Let's make a cake my nephew said, and of course his mother obliged. Who'd have thought such a simple task to could turn into such a disaster! I won't even begin to tell you what went wrong. Needless to say, that recipe won't be used again.

I'm certainly no baker myself; my mother has the franchise on that skill in our family, and her mother before her. And whilst I don't mind baking, it is definitely not my best cooking skill. So I decided to do a little research to find out what I could do to improve my technique. Here's what I discovered.

The first step is to prepare. Be familiar with the recipe and make certain that you have all the ingredients on hand. Substitutions should never be used if you want absolute success. When you master the art however, you can become experimental, but unlike general cooking, baking really is an art, and recipes are designed specifically to work, well most of them anyway. If you vary them without a thorough understanding of what you're doing, your results will suffer. So be warned!

So, to begin with, a very important point – start with a clean, dry work area. Wash your hands before you begin and make sure your utensils are in order, (sounds like an operating theatre doesn't it? Well, it's almost as precise).

The first thing is to be sure you have the right equipment. This goes for every aspect of cooking really. It will make the task so much more enjoyable if you have what you need to execute it, and the right equipment goes a long way. Have a look at the equipment section of this site for a list of the basics.

Here's my recommendations…

  • Good quality mixer, preferably on a stand for hands-free operation
  • A set of measuring cups for dry ingredients and glass measuring cups for liquid measure.
  • Wooden or plastic spoons for stirring and folding
  • A sifter. This handy utensil is a must if you want to bake light cakes.
  • Quality bake ware. Shiny (non-coated) aluminium is best. If possible, avoid dark coated pans and save glass bake ware for pies, not cakes.
  • Oven thermometer. Don't trust your stove to be accurate. Invest a few dollars in a good oven thermometer so you can be certain of oven temperature.
  • Measuring spoons
  • Cake tester
  • Cooling racks

Proper Ingredients are Important

  • Once you've assembled your utensils, it's time to bring out your ingredients.
  • For best success with cakes, use cake flour rather than plain flour. Because it's milled finer, it bakes lighter. Check out the Lighthouse Flours by Anchor foods, their product is good.
  • If possible, use caster sugar, which is also finer than regular sugar, and if the recipe calls for brown sugar, choose dark brown.
  • Always use large eggs and for the best result be sure that the eggs are fresh, and at room temperature for at least 30 minutes before you use them.
  • Use real vanilla, not imitation, either vanilla paste or bean, or extract if you can't afford or get hold of the other.
  • Make certain everything is as fresh as possible.

Foam Cakes and Creamed Cakes

  • There are two basic types of cake: foam (cakes without any type of fat) and creamed (cakes that use oil, shortening or butter).
  • Foam cakes include angel food and sponge cakes, while creamed cakes are more common.
  • Understanding the purpose of basic ingredients also helps understand how a cake is made. Sugar and fat are added to make a tender cake while flour and eggs are the proteins that makes the cake hold together.
  • Now that you have your recipe and ingredients, you are ready to begin mixing. Always follow the order of the steps given in the recipe.
  • If asked to cream together butter (or other fat) and sugar, blend them together until a fluffy consistency is reached. This may take some time, but it's better to blend thoroughly than to not blend enough. If a recipe doesn't state a time frame, do it for at least 8-10 minutes. You'll notice the difference in the finished cake from one that's been creamed for 2-3 minutes. Vanilla may also be added if it is called for, but until directed, add nothing to this mixture.
  • Eggs should be added to the creamed ingredients. Flour and other dry ingredients (baking powder, bicarb soda and salt) should be sifted into another bowl at least once. Multiple sifting often ensures a tender texture to the cake.
  • When the dry ingredients are well sifted, they can be added to the cream mixture alternately with milk, beginning and ending with flour. Each addition should be blended into the batter and then beaten until smooth. Finished batter should have a consistency similar to that of pudding, neither too thick nor too thin.

Baking
When the batter has been blended, the pans should be prepared for baking. For best results, butter should be used to coat the pan or pans. An alternative method is to lightly coat the pans with vegetable shortening then dust with flour, dumping any excess before adding the batter. Cooking spray may be used, but it is not advisable for best results.

Verify that the oven is at the correct temperature before placing cakes inside. Set a timer with the suggested baking time but do check the cake occasionally. A cake is done when a cake tester or toothpick is inserted into the centre and comes out clean. Do not over bake (apparent when the top of the cake begins to crack) or under bake.

Place the cake on a cooling rack or racks to cool. Make certain that the cake is entirely cool before attempting to remove it from the pan. Ice (frost) if desired.

With these basic guidelines, anyone can bake a cake from scratch with excellent results. There are many different varieties of cakes as there are cooks, but my Plain Cake recipe is a good place to start for any baker to start baking!