Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Cook In 101: 1-2-3-4 Yellow Cake with Chocolate Frosting

Cook In 101: 1-2-3-4 Yellow Cake with Chocolate Frosting

Cook In 101 focuses on basic recipes and cooking techniques to help novice cooks get into the kitchen and make delicious meals in a reasonable amount of time.

Cake mixes are so tempting. They hold the promise of a bakery-perfect cake without much measuring or guesswork. They promise to save you time to, although, as I'll discuss below, they really don't.

Mixes from the likes of Betty Crocker and Duncan Hines take up plenty of space on the baking aisle, along with their good friends: the ready-to-eat frostings. As a child, when I wanted to make a cake, I used a mix, and I'm not alone. I know lots of people use them.

But I don't anymore, and here's why: a cake from scratch is not that much more work and it's sure to be more interesting and probably tastier.

If you've never baked a cake from scratch before, you probably think it's going to use a lot of ingredients. Well, not really. You can make a basic yellow cake with as little as eight ingredients, fewer actually if you don't feel the need to add vanilla extract (but it makes it taste good) or if you use self-rising flour (that's flour that already has baking powder and salt in it). When you make a cake with a cake mix, you have to add other ingredients anyway, usually water, eggs and oil. So if you think a cake mix will help you avoid measuring and mixing, you're wrong. You can make a basic yellow cake with common ingredients you may already have on hand. Let's try it.

1-2-3-4 Cake: 1 cup butter, 2 cups sugar, 3 cups flour and 4 eggs.

An old-fashioned yellow cake is sometimes called a 1-2-3-4 cake, a reference to the amounts of the cake batter's four principal ingredients: 1 cup of butter, 2 cups of sugar, 3 cups of flour and 4 eggs. After that, you need milk for moisture (the eggs alone will not be enough), baking powder and salt for leavening--i.e. making the cake rise (unless, as I mentioned, you're using self-rising flour) and vanilla extract, which gives the cake extra flavor. Note that I called this a "batter" and not a "dough." The difference? Batters have a higher proportion of liquid, making them pourable. So things like cakes, including pancakes, and waffles are made from batters. Cookies and breads are generally made from doughs.

Equipment and Ingredients

First step when making a cake is getting the equipment and ingredients together. You'll need two nonstick 9-inch round cake pans, one for each layer, a stand mixer (or a hand mixer), a mixing bowl (or two if using a hand mixer), measuring cups, a 1-cup liquid measuring cup, measuring spoons, a kitchen knife, a plastic knife, a spatula, parchment paper and a few toothpicks. For the cake pans, I recommend using nonstick pans with straight up-and-down sides (i.e. 90-degree angle with the bottom of the pan) and sides that are about 2-inches high. My pans are slightly smaller than this, and you'll see that because this recipe makes quite a lot of batter, there was a bit of "muffin top" expansion as the cake batter rose a bit above the rim of the pan in some places. This wasn't a serious problem--I just broke those pieces off--but if I'd have had deeper cake pans, it wouldn't have been an issue at all.

Because the butter will need to be room temperature, you should set out the cubes an hour or two before you're going to be baking. If you forget to do this, you can soften the butter in the microwave, but do it carefully--short bursts (like 15-30 seconds) on a low-power setting. You do not want to melt the butter, as it won't behave the same way in the batter. Some people say you should also bring the eggs and milk to room temperature, although in my experience this isn't as important. Once you're ready to begin mixing, turn the oven on so it can preheat while you're mixing the batter.

Prepping Cake Pans

Before we get to the batter, let's prepare the cake pans. As baked goods go, cakes are fairly delicate. They tear easily. So care must be taken to prepare the cake pans so that you can remove the cakes from the pans without damaging them. Even if using nonstick cake pans, you'll want to prepare the cans with butter and flour and I also recommend using parchment to guarantee good release. First, set out two 9-inch round cake pans. Take about 1 tsp. of butter, softened, and put it in the first pan. Using a paper towel or just your fingers, rub the butter on the bottom and sides of the pan until the whole thing is coated. Use additional butter if needed. Do the same thing with the other pan.

Prep cake pans with butter, flour and parchment rounds.

Set a pan on parchment paper and, using a pencil, trace around the edge of the pan. Do this a second time on another part of the paper. Cut out the circles (err on the inside of the line, so the circle is slightly smaller than the tracing). Place each round in the bottom of the buttered pan (the butter on the pan will help the parchment adhere to the pan) and, using about 1/2 tsp. of butter, butter the top of the parchment. Next, put about 2 tbsp. of flour in the first pan. Shake it gently from side-to-side to coat the parchment, then turn it on its side and rotate the pan in a circular motion to coat the sides of the pan with flour. Tap the excess flour out into the second pan and repeat, adding more flour of necessary. Tap any excess flour from the second pan into the garbage.

Measure and Combine the Ingredients

The dry ingredients (except the sugar) should be mixed together first. Add the flour, salt and baking powder to a large bowl and whisk them together. Pretty easy. The hardest part here is probably measuring the flour. Flour is finely milled wheat, and as such, there is actually a lot of air in flour. This is a good thing: air helps make your cake light and fluffy rather than dense and hard.

Use the "scoop and scrape" method to measure flour.

When measuring flour, you never want to pack flour in a measuring cup. This will result in adding too much flour to a recipe. Some people suggest sifting flour before measuring it, but this requires a sifting device and takes time. I find what I'll call the "scoop and scrape" method to be a reasonable compromise. Dip the measuring cup into the container of flour (flour should be stored in an air-tight container, never in the sack you bought it in). The flour should be mounded a bit on top. Grab a knife with a flat edge and scrape the excess flour off the top of the measuring cup, so that the top level of the flour is now even with the top edge of the measuring cup. Remember, no compacting; you're just scraping. The baking powder and salt are easier to measure. Just use measuring spoons and level off the top either by shaking off the excess or using a knife (some baking powder containers have an opening with a straight-edge just for this purpose).

Next, mix the other ingredients. If you have a stand mixer, you'll be using its bowl. If not, choose a large bowl you can use with a hand mixer that will hold all of the ingredients. Add the butter first and beat it on high speed (if using a stand mixer, you want to use the paddle attachment). The butter will become creamy as it softens and air starts to work into it. Remember what I said about the air in the flour? Well, you can work air into the butter too, but not if it's melted--it might get a little frothy, but the bubbles will dissipate.

Beat the butter on high until creamy.

Next add the sugar to the butter on low speed (always add ingredients on low speed to prevent the mixer from sending them flying all over the kitchen) and continue mixing a high speed until fluffy. This process of mixing sugar into butter is sometimes called "creaming," and it's an important step for further incorporating air into the batter. The America's Test Kitchen book, The Science of Good Cooking, has a wonderful discussion about the science behind this step, as well as why too-cold or too-warm butter won't work.

Next add the eggs. When adding eggs to a batter, never break the eggs directly into the mixture; always break the egg into a separate container, like a 1-cup glass measuring cup, then add to the mixture. If the egg is bad, you won't have ruined your batter and if any little pieces of shell break off, you can easily fetch them from the container--not so easy if they land in the batter with the mixer running. Add the vanilla extract last. Stop the mixer and use a spatula to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Then run the mixer a little more to make sure the mixture is fully combined.

Now that the dry and wet ingredients (except the milk) are mixed, it's time to combine them. With the mixture set on a lower speed, first add about half the milk. When it's mostly blended in, add half the dry ingredients. Then add the rest of the milk and finally the rest of the dry ingredients. Why do it this way? If you add the dry ingredients first, the cake batter will clump up and become harder to mix. If you add all the milk first, it will thin out too much. Doing this parts results in the best texture for the batter, and thus the best texture for the cake.

Bake the Cakes

Once mixed, the batter is ready to be transferred to the prepared baking pans. Pour half the mixture in each pan--divide it as evenly as possible so the two layers of the cake will be about the same thickness. Using a spatula, smooth the top of the cake, making it as even as possible. If the edges are a little higher, that's fine. The cake will rise as it bakes, and the center will rise the most. You don't want the batter mounded in the middle, as that will make the rounding more pronounced after the rise.

By now, the oven should be hot enough from pre-heating, so place the two cake pans of batter in the oven, ideally on the same rack. Bake until the cakes are golden on top. Remove one from the oven and insert a toothpick in one. If it comes out clean, the cake is done. If there's any wet batter clinging to the toothpick, let it back another 5 minutes and repeat the toothpick test. If the cake is slightly overbaked it will just be a bit dry, whereas if it's underbaked, it will be gooey, which is gross unless you're making chocolate lava cake. The cakes should be done after about 25 to 30 minutes. Remove them from the oven and set them on wire racks to cool for about 15 minutes.

Here are the cakes fresh from the oven. Notice how the batter overhangs the edge of the pans a little bit. This indicates that I filled the cake pans a little too full. It wasn't a major problem--I broke those pieces off before frosting the cake--but ideally I'd have used slightly taller cake pans to prevent this.

Using the plastic knife (as to not damage the nonstick pans), carefully run the knife around the edge of each cake to loosen it from the pan. Place the cooling rack on top of the cake pan and invert the rack and pan. The cake should slide out of the pan onto the rack--tap the bottom of the pan lightly if it doesn't. Carefully remove the pan, then remove the parchment round. The bottom of the cake should be nicely browned and, because you carefully buttered, floured and parchment-lined the pan, not torn.  Repeat with the other cake. Leave the cakes on the racks until they are completely cooled. They are now ready to be assembled and frosted.

An offset spatula works best for frosting a cake, but any spatula will do if you don't have an offset. You could probably even use a knife, but it might be a more difficult to make it smooth. You're going for a nice even layer somewhere between 1/4 to 1/2-inch between the two cake layers, on top and on the sides. Start by placing the first layer of cake with the flat side (the side that was on the bottom of the cake pan) down against the cake plate. Spread about 1/3 of the frosting on top of this cake, smoothing it into an even layer with the spatula. Next, carefully slide the second layer of cake on top of the frosted layer. This second layer should have the flat side on top--so the two flattest sides are the bottom and top of the cake, while the more uneven sides are sandwiched with the frosting in the middle. Spread another 1/3 or so of the frosting on top. It's okay if a little runs over the side. Lastly, spread the final 1/3 of the frosting along the side. I like to do this in little batches, spreading the frosting against the top layer then smoothing it into place by running the spatula vertically along the side of the cake, working in a circle until the entire side is frosting. Any extra frosting in the bowl? You could put more on top, or you could eat it (i'd eat it).

Key Tips: Baking a Yellow Cake

Here, then are my key tips for making a good, simple cake:

  1. Use butter, flour and parchment to prep nonstick cake pans.
  2. Make sure the butter is room temperature before beating it.
  3. Beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, incorporating air into the batter.
  4. Measure flour using the "scoop-and-scrape" method.
  5. Alternate adding parts of milk and the dry ingredients when combining with the butter-sugar mixture.
  6. Smooth the top of the cake batter in the pan before baking.
  7. Use a toothpick test to know when the cakes are done.
  8. Let the cake cool in the pan about 15 minutes before inverting it to remove to remove the cake.
  9. Allow the cake to cool completely before frosting.
  10. Use a plastic knife to remove cakes from nonstick cake pans.

1-2-3-4 Yellow Cake with Chocolate Frosting

3 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for the cake pan
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tbsp. baking powder
2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus extra for the cake pan
2 cups sugar
4 large eggs
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup whole milk
Chocolate frosting (see recipe below)

1. Preheat oven to 350 F.

2. Butter, flour and line with parchment two 9-inch nonstick cake pans (ideally 2-inches deep).

3. Add flour, salt and baking powder in a large bowl and whisk to combine.

4. Using a stand mixer or hand mixer with a large mixing bowl, beat the butter on high speed until very creamy. Add the sugar; beat on low speed to incorporate, then on high speed until the mixture is light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Beat in the eggs one-at-a-time at low speed, then beat in the vanilla extract. Increase speed to high and beat 2-3 minutes.

5. With the mixer running on low speed, add about half the milk to the batter, then about half the combined dry ingredients, the other half of the milk and the other half of the dry ingredients. Beat just a little bit longer until the ingredients are combined. Scrape down the sides of the mixing bowl and beat a few more times until combined.

6. Pour the batter divided evenly among two prepared cake pans. Smooth the top of the batter with a spatula. Bake until the cakes are lightly browned on top and dry in the center (a toothpick should come out clean when inserted into the center of the cake), about 25-30 minutes. Remove the cakes from the oven and set on individual cooling racks to cool for 15 minutes.

7. Run a plastic knife around the edge of each cake. Place the rack on top of the cake and invert the cake pan and the rack, allowing the cake to gently fall out of the pan onto the rack. Remove the parchment. Repeat with the other cake. Allow the cakes to cool completely before frosting.

8. To frost the cake: Place the first cake right-side-up so the flat surface that was on the bottom of the cake pan is touching the cake plate. Using a spatula (preferably a metal offset spatula), spread about 1/3 of the frosting on top of the cake in an even layer. Invert second cake layer and carefully slide it on top of the frosting, so that the flat surface that was on the bottom of the cake pan is now on top. Spread about 1/3 of the frosting on top in an even layer, then spread the rest of the frosting on the sides of the cake, adding about 1/3 cup of frosting to the cake and smoothing the frosting by holding the spatula vertically and moving it along the side of the cake. Even the top with the spatula. Refrigerate until ready to serve (you may want to allow the cake to warm up slightly before serving).

Chocolate Frosting
Homemade frosting is so much tastier, in my opinion, that store-bought. Frosting is pretty easy to make, especially if you use this no-cook recipe. This is a simple powdered-sugar frosting. It has that slightly grainy texture that I love.

1 1/2 sticks (3/4 cup) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
5 cups confectioner's (powdered) sugar
1 cup whole milk
1 tsp. vanilla extract

Add butter to the bowl of a stand mixer (or mix in a large bowl with a hand mixer). Beat on high speed until creamy. Add the cocoa power, powdered sugar, milk and vanilla extract. Beat on low speed until combined, then on high speed until thick and creamy. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula and beat a few more times until the frosting has an even consistency. Use immediately to frost the cake. If you refrigerate it before doing so, be sure to let it set out so that it softens a bit before using it to frost the cake.

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