Answers to Some of Your Baking Questions
Every day I receive emails from visitors with questions about a cooking technique or a recipe. Unfortunately, I can't get to them all, but I try to get as many responses as possible, and if I don't know the answer, I'll ask one of my chef friends. Here are some I've received that deal with baking, a subject I am not comfortable with, so I sent them to my friend Chef Jenni Field, a great baker and pastry chef.
Cracks In Cake
This one comes from Debbie, who says,
I tried the apple cake recipe, it is fantastic except for the part about the cracks in the middle of the cake. In fact, I had the same problem with other cakes as well, can u let me know what is the probable cause of this?
Here's how Chef Jenni replied,
My first thought is that, with fruit in the center, you're bound to get some cracking as the fruit boils and settles down upon cooling. I'm not sure how much cracking you're getting, but with a "homey" dessert like an apple cake, I'd just hit it with some powdered sugar and eat up!
If you're getting cracks in other cakes, it could be from over-mixing or using the wrong flour. Depending on where you live, flours can be very different from one another. In the US, stick with a nationally available all-purpose flour for the most consistent results.
Regarding over-mixing the apple cake, try folding in the dry ingredients rather than trying to beat them in. (In cakes using the creaming method - adding dry and wet alternately after creaming the fat and sugar, mix until just combined after each addition).
Also, check your oven temperature--if the oven is too hot, it could cause things to rise and peak, creating cracks in the cake. This is great for muffins but not what you want with cake. If you don't have one, get an oven thermometer to check the temperature.
All Purpose Flour
Here's another baking-related question I asked Chef Jenni to help with:
I have tried using natural unbleached, all purpose flour to make a layer cake and have been unsatisfied with the texture. I tried using 2 tablespoons less of the all purpose flour (which I read is the equivalent of cake flour). I have tried replacing some of the all purpose flour with corn starch. None of the things I've tried have given me the light, airy cake that I get when I use the package mix. I do want the cake to be all natural. Any suggestions?
Chef Jenni replies,
I bet it's their mixing method, not the flour, messing them up. Also, mass-produced cake mixes contain emulsifiers and tenderizers unavailable to the home baker. So, generally speaking, a home-baked cake will most likely not be as light as a cake mix cake. Notice I said "not be as light," not "not be better." I stay away from cake mixes because of all the additives.
If you've tried using different flours and even using less all-purpose to stand in for cake flour, I would consider buying some cake flour. It is more finely milled than all-purpose flour, so your results tend to be a lighter, finer texture. If you've already tried cake flour and aren't satisfied with your results, I would look to your mixing method.
If you are using the creaming method, make sure that all of your ingredients are at cool room temperature (about 68-70 degrees F) and thoroughly cream the fat and sugar until it is very light and fluffy. Next, add the eggs, one at a time, and beat each one in thoroughly before adding the next. Then, thoroughly whisk together all the dry ingredients and add about half to the batter.
Mix until incorporated on medNext, add-low speed. Add half of the liquid and mix in. Follow that with half of what's left of the flour, the rest of the liquid, and then the rest of the dry. Mix just until incorporated after each addition, and scrape the bowl frequently.
Following this procedure should result in a well-aerated cake that is fairly tender.
More About All Purpose Flour
What does all purpose flour have in it? Any baking powder or baking soda?
Chef Jenni says,
You are not alone in your confusion over the flour. There are a wide variety of flours on the market, and it seems like more are introduced daily.
All-purpose flour is a blend of high and low-protein flour. The manufacturers blend the flour so there is enough gluten to make a reasonable (often excellent) loaf of bread but not so much that you will end up with a chewy birthday cake. This is why they call it "all purpose:" it is good to use in various baked goods.
When you ask about baking powder and soda, I assume you mean self-rising flour. All-purpose flour and self-rising flour are not interchangeable because self-rising flour does contain leaveners and salt. Self-rising (or self-raising) flour is one of the first "baking mixes." Rather than measuring out all-purpose flour, baking powder, and salt separately, a cook can measure the self-rising flour--everything else is already in there.
Can Kitchen Smells Get Into a Cake?
Robin contacted me and asked,
Can a potent/hot aroma alter the taste of a cake being prepared? For example, if chilies are cooking (they are so potent I have to leave the kitchen!) in the same kitchen where a cake is being mixed together (at the same time), can the cake batter absorb any of the aroma? Could the aroma possibly alter the taste of the cake?
Chef Jenni says,
I've never experienced such a thing, but that could be because I've never been roasting hot peppers while mixing cake batter. As most of you have been reading my blog or visited my site, I'm not much of a baker. However, my 11-year-old daughter is getting interested in baking, so you will see more recipes posted based on what she is making in the future.
Having said that, smells are physical properties. We smell tiny airborne molecules of whatever is giving So from the scent. From that standpoint, it stands to reason that some of the volatile components of peppers and other "hot" foods could waft about in a kitchen and settle on/in your cake batter.
It would further depend on the type of cake you're mixing. Fats readily absorb flavors, so a butter-heavy cake would likely pick up more flavors than a leaner cake, such as angel food. I can say that all sorts of scents waft around in commercial kitchens - roasting lobster shells being a particularly pervasive and intense one, and pastry chefs continue with dessert production despite it. If you have any concerns about flavor transfer, I recommend that you don't do both tasks simultaneously. I hope this helps.
Help With Coconut Macaroon Recipe
I have a coconut macaroon recipe that I've been having trouble with. I've been cooking it for years but have never really perfected it. Usually I get different results every time i cook it. What I would like to achieve is a layer of chewy baked macaroon top with the bottom, a layer of custard not unlike flan or crÃ¨me brulee.
I bake them in really small paper patty pans and they come out like this: Sometimes I get the result I would like to achieve, other times the macaroon is dry and the custard layer would not be there and it is hollow at the bottom.
These are the ingredients I generally use: desiccated coconut, eggs, condensed milk, vanilla, butter, and molasses. Combined, I bake them in a preheated 180-degree oven for 15 minutes. Are there ingredients in my list that I should exclude? Help, where do I go wrong?
I asked Chef Jenni for help with this one. Here is what she had to say:
This is strictly speculation since I've never made macaroons with these specific ingredients. Since Robin doesn't give the amounts for any of the ingredients, I'm going to assume that these guys are primarily desiccated coconut and egg with the other ingredients there for body and additional flavor/richness. If so, there are a few variables.
One would be the weather. The humidity will affect the final product when working with an egg-heavy recipe. Low humidity will equal a crisp outcome, and high humidity equals chewy. So, that's something to think about.
Another variable that the baker has more control over is mixing time. I would suggest that over-mixing yielded the hollow-bottomed result. Next time, keep track of how long and how quickly - you're mixing and write it down. If the results are hollow-bottomed, dry macaroons decrease the mixing time.
Eventually, you'll hit the magic speed/time combination. Then, assuming that humidity isn't the deciding factor, you'll always get your desired results by mixing for that specified amount of time. My gut is if you're looking for chewy/custardy macaroons, you'd want to mix on no more than medium speed for a relatively minimal time.
I will be interested to hear how things turn out and would also like to see the full recipe and the procedure sometime.
As to the last question Resi asks, if she should exclude any ingredients to get the results she is after, I wouldn't alter/omit any of thInstead, e ingredients. I would first look at the mixing speed/time and then the oven temperature. And, for my part, I'd probably add a very healthy pinch of salt into the mix!
How Many Key Limes Does It Take For ½ Cup of Lime Juice?
Susan wrote and said:
I absolutely love your key lime pie recipe. I only have one comment... For ½ Cup of KEY lime juice, it requires 12-15 KEY limes. I can't help but think your suggestion of 3-4 limes refers to regular limes, hardly the same thing. There is NO SUBSTITUTE for key limes, they are quite unique. And, now, I must go make my pie!
Chef Jenni replied,
Yes, Susan is absolutely right. Key limes are very small, about the size of a pecan in the shell. It would take quite a few to yield ½ cup of juice, so I'm guessing 12 - 15 looks right.
Key limes are generally only grown in Mexico now, and they can be pretty hard to find in the States. So I used Nellie and Joe's Key Lime Juice rather than trying to juice a ton of hard-to-find key limes. For folks who can't find key limes or key lime juice, you can substitute Persian ("regular") limes in a pinch, but the flavor won't be as sharp. If you have some citric acid, you can add a pinch of that, and it might get you closer to an actual key lime flavor.
Forgot to Add Sugar to Fruit Cake - What Do I Do?
I have just made a rich 12" fruit cake, and very stupidly I forgot to add the sugar, is there anything I can do, I really don't want to throw this cake away. Thanks I look forward to your reply.
Oh, Susanne. The short answer is "No." But don't feel too stupid. We've all been there. Or, speaking for myself, I've been there. I learned the hard way to taste the batter every step of the way. Most of the time, it's a pleasure, but occasionally I'll catch a potentially Big Problem, such as no sugar, no butter, or no salt.
Sugar is a critical ingredient in baking. Not only does it make baked goods taste sweet, it also keeps them moist, assists in browning, and aids in tenderizing. Without sugar, baked goods are unappetizing because of the lack of sweetness, but they are also dry, pale, and tough.
It's too bad that this happened to a fruit cake because the ingredients can be expensive. However, I suppose that you could try dousing the whole thing with sugar syrup (bring equal parts, by weight, of sugar and water to a boil, stirring until all the sugar is dissolved. Cool).
Barring that, I'd think outside the box and consider using your unsweetened fruitcake as a base for stuffing or a bread pudding. Think about it. You've probably got some nuts and fruits in the cake, and the fact that it's tougher than a "regular" cake would work in its favor in helping the cubes to keep their shape.
For stuffing, crumble up the fruit cake and dry it out in a very low oven (maybe 180F-200F). Mix together with chicken stock, sauteed mirepoix (onion, carrot, and celery), an egg, some poultry seasoning, salt, pepper, and maybe some cooked and crumbled sausage.
For the bread pudding, you can introduce sweetness through. First, mix the custard. Next, mix up a basic sweet custard: one egg and 2-3 tablespoons of sugar per cup of dairy (whole milk, half&half, cream, etc.). Next, cube your fruit cake, put it in a buttered baking dish, and pour the custard over it. Let it soak in for a good half hour to hour, and then bake at 325F until somewhat risen golden brown, set on the edges, and just a bit jiggly in the center. Let cool for about half an hour, then serve with some ice cream. Good luck with it!
Cracked Chocolate Chip Cookies
Help! We have a chocolate chip recipe that we have been making for years. Recently the baked cookies have a different appearance - even from within the same batch. Baked in the same oven, at the same time and even on the same pan - some cookies bake as usual and others look "cracked" or like they might even have oats in them. We have had no ingredient substitutions, no change in mixing, climate, etc. Please share any insights as we are really stuck. Thank you.
I'm going to assume that you're talking about a "standard" creaming method chocolate chip cookie. Given that, the only real thing I can think of is that your butter isn't soft enough when you cream it together with the sugar.
Or maybe your eggs aren't at room temperature, and the batter curdles slightly as the butter seizes up when the cold eggs hit it. That could definitely leave you with a bit of an "oatmealy" look to your batter.
If your recipe contains baking powder, make sure that it is fresh. Old baking powder takes up space and can affect the texture of your batter.
That's all the insight I can give you since I don't know your specific ingredient list or technique. I hope this helps, though.
Altitude Adjustments for Angel Food Cake
I am having trouble with Betty Crocker angel food cake mixes. I live at 5,280 feet and have a brand new stove. I followed the high altitude adjustments to the basic mix (added 2 tbsp. corn starch to the dry mix), used a 10" pan as called for, and baked at 350 degrees. Three times I have tried this and each time, the cake overflows the pan while baking. Then when I place it upside down to cool, it falls from the pan. What can I do to resolve this? Thanks for your time.
Have you used this mix before and had it turned out correctly? Maybe with your old oven?
I just looked up the ingredients for this cake mix, and I'd like to take a quick second to suggest that you make angel food cake from scratch. There's sodium lauryl sulfate in the mix as a "whipping aid." That ingredient is also found in shampoos and is considered irritating. Plus, it also contains artificial flavorings and BHT as a preservative. I'd make a standard angel food cake using real whites, vanilla, salt, cake flour, and a little leavening.
If you love the boxed mix, though, I'll try to help. The high altitude directions I read called for adding ⅓ cup of corn starch, which is 5 tablespoons and 1 teaspoon of corn starch. It also says to increase the water from 1 ¼ cup to 1 ⅓ cup. The additional dry ingredients will help to "weigh down" the leavening and keep it from overflowing your pan, even with the relatively low atmospheric pressure. Also, the wee bit of extra water will help it to blend in more evenly.
Make sure that you're not greasing your pan. Angel food cake needs to grab onto the sides of the pan to "climb." Baking in an ungreased pan also ensures that it won't fall out when you turn it upside down to cool.
I hope that helps (and I hope you try to make one from scratch)!
So, that concludes this round-up of mostly baking-related questions. Please note that Chef Jenni often asks to know the recipe - the exact ingredients and procedure you use to make your baked goods. She says that this is because there are a lot of variables in baking and pastry, that there is a lot of chemistry involved, and that knowing the ingredients and procedures can help to narrow down the problem and make it easier to come up with the correct answer.
Making Tartlets Ahead of Time
Judy asked, I'm going to make your key lime tartletfor a bridal shower on June 25ht, 2011. I just wanted to know how far ahead can I make the tartlets? Thank you, Judy
Jenni says, You can make the tart shells and freeze them uncooked for up to a month. Since your party is on the 25th, this won't be a problem for you. If you want, bake them the day before filling them and keep them at room temperature. I wouldn't make the filling more than two days ahead. Freshest is always best; you don't want your tarts picking up any stray refrigerator smells.
Substituting Raw Sugar for White
Kimberly asks, Can I substitute raw sugar for white in cordial an jam recipes?
Jenni says, Yes, you can certainly substitute raw sugar for white. However, since it contains more impurities (mainly molasses, which is never a bad thing in my book), the color might not be as vibrant. As long as you're OK with that, go for it.
Substituting Baking Soda with Baking Powder
Jeanie Koch asks, I have a recipe for bran muffins and it calls for 3 tablespoons of baking soda, it also uses buttermilk, what I would like to know is if I can use half baking soda and half baking powder. Thank you.
Jenni says, It's hard to know how to answer your question without seeing the recipe. However, I will say that 3 tablespoons of baking powder are a heck of a lot. Generally speaking, it takes ¼ teaspoon of baking soda to leaven 1 cup of flour properly. Most likely, the bulk of the baking soda is there to offset the acid in the vinegar.
When you start talking about swapping out baking soda for baking powder (or vice versa, for that matter), you're talking about altering the pH of the batter. Vinegar makes a batter acidic, and baking soda makes it more alkaline. Baking powder is neutral since it contains ingredients that balance pH-wise.
If you mess with the pH of your batter, you run the risk of its not setting up--too alkaline (basic), and it won't set at all, and you'll end up with pudding. If you had used the recipe before and liked it, I'd stick with it. However, if you'd like to send me the recipe, I'll take a look at it and see if it's possible to make some substitutions without altering what it is you like about that bran muffin recipe in the first place.
Yeast in Bread
Ron asks, Can you please tell me how much fresh yeast I should use for a 2 pound loaf made in a bread maker? I have tried with 12 grams but it nearly took the lid off the bread maker. I am using 560 grams of flour, brown sugar, vegetable oil, skimmed milk, salt, plus 3 x 60 gram vitamin "C" tablets crushed. I would really like a reply as all the bread I am making at the moment is soggy at the top and has to be cut off and wasted.
Jenni says You can do one of two things (or both):
- Cut down to 8-9g fresh yeast and/or
- Cut down or eliminate the amount of Vitamin C you're using. For example, maybe go w/1 - 60g Vitamin C tab instead of 3.
Now that I think of it, you might also make the dough in your bread machine, take it out, let it rise, and bake it in your oven at 375F. That way, your bread won't be constrained by the lid of your bread machine, and some of the moisture will be able to escape into the oven, keeping your bread from getting soggy.