While baking a cake can be one of the most satisfying kitchen endeavours for home cooks, it is also one of the riskiest. Anyone who has gone in with visions of a three-tiered iced masterpiece and ended up with a rock-hard pancake knows there are a myriad of ways baking can go wrong, and even the smallest error can send a cake downhill, fast.
For those Aucklanders looking for a level 3 weekend activity, perhaps a birthday cake for your bubble or just a sweet treat to brighten the days, one of the country's top baking experts has given some of her top tips on making sure it all goes according to the recipe.
Jordan Rondel, otherwise known as The Caker, has gathered a cult following for her beautiful creations, sold as kits or cakes from her store on Karangahape Road.
According to the Kenwood ambassador, it's the smallest things like the time spent mixing butter and sugar, or the way your oven hears up, that all need to be taken into consideration.
Here is Rondel's process of things to consider when you're next baking a cake, from picking your ingredients all the way to serving up that first slice.
Rondel's step-by-step cake-making guide:
The quality of the ingredients you use will undoubtedly affect your end product. When it comes to chocolate, I always use 72 percent cocoa solid Callebaut chocolate buttons, which are completely dairy-free, gently bitter and melt like a dream. Real Dutch-process cocoa powder is an entirely different product from regular cocoa powder. Free-range eggs go without saying. You'll notice that most of my recipes call for ground almonds. Yes, this is an expensive ingredient, but it's so worth it – and will greatly improve the flavour, texture and nutrition of your baking.
You must be as accurate as possible when measuring ingredients; adding even a little too much sugar, for example, can inadvertently cause your cake to sink in the middle. I have always been one to use digital scales as I find this to be much more accurate than using cup measurements.
Preparing your tins
Always line your tins properly with baking paper to prevent your cake from sticking. I always use baking paper circles (for round tins), which are oversized - for example, for a 9'' tin I would use a 12" round of baking paper. This saves time and also leaves little indentations in the sides of the cake, which has become a very signature look for The Caker! I prefer using metal tins than silicone ones as they are harder to transport to and from the oven and you don't end up with the beautiful golden edges that metal tins produce.
Beating your batter
Unless specified, all cake batters should be beaten with a standing electric mixer. I swear by my Kenwood machines – using the paddle attachment (the whisk attachment is only for beating eggs and cream). Creaming butter and sugar together until pale and fluffy should take a minimum of 3–4 minutes on high speed. Your butter should be at room temperature, or it won't cream properly with the sugar. This step is important because, when done properly, it results in a much lighter and fluffier cake.
When you continue to mix in your eggs, it's important to do this slowly and one by one. Sometimes the batter can look a little curdled, but this is not too much of a problem; mixing in the flour will even it all out. It is also important to stop your mixer once all the ingredients are incorporated.
When it comes to combining dry ingredients, overmixing a batter that contains gluten will result in a tough crumb. Flour needs to be only just incorporated on low speed or even by hand. Milk and yoghurt should be folded through after dry ingredients have been mixed in to avoid lumps. Again, these need to be only just incorporated.
Baking your cake
For baking you always want the oven to be set to fan-bake mode so that there is an even distribution of heat. Always preheat your oven well in advance – usually about 20 minutes. Really get to know your oven. Some ovens are hotter than others, some cook more from the top, bottom, left or right. Once you know your oven well, you can make sure you adjust its temperature as needed, bake for the right amount of time, and rotate as necessary. In short, it's important to know when your cake is ready without relying solely on time. The three easiest ways to know are if the cake is golden in colour, springy to the touch, and if a skewer comes out clean when stuck in the centre of the cake. It is important to not open the oven during the first 10–15 minutes of baking time, because this is the most crucial period for the oven temperature to be constant.
Cooling and 'de-tinning'
Let cakes cool in their tins for 10 minutes before tipping them out onto wire cooling racks, but avoid leaving them for any longer than this as humidity will start to build up inside the tin.
Icing your cake
Your cake must be completely cool before icing it, even a bit of warmth will melt the icing and create a big mess. I recommend investing in a turntable if you bake often. Use an offset palette knife to smooth a layer of icing on the top of your cake, and, if you want to ice the sides too, place more icing on top and then gently push it towards the edges of the cake. Using the overhang of icing, work down the sides spreading the frosting in one direction, rotating the cake as you work.
Decorating your cake
When it comes to adorning cakes with pretty things, I try not to think about the placement of whatever decorations I'm using too much, and just let my hands lead the way. Not overthinking it is what makes Caker cakes look perfectly imperfect! If using fresh flowers make sure they are food-safe (you can wrap the stems in florist tape if you're unsure). I think odd numbers always look best, and I like to use no more than three different colours in most cases. Other than flowers, some other lovely ingredients that I love to decorate my cakes with include:
- Freeze-dried berries and other fruits
- Lemon curd or berry coulis
- Chopped up pistachios
- Dried rose petals
- Fresh herbs or whole spices
- Toasted coconut flakes
- Cocoa nibs
- Turkish delight
- Gold or silver leaf
- Crushed up meringue
Cutting and serving
To avoid cutting a messy slice, always use a long, sharp, non-serrated knife. It's important to wipe the blade clean between cuts. Now it's finally time to taste what you've baked! Choose a plate or bowl, and a fork or spoon that you like, maybe make a cup of tea or coffee, or pour a glass of wine or champagne. Serve what you've made with a dollop of yogurt, cream, mascarpone or ice cream if you think that's appropriate. Close your eyes and take your first bite. Revel in the deliciousness of what's in your mouth. Go back for more.