Even an ordinary homemade cake can have a better flavour and appeal than the most ornamented cake bought in a shop.
Whether you call it kake, gateau, torta or kuchen, a cake is a sign of happy times.
Why do we think of baking cakes at home as a Herculean task? Yes, there are difficult cakes and yes, there are some who don’t think twice about making even those. But, for the most part, we’d rather not make the effort. Especially once the kids have grown beyond the Happy Birthday Party, homemade cakes — and balloons — are no longer mandatory. In any case, most cities have patisseries and one can order a special favourite or just buy whatever’s available over the counter.
But is there a difference between homemade and bought cakes? Yes, yes and yes. Most local bakeries sell pretty cakes, nicely iced, but tasting and smelling quite awful. One, the butter isn’t butter — it’s probably hydrogenated vegetable oil. Two, the flavour is cheap — bad quality vanilla, local cocoa or chocolate powder. The expensive bakeries have better quality ingredients, but then a cake costs an arm and a leg. At home the cook decides on the ingredients, which should always be the best. And, unless she has special skills, her cakes aren’t going to look half as good as even the most common bought ones. But I find that even an ordinary, homey looking cake, with uneven edges and a crack in the crust, has better flavour and more appeal than the most ornamented one bought in a shop.
For years I avoided baking, mostly because my mother was one of those, the ones who make chocolate éclairs and Swiss rolls and their own bread in fancy shapes: braids and knots and cloverleaves. She made light, tender short crust, flaky flans and rich fruitcakes. So there was no question of my ever going that route. But she taught me the essentials of cake baking, which were so simple and so useful that I use them now, although for very, very basic stuff. I use some of her recipes and look for new ones that have to fill just one criterion: they must be so easy that a child can make them.
There are conventional cakes, one-bowl cakes, poundcakes, fruitcakes, foam-type (or sponge) cakes, and cupcakes and other finger cakes. And whether you call it kake, gateau, torta or kuchen, a cake is a sign of happy times. For all of them there are some basic rules. I was my very strict mother’s commis, so was forced to learn the prep work. She did the complicated stuff, but the rules for the prep work are something most bakers take for granted and which affect the quality of the cake.
An electric mixer or a hand-held mixer is a great help, worth investing in. So is a good cookbook, especially one with cup and spoon measures. Before even starting to bake a cake, I read the entire recipe and lay out the ingredients and equipment. If something hasn’t been used for a long time, I even peep into the jar to check on the quantity, and lick a pinch to check on the quality. The worst situation is one where you’ve creamed butter and sugar, beaten eggs, added vanilla or mashed fruit or whatever, then sifted in the flour, only to discover little brown creatures scurrying about the bowl. You don’t want to throw away the lot, being a frugal housewife, but there isn’t an option. So always sift flour in a separate bowl, along with the leavening agent (baking powder or soda) to mix it thoroughly, and then mix it with whatever else is going in the cake. The same is true for eggs — break them into a separate bowl, check for shell fragments and signs of life, then use them when required.
Settings of oven thermostats tend to lose accuracy, so one should occasionally have them checked. In addition, a separate oven thermometer can be hung inside. Before baking a cake one should preheat the oven. Baking tins should, ideally, be bright and shiny and, for best results, the size the same as that recommended in the recipe. If a recipe calls for greasing the tin, use the same ingredient — butter, oil or margarine — that’s going into the cake. Some recipes also say you should flour the tin. In that case, throw a couple of tablespoons of flour into the greased tin and shake it around to coat the bottom and sides evenly, then upturn the tin and knock out the excess. Flour should be measured without packing or tamping down, the measuring cup levelled off with the edge of a knife, and the flour sifted along the other powdered dry ingredients. Butter, like all other ingredients, including eggs, should be at room temperature. And as soon as dry ingredients and wet are combined, the leavening agent starts its action so the batter should be put into the oven as soon as ingredients are combined.
The author is a Delhi-based food writer. She is with the ASER Centre.
Chocolate loaf cake
1 cup boiling water
2 squares unsweetened chocolate, cut up (2 oz, approx 30g)
2 cups sifted all purpose flour
A quarter tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
Half cup soft butter
1 tsp vanilla essence
One and three quarters cup light brown sugar
Half cup sour cream (to make, put 1 tbsp lime juice in cup and add cream to make it half cup)
Pour hot water over chocolate and keep aside. Preheat oven to 165º C (325º F) and grease and flour a 9x5x3 inch loaf pan. Sift flour with salt and soda and set aside. In large bowl, with electric mixer at high speed, beat butter with vanilla, sugar and eggs, until light and fluffy. After 5 minutes, lower speed and beat in flour mixture (in fourths) alternately with sour cream (in thirds), beginning and ending with flour mixture. Beat in chocolate mixture just until combined. Pour batter into prepared pan and bake 60 to 70 minutes, until wooden toothpick inserted in centre comes out clean. Cool in pan 15 minutes, then remove from pan and cool completely on wire rack. Serve with ice cream.