Baker’s Guide

Butter acts as a tenderizer by providing moistness and fat in a recipe.  In cakes and other bakes (like cookies, muffins, and quick-breads), butter is used to coat protein and starches to create more delicate crumbs. 

Butter is made by churning cream until it separates into liquids (buttermilk) and solids (butterfat).  Most butter is made up of 80-85% butterfat.  The lower the butterfat content in a particular brand of butter, the more liquid.  Those with a high butterfat percentage, sometimes known as European butters, are typically superior in quality.  In cakes and cookies, the difference is minimal, but if you are making a flakey piecrust (where extra liquids can weigh down and toughen dough), then splurges for the good stuff.

Note that “European-style” butter may also have a higher butterfat percentage than our American varieties, but the name refers to butter that is made from cream that has been cultured.

Why do most baking recipes call for unsalted butter, then turn around and add in more salt?  Control, my dears!  Since different brands of butter contain different amounts of salt, it is best to write recipes that start with unsalted butter to take all the guessing out of the equation.  Using a regular sweet cream butter (note that sweet cream does not contain added sugar) may result in making delicate pastries and other bakery goods (think buttercream frosting with tons of salt – no thanks) taste overly salty.  I love adding to salt to almost everything and I have about a half-dozen different varieties in my pantry at all time (no joke), but I like to be the one in control instead of trying to figure out which brand works best.

I discussed temperature in the last lesson, but the argument of paying close attention to the temperature of your ingredients most strongly applies to butter.  Softened butter (also seen as “room temperature” butter) mixing into batters easily and whips into silky buttercreams like magic.  What does softened butter really mean, you ask?  When left out at room temperature (usually about 60 to 90 minutes depending on the actual temperature of your kitchen), softened butter should be slightly cool but malleable.  It should hold its shape.  If you press it with a finger, it should make a clear indentation without squishing everywhere.  If the butter appears greasy and oily, it is too soft and will loose its ability to cream with sugar (see below).

Not only is using softened butter more “convenient” when making things like citrus curds, pastry creams, and ganache, it is important for creating creamy textures when it needs to melt into a recipe.  Ever have a meringue-based buttercream “break” or look curdled?  The butter was probably too cold and could not emulsify into the meringue mixture efficiently.   If you also recall from Monday’s lesson, then you might remember how I strongly value the act of creaming softened butter and sugar together to create tender cakes and cookies.

Creaming softened butter with sugar makes for a more homogenous batter.  More importantly, creamed butter plays a role in cake structure.  Sure butter keeps cakes tender, but when it is whipped with sugar, air is actually being forced into the mixture.  Sugar crystals literally cut into the butter and create little air pockets that help leaven cakes making them light and fluffy.  Pretty cool, right?  That’s one reason white and butter cakes are usually tenderer than dense carrot and chocolate cakes that are only mixture with oil or others that are not aerated with the creaming of butter and sugar.  Note that the butter must be soft for this process to work!  Too cold, and the butter will just clunk around the mixer.  Too soft,  and it will not aerate properly.

All About EGGS
The checker at Costco must think I am totally crazy every time I unload at least 4 dozen organic eggs out of my cart and onto the conveyor belt.  At the rate I bake cakes and rely on poached eggs to make pantry staples and whatever vegetables we have left in the fridge into a full meal, we go through a ton of eggs.  But what is really in an egg and why do we depend on them so much for making delicious pastries and lazy weekend night meals?

Crack one open and it’s pretty obvious what you will find - a rich, golden yolk and runny, alien-like whites.  Most of time you see me cracking eggs, the shells are brown.  I use organic chicken eggs - the shells up here in Canada just happen to be that color.  I heard once that the shell color had something to do with the diet of the hen, but I don’t really know for sure.  Unless otherwise stated, most recipes call for large eggs.  If the egg (white or yolk) is measured by weight, then that is a pretty good indication that precise measurements are important.  For example, recipes for French macarons usually list egg whites in ounces or grams, because the the measurements need to be precise to create those crispy, finicky shells, and while eggs are separated into medium, large, and extra large, there is definitely some inconsistency in size.

Besides the obvious differences in appearance and texture, egg whites and yolks play drastically different roles in the pastry kitchen.  As a whole, eggs create structure and stability within a batter, thicken and emulsify custards, and add moisture in the form of fat in cakes, cookies, and other baked goods.  There is some overlap, but let’s take a look at the parts separately first to better understand their functions.

The most important role of the egg yolk is to provide fat.  Fat adds richness, flavor, color, and gives cakes a velvety, tender texture.  This is why you will see that my go-to butter cake recipe only contains egg yolks.  The results are a golden, moist, and velvety crumb.  Another big attribute is their emulsifying abilities.  As an emulsifier, the yolks have a unique ability to help bind other fats and liquids together resulting in a more homogenous batter.  So in theory, if you want to add a bit of richness, try substituting whole eggs for yolks in equal amounts.  

For as awesome as egg yolks are at adding lusciousness, egg whites are at building structure.  Hard boil an egg, and you can see what heat does to an egg white - it firms up!  Whip ‘em, and they become mighty and strong but incredibly light.  Whipped egg whites act as natural leavening agents in certain types of cakes and soufflés.  In batters used for things like particular sponge and genoise cakes, the heat of the oven causes the air trapped in the foam to expand and the batter to rise without needing a chemical reaction like those created with baking soda or powder.  Some recipes still rely solely on whipped egg whites as leaveners while other use a mix of whipped eggs and baking soda/powder for reassurance.

Cakes made with whipped egg whites and without yolks (think Angel Food cake) tend to be light and airy in texture and pale in color.  Pretty great, right? For whom doesn’t love cloud-like layers of cake topped with things like whipped cream and fresh berries? However, like in most cases, there can be too much of a good thing.  Where egg yolks at moistness from fat, egg whites tend to do the opposite.  Too many egg whites in a batter can wind up making the cake dry.  Likewise, it is possible to over-whip your whites (more on how to whip in just a second), causing them to be clumpy, grainy, and difficult to work with.

Many recipes call for both or rather, just whole eggs.  When the eggs are separated and whites are whipped, you are essentially getting the best of both worlds - rich, fatty yolks and lightness from the whites.  Lots of recipes will just call for the whole egg to be added in - simple and straightforward.  

All this talk about the role of whipped whites, but how do you actually achieve them?  Pretty simple, really, as long as you have an electric mixer.  Sure you can do it by hand, but why?  Haha.  There are a few things to note about whipping egg whites.  One, whipped whites wait for nobody.  They begin to break down and the air bubbles start to deflate once the whipping stops.  You will have some time, of course, to fold them into your batter, but it is best to have most everything prepared first.  However, you can help stabilize and strengthen the whites by adding cream of tartar, lemon juice, or reserving a tablespoon or two of granulated sugar. Adding these supporting ingredients also help maximize the volume of the whipped whites.  

While these few supporting ingredients are great at strengthening the whites and allowing them to stretch and expand, all other add-ins will hinder the foaming process.  Fat here is our worst enemy.  And as you may recall, egg yolks are essentially fat.  Be sure to separate your eggs with care and definitely pick out any bits of yolk that may have dripped in.  Likewise, make sure that your equipment is clean, dry, and free from grease.

To whip, start slow and increase the speed as the whites build.  You will want to use a whisk attachment.  Once the egg white begin to foam, gradually increase the mixer speed to medium-high/high.  And remember, it is possible to over-whip, so don’t get too carried away and be sure to stop at stiff peaks.

All about FLOUR

We’ve all been told that gluten is bad and to stay away from carbs, but unless I have a serious illness that keeps me away from the tender, tasty grain, I’ll continue to bake with this magical substance called flour.  Flour seems to standard and basic, but it is quite mystical and amazing.  Okay, maybe I am getting carried away, but in the type of baking that I do, it is a very important ingredient.

In short, flour provides structure in baked goods.  Where sugar and fat tenderize, flours provide toughness.  They build strength and gives support to our breads, cakes, and cookies.  Different types of flours will result in different textures, so let’s take a look…

The primary difference between types of flour is the amount of protein.  Protein in flour contributes to gluten development.  When the protein combines and begins to absorb moisture in a recipe, gluten begins to develop.  Mixing or kneading batter and doughs expands the web of gluten by exposing new surfaces of the proteins to the liquids.  The more the dough is mixed, the stronger this web will become.  Consequently, this is why a cake may become tough and dry if over-mixed.  However, a strong structure is important in order to create a strong framework for the leavening agents for when the batter/dough hits the heat of the oven and the gases from leaveners or yeast begin to expand.  The web of gluten suspends the trapped air being expelled in order to provide lift and support the rise in our baked goods.   So, the more protein in the flour, the higher the potential for gluten development, thus increasing its ability to trap gasses within the batter.  This is why yeast-risen breads (meaning, lots of gas bubbles) call for bread flours (they have more protein – see below).  Make sense? 

Wheat flours are composed of not only proteins but starches as well.  Starches in flour absorb moisture and act as natural thickening agents.  They help with binding ingredients together, too.  This is also true with non-gluten forming states, like cornstarch.  This is why you may see flour in recipes for pie filling and pastry cream as well as baked goods.

All-purpose flour is not really for all baking after all.  It’s no wonder that a light-as-air Angel Food cake and a rustic loaf of bread call for different types of flours.

protein content: 9%
Pastry flour is a type of soft flour, meaning it is made from soft wheat.  It has a slightly higher protein content than cake flour.  A big difference is that it has not been chlorinated like cake flour.  It has a low capacity for absorbing liquids and yields a soft crumb and tender baked goods.

protein content: 7 to 8% with a slightly higher starch content
Like pastry flour, cake flour is made from soft wheat but it is treated with chlorine.  This not only accounts for its stark white color, but taste too.  You will find cake flour in recipes for Angel Food cake, chiffon and sponge cakes, and tender butter cakes (like in a lot of my white or yellow cake recipes). 

protein content: 10 to 12%
Depending on the brand, all-purpose flour is made from both soft and hard wheat.  It is middle-of-the-road flour.  I suppose that is where the name came from.  You will find all-purpose flour in things like cookies, brownies, quick-breads, and more “durable” cakes like chocolate and carrot.

Can you still use all-purpose flour for cake?  Sure you can, but just be prepared for a slightly denser or tougher version of your tender butter and sponge cakes.  I will sometimes use a combination of ap and cake when I need a “studier” cake.  Feel free to experiment, or just still to what the recipe calls for.

protein content: 14 to 16%
Bread flour, or hard flour, is made from hard wheat and contains a high percentage of protein.  As mentioned earlier, bread flour is typically called for in recipes that require yeast and need stronger structure to support all those yeasty gas bubbles.  Gluten is developed through kneading and stretching the dough.  Bread flour may also be call for in pastry recipes.  What?  Wouldn’t they use pastry flour?  Some pastries that use large amounts of cold butter (think puff pastry) need a strong flour to support the layers creating by the large amounts of cold butter melting, evaporating, and creating lift in the oven.

How to make cake flour from all-purpose flour:
In a pinch, you can make all-purpose flour work for you without having to go to the store for cake flour.  All you have to do is: 1) measure out 1 cup of all-purpose flour 2) remove 2 tablespoons of the ap flour 3)add in 2 tablespoons of cornstarch.  And there you have it!  1 cup of cake flour!  Be sure to sift before adding it to your batter.  Of course this is not exactly like cake flour, but it does make for a fine substitute when you need it.

My TOP TOOLS for Layer Cake Success:

Cake Pans:  I bake 90% of my cakes in 6 and 8-inch round cake pans (and consequently the recipes you will find on this blog and in my book will match).  Occasionally I will use 7 and 10-inch round pans, bundt and, and sheet pans (where cakes are either cut into squares or cut out using a cake ring).  Most cake recipes will call for pans that are at least 2-inch tall.  I have a combination of Wilton, Fat Daddio, and Williams-Sonoma brand pans that I’ve been using since my bakery days.

Candy Thermometer:  Now that I’ve switched from Italian to Swiss Meringue buttercream as my go-to frosting, I usually just use my finger to test instead of using a candy thermometer, but I don’t recommend this for those just starting out (and also, ouch! if it’s too hot!).  I used to have a super-fancy candy thermometer, but could not for the life of me figure out why all my caramels were burning… It was broken.  I’ve since gone back to my $6 Safeway candy thermometer.  At that price, I centrally recommend picking one up to help with buttercreams, caramels, and curds.

Electric Stand Mixer:  A Kitchen Aid stand mixer is such a luxury.  I have two duelling mixers leftover from my bakery days, and honestly don’t know what I would do without them.  Of course, mixing by hand (or with a hand mixer) is completely do-able, but I love the speed and efficiently an electric mixer provides.  They are certainly a costly purchase, but a great investment if you a bake a ton.  My two mixers are each about 9 years old, were treated like workhorses during multiple wedding seasons, and survived all the recipe testing for my book.

Icing Smoother or Bench Scraper:  A nice, straight edge with a 90-degree base is my best way for achieving smooth, straight sides and crisp top corners on my layer cakes.  If you can find one, I like an icing smoother with teeth on the opposite side that acts as an icing comb too!

Long Serrated Knife:  Want perfectly stackable cakes?  Make sure to trim off the dome that occasionally bakes up on the top of your cakes.  Use a long serrated knife to trim and torte cakes for perfect layers.

OffSet Spatulas:  My small offset spatula just might be my most-used tool in my entire kitchen.  From spreading filling and cleaning up top edges, I am constantly reaching for my offset spatulas.  Besides applying icing, I find myself using offset spatulas to create different textures in the buttered, lifting cakes off the turntable, and frosting “homemade” looking cupcakes.

Oven Thermometer:  As mentioned in my TOP 10 baking tips on Day 1, a grocery-store oven thermometer takes all of the guess work out of trying to figure out what the actual temperature of your oven is.  Too hot, and your cake may burn or crack - too cold and it can collapse.

Pastry Bags and Piping Tips:  You all know I love a frilly cake.  From ruffles and rosettes to basic writing, a small set of piping tips is fairly cheep with big impact.  I have a few big canvas piping bags for frosting dozens of cupcakes, but also keep disposable ones for smaller and messier tasks.

Rotating Cake Turntable:  Another beloved piece of equipment!  If you make a lot of cakes, then I definitely recommend a rotating cake turntable for icing cakes.  If you can, then invest in a metal one.  I find the plastic ones to be cumbersome and not very effective.  Of course the metal ones are more expensive, but I’ve had mine for nearly a decade and its still works great (I love Ateco brand - sometimes found at Williams-Sonoma.)

Rubber, Heat-Safe Spatulas:  I once worked at a bakery where the pastry chefs used a lot of large metal spoons to stir and mix things, but I never liked it.  Instead, I have a drawer stuffed with about a half-dozen rubber spatulas.  I like them soooo much better.  I recommend finding silicone, heat-safe ones that you can use on the stovetop.

Other helpful gadgets include: icing sifter, a variety of whisks, vegetable peeler (for peeling and making chocolate curls!), microplane zester, and a kitchen scale.