My New Year's Resolution - Cakes
I'm a pie person. I married into a family of cake people. My New Year's resolution is to become adept at making cakes (and not just the simple ones either).
I will confess, I've never made a cake from scratch (aside from when I was a child and I would make them with my mom but that doesn't really count, does it?).
My request, fellow Chowhounds, is for:
1. Your tips (or even recipes) for making cakes and frosting.
2. Links to websites about making cakes.
3. Recommendations for books/magazines/etc. about cake baking.
4. Pity and prayers for husband's coworkers who will be subjected to my cake attempts.
Homemade cakes are wonderful-- not pie of course, but wonderful nonetheless. I think the Cake Bible is a good place to start-- the explanation will make good reading and the recipes are full proof. A few steps, such as greasing/flouring/parchment/greasing/flouring make a huge difference.
I second the Cake Bible. I have it and it's wonderful. Also Rosie's Bakery All-Butter, Fresh Cream, Sugar-Packed, No-Holds-Barred Baking Book is a very good cookbook for all kinds of desserts, but I like how she does her cake section especially well. She's very down-to-earth and offers some base layer cake recipes with ideas (and recipes) for different fillings and icings to mix things up a bit.
I'm personally a cake person and can take or leave pie. I think they're easier to make than pie, too. I will almost always turn to cakes as a go-to dessert for company. They're fun to fiddle with too.
As far as tips go, I would highly recommend NOT getting intimidated by cakes. They're really not hard at all, given a couple of decent pans. Just have fun!
I like the Cake Bible but it's technical and there is a lot of information for people who REALLY want to know how to bake cakes, if that's what you want. I've been really happy w/ every cake I've tried from Cooks Illustrated. They have the basics--white, birthday, chocolate, devils food and a few others but not nearly as extensive as the Cake Bible.
Try this site:
It covers more than just cakes but go to the cake section. It gives a fair amount of information and recipes. I like Cooks Illustrated a lot, they are great at making recipes clear and easy to follow.
Personally I think baking cakes is easier than making pie. As long as you have a reliable recipe and follow it closely, there's not much that can go wrong.
I really love the Cake Bible, too. Just reading it is an education on how cakes work -- I'm pretty new at cake baking myself and I like to know the "whys" even if I'm constantly screwing up the "hows"!
The White Chocolate Cream Cheese Buttercream especially is to *die* for (and very, very forgiving), especially if your in-laws, like mine, aren't so big on extremely sweet desserts.
I used a bit of it to fill a Lemon Chiffon Cake from Malgieri's Perfect Light Desserts book yesterday, along with some raspberry preserves, and it was not only far easier than I thought it would be, it was absolutely delicious. :)
Nigella - hip hip hooray for her cakes. Look on the internet for the coconut marzipan cake and the no-flour orange (or tang. or clementine) cake.
Also look for Jamie Oliver's cake made with hazelnuts and ricotta and orange zest. Whipped egg whites folded in give it the lightness that is so nice.
I've been cooking a lot of cakes lately with mostly ground nuts as flour. Made a pistachio/almond one from Rose Bakery book that was delicious. Also made their cake using polenta as part of the flour.
These cakes are pretty easy to make and just fantastic...not exactly mainstream and won't teach you how to make "regular" cakes, but great nonetheless.
I'd recommend checking The Cake Bible out from the library and trying a recipe before buying it. Personally, I don't like it at all. Rose Levy Berenbaum has very particular ideas about what good cake is. Her "light, feathery" cakes are not to my liking - and I hate her buttercreams.
I don't think the definitive cake book has been written yet, but I have a few favorites. The best overall is The Perfect Cake by Susan Purdy. It contains a truly fabulous recipe for Viennese buttercream (which goes especially well with the Torta di Mandorle - a chocolate almond torte.) The only problem with the book is hideous layout.
The definitive recipe for yellow cake layers is in Cook's Illustrated Best Recipes. My favorite chocolate-chocolate cake recipe is from Marcy Goldman's Jewish Holiday Baking.
If you really want a challenge after mastering the basics, try The Art of the Cake, by Healy and Bugat which focuses on French patisserie-style cakes. Again, find it at the library first. I tend not to find the genoise-based cakes delicious enough to merit the hours and hours of work I put into them. But the book is clearly a labor of love, filled with authentic French recipes.
Tips: Make sure your oven is even! I've come out with several lopsided layers that I had to even out considerably.
Springform pans are nice, since you can just pop the lever and release the sides. I don't actually own any regular cake pans yet, though, so it's just my personal experience. (I just moved and I'm restocking the kitchen).
Does anyone have experience with a cake leveler? I think they look like a great tool, but I'm curious about the cheap ones that cut through the cake with a wire. Does that work or just rip up the cake?
Just a few random cake-thoughts:
Getting layers out of the pans intact: Always grease, paper, grease, and flour your pans, even if the recipe doesn't tell you to. Don't turn the cake out right away, but don't let it rest too long, either. Put the pan on a rack, cool about 5 minutes, then run a sharp knife around the edge, then turn the layer out on the rack.
Frosting: Chocolate ganache is easy to make, tastes great, and holds up well to transport. I recommend it highly for your early attempts before you advance to (real) buttercreams.
If you have a convection oven, use it. I turn the temp down 25 degerees and start checking the cake about 20% sooner than the recipe says.
If you make an angel food, it really does help to have the eggs at room temp.
Martha Stewart cake recipes always work for me.
I was thinking about your request, and realized that it also might be helpful if you prioritized your 'approach' to this. I would start with making a few bundt cakes. They're VERY forgiving, hard to overmix, moist and generally well-liked. Then, move on to traditional American layer cakes. While these are overmixable, they're more forgiving than genoise or biscuit. I would not move on to the more complex, European cakes (where the rise comes from egg whites and the cakes tend towards the more dry) until you feel better about the other kinds.
Of course, this is just me. A few failures and I'll toss up my hands in disgust, so I would look for ways to continue having success before I moved to the recipes where I would likely experience failures.
I love Italian buttercreams for frosting, but I always found the recipes for them daunting (visions of salmonella bacteria dancing in her head!). They're actually quite straightforward, so don't be as put off as I was. If there is a cooking school near you, you might want to consider signing up for a one off class on cakes. I got the most confidence making buttercreams by taking a class.
Good luck! A good cake is a thing of wonder (much like a good pie!).
I'm surprised no one mentioned Maida Heatter. Her books are terrific. And one of her great tips is that in most cases, esp. with bundt pans, it is better to butter and bread crumb (obviously unseasoned!) instead of butter and flour when you prepare your cake pan.