Kitchen Conundrums: Baking Disasters Solved!

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Chef Laura Frankel
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Editor's Note: Baking fails are so frustrating, especially after you spent so much time preparing the cake batter. In this series, Chef Laura Frankel solves your potential baking disasters with tried-and-true tips and tricks.

If you have a baking disaster that you need solved in the next issue, make sure to comment below!

Chef Laura Frankel

KITCHEN CONUNDRUMS: All Baking Disasters Solved!

Baking is a science and the slightest mistake can take a cake from delicious to disaster in the time it takes to crack an egg.  

If your friends beg you for your brisket recipe only to become disappointed when dessert is served, this article is for YOU!

The best thing you can do is to follow some basic and often forgotten techniques to avoid common pitfalls.

1. My cake seemed done and now has sunk in the middle!

a. The cake was under-baked. Be sure to use a cake tester (toothpick, skewer or metal cake tester) to insert in the cake. If it comes out clean or with sticky crumbs, the cake is done.

b. You opened the oven door too often or for too long. Keep the door closed until a few minutes before the recipe states the cake will be finished cooking. Opening the door early in the baking process interrupts the heat and chemical reactions that happen early in the baking process. This is when the cake structure is being formed.

c. Incorrect measuring of ingredients. Be sure to measure/scale your ingredients correctly.

measuring cups

There are 2 ways to measure ingredients for baking.

1. Measure by Volume: Measure your wet and dry ingredients to take up a specified amount of space. The tools for Measuring by volume are measuring cups and measuring spoons.

  • Dry ingredients can be measured in a set of measuring cups but cannot be measured in a typical glass Pyrex measuring cup, because the dry ingredients need to be leveled off to insure accurate measurement. Typically, a dry ingredient is scooped or spooned into the cup to overflow it. And then in a sweeping motion, with a spatula or knife, the dry ingredients are leveled off exactly to the top of the cup.
  • Wet ingredients can be measured in both a set of cups as well as the Pyrex measuring cup.

2. Measure by Weight: Professional kitchens typically use this method as it is more accurate and better for large volume baking. Be sure to have an accurate scale and to empty out your bowls and cups while weighing ingredients.

QUICK FIX: Cut the cake into large chunks, leaving the undercooked center out of the party. Layer the chunks in a pretty glass bowl with sliced fruit, lemon curd, chocolate pudding or vanilla pudding and some chopped nuts. Top with whipped cream for a dairy dessert. Smile and pretend it was supposed to be that way .

MORE: DIY Cake Decorating

2. My cake is not fluffy and light.

A well-made cake should have a delicate crumb. It should be light and fork tender. If your cake is dense, heavy and tough, these are the possible reasons.

a. You may not have creamed your butter and sugar together well enough. This important technique builds the structure of your cake: Prepare butter at 60-65°F (above that temp, the butter will be too warm to cream) in a mixing bowl for a mixer and add the sugar. Whip until the mixture is light and very fluffy. You should not feel any grit from the sugar when you rub a small amount of the mixture between your fingers. The sugar cuts channels in the butter which fill with air as the mixer whips and the volume increases. The sugar will also begin to dissolve. I typically allow this first step to take up to 5 minutes. Occasionally you want to scrape down the bowl to insure that all the butter has been whipped.

b. Be sure you use the right flour. The protein in various flours differs greatly. The flour that is perfect for baking a loaf of challah is not the right flour for baking a light and delicate cake. I use cake flour or low protein flour for my cakes and only use a burly bread flour for my challah baking.

c. You may have mixed the cake for too long once the flour was added and that resulted in gluten being activated and the cake is now tough. Gluten is the strong, stretchy protein that is activated when flour and moisture are mixed together. It provides structure in breads, doughs and pastas, but is not desirable in cake. To keep the gluten at bay, add the flour while the mixer is on LOW and only keep the machine running until the flour is completely added. Then turn off the machine and finish the last few strokes of mixing by hand. This will yield a light and delicate crumb for your cakes.

d. You may have cut into the cake while it was still hot. When you remove a cake from the oven, the baking process is not over! The hot cake will continue to steam inside, under the surface crust, and will become moist and delicate. If you cut the cake too soon, the moisture will escape causing the cake to become dry and tough.

QUICK FIX: Try to split the layers by cutting them in half, lengthwise. Then brush a little flavored simply syrup (equal parts sugar and water brought to a simmer). Then frost the layers individually.

MORE: 10 Birthday Cakes

3. My cake has a huge crack on the top.

a. Be sure that your oven is at the correct temperature. You can’t rush a cake by turning up the temperature. The chemical reactions that occur when a cake is baking need to happen at a specific temperature. If those reactions are “rushed” by an oven that is too hot, the cake may crack. If you set your oven for the correct temperature and the cake still cracked, you may need to purchase an oven thermometer to adjust your oven setting accordingly.

b. You may have added too much leavening agent. Be sure to accurately measure the baking soda and baking powder.

c. An air bubble may have been trapped in the cake during the mixing process. Be sure to give the pan a sharp “rap” on the counter before baking. This will loosen any trapped air.

4. My cake is stuck in the pan!

a. Be sure to always grease and flour your cake pans. Even so called non-stick pans can become scratched and cause the cake to stick. For added insurance I like to grease my pans and then line the pan with parchment paper. For very delicate cakes, you may want to line the pan on the bottom and cut a strip or parchment, called a cake band, and line the sides of the pan as well.

b. You didn’t cool the cake on an elevated cake cooling rack. This prevents steam from collecting at the bottom of the pan, which could cause it to stick. I like to remove my cakes from the oven, and cool them on a rack until they are just barely warm, and then remove them from the pan and continue cooling them on the rack.

QUICK FIX: Run a knife around the edge of the pan and gently shake it inverted over a plate.

MORE: Bake Don't Buy! Shabbat Worthy Cakes

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