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Help me increase my baking skills

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I am trying to elevate my baking skills beyond the box cake mix. I made one cake this week and it was okay, but not great. I made some rookie mistakes. I plan to make another cake on Thursday night for my bubby to take to work on Friday and hope to get some feedback from more experienced bakers.
I plan to make a devil's food cake with peanut butter icing filling and a fudge icing exterior (all recipes from the King Arthur cookbook). Here are my questions:

1. Cake flour versus regular flour. I know the difference is the protein content, but am not sure which to use. On my last cake I used cake flour and it was pretty crumbly, but light. But will regular flour make the cake too dense? Can you use half and half?

2. My last cake was a little dry. I think it was overbaked despite the fact that I cooked it a few minutes lesss than the suggested bake time. I used new caphalon pans that are darker than my old pans. Does this affect the time or temperature I need to use?

3. I usually make good icing, but this is my first attempt at a fudge icing that you pour over the cake. The recipe does not call it a ganache, but it seems similar. Will I have success using this on a "filled" cake? I worry that the sides won't get covered and I'll have exposed peanut butter middle. My back up plan is chocolate butter cream.

Thanks for your help. Any tips are greatly appreciated.

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  1. Isn't that KA book great? Its recipes should call for specific kinds of flour...KA is great about testing and specificity in their recipes. So KA will tell you whether you should use cake or AP.

    Poured icings are fun. Don't try for a "perfect" side finish....instead, pour it artfully & irregularly and accept the uneven nature of the pour. Or, if you're hell-bent for a smooth surface, make a little extra to ensure that you get it fully covered.

    1. Make sure you have a thermometer in your oven... oven temperatures can vary greatly (your oven could be running hot and that's why it was dry even though you took it out early).

      1 Reply
      1. re: Foodie in Friedberg

        one place you can learn about baking is the website (www.about.com) gives free
        lessons about different things and learning how to bake is one of them, there is a;ot
        of info on that website. you might try it. happy baking.

      2. 1) For using cake flour or regular, do what the recipe calls for at first. Once you get a feel for them, you can fool around with the recipe. I like the texture/density of cake flour cakes but others like the other.

        2) Darkness of the cake pans matter, as does how close they are to the bottom of the oven/each other/edge. Now that you've noticed they're overbaked, you can turn down the oven and play with it.

        3) The long way about this would be to make a buttercream/frosting type dam to hold in the pb middle and to have the icing pour evenly. If there is a sizable crack between layers, the pouring frosting might not hold. I have been able to fool around w/ it by hardening the icing slightly (in the refrigerator or at room temperature) and filling in the cracks, then heating up the icing to thick pouring consistency and pouring. OTOH, chocolate buttercream sounds like a great alternative!

        I like this site for information:

        http://baking911.com/

        I haven't noticed that wickedly rich devil food cake on the front page before and think I'll have to try it out!

        1. Good questions. Baking is a completely different skill than cooking. Here's some advice that some bakers have given me:

          1) in baking, it is absolutely essentially to measure. Unlike cooking, where you adjust according to taste, follow the recipe to the letter. A chemical reaction is going on here, and you have to make sure the proportions are right. You also should not try to change the ingredients (i.e., use half the butter and substitute apple sauce) if you want the cake to taste the way it's supposed to.

          2) given that, if the recipe calls for cake flour, use cake flour. Don't use regular flour and don't use half and half cake and regular.

          3) oven temperature matters tremendously. I have a fast (hot) oven, my mom has a slow (cooler) oven. When I bake at her house, I have to adjust my receipes.

          4) Absolutely, the quality and type of pans matter. Your new pans may be conducting heat much more quickly than your old ones. Glass bakes differently than metal, and silicone is a whole different story.

          5) If you want to cover the entire cake, a poured icing won't do it for you. It's meant to leave exposed spots since you're after the taste and not necessarily appearance. If you like the taste of the peanut butter icing, fine, but if you want cover, make a different icing.

          6) Finally, keep at it. Baking takes years to perfect and atmospheric changes can also play a role -- was it hot, cold, humid, raining, dry? You'll learn as you go along.

          1. Thank you for all your help. Please keep the tips coming! I am not a detailed oriented person so baking presents some new challenges for me! Cooking comes much more naturally. However, it seems to me that fewer and fewer people actually bake these days. I am 32 and only one of my girlfriends bakes things from scratch. I really want to learn so I can carry on the traditions and honor the memory of my grandmother (who would get up at 5 am to make me homeade biscuits and gravy before school whenever she came to visit).

            1. I always follow the recipe with regards to the cake flour/regular flour issue, but the other thing to watch is how much flour is actually in what you are measuring as a cup. If you get too much flour, baked goods can end up dry. If you scoop the measuring cup into the flour you will get a lot more flour than if you use a spoon or scoop to put the flour into the measuring cup and then level it. For all-purpose flour, I always stir the flour in my canister and then use a scoop to put it into my measuring cup. Also, cake flour is usually sifted before it is measured which means a lot less flour actually goes into the cake than if you just scooped it.

              1 Reply
              1. re: LauraB

                Related to that, READ the introductory material in your cookbook. That's where they should tell you how they measured the flour. They may have dipped it. spooned it, or weighed out 4.5 oz. to a cup. Look for it.

                Oh yeah, they should tell you what size eggs they use, also.

              2. i have and love the king arthur books. i also love rose levy beranbaum's books on baking (get the cake bible), beatrice ojakangas' books (beautiful scandinavian ethnic baking), and nick malgieri's baking books. one of my fave baking books that nobody else seems to talk about is greg patent's "baking in america"-- he goes thru old american baking recipes and updates them for today's baker, organizing them by type of cake (sponge, pound, etc) and giving an historical overview throughout the book. it is really well done and the recipes are all excellent-- you can tackle & master one type at a time.

                any of these books have introductions explaining cake lour vs AP flour vs pastry flour, etc and are great primers-- they can help avert those common beginning mistakes.

                go by what flour your recipe calls for, for best results.

                as recd. by Foodie in Friedberg, get a good oven thermometer and place it in different places in your own oven while baking. you may be surprised, but most ovens have hot and cool areas and some run hot "fast" or cool "slow" by 25-40 degrees-- it affects baking recipes and once you know your own oven you can adjust baking times and temps.

                experiment with different types of pans to find what you like. you don't have to spend a lot of money, you can often score seldom-used baking equipment at thrift stores or yard sales. type of pans can also affect baking times.

                baking is a skill-- you get better as you go. organized people also tend to be better bakers ( so when i am baking i try to act less harebrained and try to get all my ingredients together, laid out and organized-- i am kind of a scattered person). baking is more of a science than cooking, you can't really "wing" the measurements on most cakes, but you can learn variations on a recipe theme for maximum payoff. have fun!