Monday, 3 May 2010

Why Things Go Wrong

Sometimes, even for the most experienced of bakers, things go wrong. Don't panic, it doesn't mean they'll always go wrong. Please don't let it put you off reaching for your pinny, it doesn't mean you can't bake just because your cake sank in the middle. Roll up your sleeves and try again and, whatever you do, don't let a few baking mishaps push you into the chemically-enhanced grasp of supermarket cakes. As long as you have a few basic ingredients knocking about in your cupboards, it can be just as quick to make a cake yourself as popping to the shops, and you won't even have to step out of your slippers to do it. I've put together a list in the hope that if you understand why things might have gone wrong in the first place, it will hopefully be easier to avoid more baking disasters in the future. But first, ovens. It's essential that you know your oven. For fan ovens, always remember to reduce the temperature slightly. Some ovens are like kilns and others seem to be much hotter on one side than the other. If you know what your oven is like, you can adjust temperatures and rituals accordingly. Reduce the temperature by 10 degrees or so for a very hot oven or turn the cake round halfway through cooking for ovens with hot spots. And lastly, it really is important to always preheat your oven to the required temperature before popping your cake in. So here goes the list, I hope it helps...
  1. A BURNT TOP AND A WOBBLY MIDDLE: This is usually due to your oven being too hot, but it can also be due to a too slack mixture. For very damp cakes, such as cakes that include fresh fruit (apples, plums, etc), the cooking times often need to be increased and the temperature of your oven reduced. The way to combat this is usually as simple as placing a piece of baking parchment or foil over the top of the cake for the second half of the cooking time.
  2. A SUNKEN MIDDLE: This can be caused by a few different factors. Too much baking powder,  under baking or over-beating (causing over-aeration) can all cause sinking, but most usually it is caused by opening the oven door too quickly. Try to avoid opening the oven door before 15 minutes is up (unless the recipe's cooking time requires less overall cooking than that), so that the oven temperature can remain stable and your cake, in turn, can hopefully remain stable too. Altitude can also affect how a cake rises, but for those of us based in the UK, it's not something we have to worry about.
  3. A PEAK AND A CRACK: Sometimes cakes peak on top and then crack, this is usually due to the temperature of your oven being too hot or (for non-fan assisted ovens) if the cake has been placed too high up. If your cake is placed on too high a shelf, it forms a crust too quickly, the raising agents continue working, the cake continues to rise and cracks its crusted top. Try reducing the temperature by 20 degrees and always place your cakes on the middle shelf, or lower for particularly large or tall cakes.
  4. BREADY CAKE: Everyone wants their sponge cakes to be light and fluffy, but everyone has tasted a sponge that is heavy enough to do some damage if thrown at someone's head. This is down to overbeating which overworks the gluten in the flour and gives the cake a bready texture. I know it can be dull, especially when a recipe calls for a large amount of flour or cocoa, but it really is worth sifting, so you won't have to beat the mixture to within an inch of its life just to get the lumps out. It's also worth checking the use by dates on self raising flour and raising agents. People often have bags of flour at the back of the cupboard that are months or even years out of date. Checking the date becomes particularly tricky for those that like to decant their flours in other containers, so it's worth making the effort to attach a label with their best before dates. Raising agents stop working after a while and out of date self raising flour becomes inactive. All flours can become stale and are very susceptible to picking up odours from other foods, so never keep your flour in the same place as anything with a pong - onions, garlic, chilli, herbs, spices, etc. Another rather nasty potential hazard for old flour is weevils, which you will certainly want to avoid.
  5. WON'T RISE: When cakes don't rise it is because insufficient or no raising agents have been added, the dlour or raising agents used are too old, therefore inactive (see above), the mixture is too stiff (you can slacken mixture by adding a drop of milk), or overbeaten so that all the air has been knocked out. The temperature of your oven may play a part here too as cakes won't rise if your oven is too cool.
  6. DRY: I have a massive aversion to dry cakes. The pleasure of cake eating is lost to me when it is too dry and although icing can do something to mask the insult, it will still feel like a disappointing waste of calories. Dry cakes can be blamed on too much baking powder, over cooking or when the cooled cake is not packed immediately or if it is stored in a container which is not properly airtight.
  7. RUNNY WHITES: Egg whites are funny old things. If you whisk them into stiff peaks and then carry on whisking for long enough afterwards, they turn back into runny liquid. If you whisk them and leave them laying about for too long before using them they also turn back into runny liquid. In both cases you will never be able to whisk them back into peaks. If egg whites get even the tiniest bit of fat in them, they will never fluff up, however long you whisk them for. This is why you have to avoid getting any yolk in with the whites. Egg yolks are the fat of the egg and the whites are the protein. Their fat content is the reason why, until fairly recently, people thought eggs were bad for you due to their cholesterol and fat content, but as we now know these fats are essential healthy fats, we can throw caution to the wind and eat them with gluttonous abandon. To avoid getting fat in your whites, make sure you are very careful not to get any traces of yolk in with the whites and make sure the bowl you use is completely clean and oil free. You can wipe half a lemon round the inside of the bowl first to remove any traces of oil if you happen to have one on hand and another good tip is to add a pinch of salt to the whites before whisking, as it becomes almost impossible to overbeat them. I can't pretend to understand the reason for this, but all I know is that it works and that's good enough for me.

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