponge is built. The four main ingredients in these cakes are generally equal: structure-building eggs and flour, structure-weakening sugar, and fat. This recipe is the perfect combination of all these ingredients. The delicate egg and flour scaffold collapses with more sugar or fat. This results in a heavy, dense cake.
You can also find out more about the recipe by clicking here.
Self-raising flour, 250g (10oz).
Sugar casters – 250g (10 oz).
250g (10oz.) of butter or margarine (at room temperature).
Five eggs are lightly beaten (assuming each weighs approximately 50g (2oz).
Beat the sugar and fat until it reaches a fluffy consistency, like whipped cream. You can do this by hand if you feel strong. Otherwise, use an electric mixer.
Gas bubbles are responsible for the cake’s tender texture and melt-in-your-mouth quality. They subdivide the batter into thin sheets. This air is mainly added at this first stage when the sugar and fat are vigorously mixed. The rough sugar crystal surfaces carry air. We use caster because the smaller the sugar crystals are, the more air they can hold. A thin film of fat covers the air bubbles in the foam.
It can be challenging to cream. In 1857, Miss Leslie (an American cookbook author) described a method that allowed cooks to beat the eggs for an hour “without fatigue,” but she also advised: “to mix butter and sugar in cake is the most difficult part.” Your manservant can do this.
Taste the mixture after a short break. The buttery taste hits you first and then sweetness as the sugar dissolves. The mixture will be lighter and softer than the butter alone, thanks to the air that you’ve added.
Also, notice how fat coats your inside mouth. This coating property allows fat to perform another important role as a “shortener.” The fat coats starch and proteins in the flour with a thin oily film and reduces gluten formation (bready). Fruit purees are also a good option. This results in a cake with a “short” and tender crumb.
It takes a lot of science to create a cake fat that’s plastic enough to cover a large area of grains of flour but soft enough to form tiny globules. Many companies spend hours mixing different vegetable oils to achieve suitable properties. For me, flavor is the most crucial role fat plays at home. This is why I use butter. Even though the fluidity of the cake is not carefully controlled, it still makes excellent cakes and has for hundreds of years.
When I was a kid, refined sugar’s sweetness made cakes so special. The role of sugar is more complex in cakes. It initially introduces air bubbles to the mixture. It softens the flour proteins, which has a tenderizing effect. The caramelization temperature of the batter is also lowered, which allows the cake to be colored at lower temperatures. It also helps keep the cake moist for several days.
Salt is also vital, as it enhances the taste and strengthens the gluten network.
Add the eggs to the mixture, and gently fold the flour with a metal spatula.
The mixture is thickened with beaten egg to prevent the fat-coated bubbles created by creaming from collapsing. Egg proteins form a protective layer around each bubble. This layer includes a wall around the air bubbles as the temperature rises.
Eggs also provide the most liquid for the cake mix (water). If the mixture forms a thin coating on the back side of a metal teaspoon, you know that the eggs have provided enough water. Add a bit of water or milk if it does not.
The taste is important at each stage of cake-making, and I enjoy tasting this step, even though it contains raw eggs. The buttery and sugary taste reminded me of my childhood when I cleaned the bowl with a teaspoon. Concentrating, you can taste the flour and eggs as a gentle background flavor. The flour gives it a slightly pasty texture that makes the mixture stick to the insides of the mouth.
In the 17th century, eggs gradually replaced yeast as the main ingredient in raising cakes. It was a time before chemical-raising agents. All the air needed to be added to the cake required vigorous beating. In an early recipe, four eggs were “beaten together for 2 hours” to lighten fine biscuit bread. The air bubbles would then be trapped in the cake during baking, similar to a souffle.
The discovery of a chemical leavening agent, such as that found in self-raising wheat flour, changed all this. Chemical leavening agents are baking powder, an acid mixture (such as cream of tartar or sodium aluminum sulfate), and an alkali. When heated, the acid reacts with the alkali, and water is added to the mixture. This produces carbon dioxide gas. The carbon dioxide gas is trapped inside the air pockets that form when you cream sugar and fat.
You don’t need to add much air when you mix because the chemical leavener will do the job. Modern learners, other ingredients, and equipment (such as the electric whisk) allow you to combine all ingredients simultaneously while still producing a light cake. My favorite is the traditional method, which involves beating butter and sugar together first.
The flour is the primary structure builder in the cake. Starch is an agent in flour that helps stiffen and strengthen the egg foam. Gluten is formed when some of the proteins found in flour combine to create an extensive network of proteins coiled together. This gluten is what holds the cake together. The elastic nature of the gluten allows it to expand when baking (to include gases), and then it thickens and forms a robust and stable network that can support the weight of the sugar and shortening.
You avoid breaking the air bubbles you worked so hard to create by gently folding the flour into the mixture. Excessive beating can also lead to too much gluten. Although this is important for the structure of the cakes, it will result in a cake that has a heavy and bready texture. Modern cake flours are made with “soft” wheat with lower protein content. This contrasts bread flour, which has a higher protein content.
Divide the mixture between two 20cm greased cake tins.
I scrape any excess from the spoon with my little finger and then put it in the tins. My mother always said that the little finger was the cleanest. Although I doubt it, her genes have passed this habit on to me. I enjoy watching the mixture’s gloopy texture, slightly grainy texture, and rich yellow color as I pour it into the tins. The butter and eggs in the mix are rich in carotene, the chemical that turns carrots orange. The grass that cows graze is the source of the yellow.
Place the jar in a preheated oven at 180C and heat it for 25-30 minutes.
Few things are better than sitting around in the kitchen and letting it fill with the aroma of baking. Make a cup of tea and let the warm aromas from the oven envelope your senses for 30 minutes. Warm butter, slightly sulfurous eggs, and the caramelizing browning smell (and, if you’re distracted, the burning smell) are all excellent.
The smells become more affluent and darker over time. Baking on a miserable, cold day will make you feel better.
The baking process can be divided into three phases: expansion, setting, and browning. As the temperature of the batter rises, gases from the air cells stretch the gluten in the flour. Then, the chemical leavening agents emit carbon dioxide. Water vapor forms as the batter reaches 60C and expands the air cells. About 90% of the expansion is due to carbon dioxide and water vapor, the remainder being thermal expansion.
Around 80C, the batter takes on its final shape. The egg proteins coagulate, and the starch granules soak up water and form a gel. Gluten loses its flexibility. This texture is held until the flour and egg proteins are coagulated. The resulting cake has a porous crumb.
The surface of the cake is now dry, and a flavor-enhancing browning reaction ( Maillard ) occurs. This is where you must decide if the cake is made – this is one of the most critical steps in the process. The cake will bounce back when you touch the crust with your finger. A wire or thin knife inserted into the cake will come clean because the batter has thickened.
After removing it from the oven:
- Allow the cake to stand in the pan for 10 minutes.
- Loosen the cake and gently turn it onto a cooling rack.
- Avoid handling the cake while it is hot.
Does something need to be fixed? The oven temperature may have been too low, causing the batter to set too slowly. Expanding gas cells would have thickened, resulting in a heavy, coarse texture. This will cause the top surface to sink. The oven temperature is too high, and the outer portion of the batter has been set before the interior has expanded, resulting in a rounded, peaked surface.
Make your favorite icing while the cake is cooling, and spread it generously. Butter icing is my favorite – sugar and butter are beaten with lemon juice or milk.
You can now enjoy your creation in peace. The cake might taste better than Mum’s, but everyone will want to try a piece.
Dr. Andy Connelly, a writer on cooking and a researcher in glass at the University of Sheffield
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