To Beat or Not to Beat?
I feel kind of silly asking this question. I've always thought you weren't supposed to overmix anything or it will be tough, especially when there are eggs involved. I've applied this philosophy to pancakes (rightly so), cake batters (but leave fewer lumps than pancakes), breadmaking (although I've only just started making bread, and none yet with egg), cookies, etc. Most of my food turns out pretty darn good. I'm just always wondering if I'm making the best version possible of anything I'm making.
Recently, I saw a recipe for French Silk Pie, with raw eggs, and the instructions to beat for 15 minutes on high to get a truly creamy consistency. (I haven't made this yet, but am wanting to.) Which made me question everything I ever thought I knew about mixing.
So, my question, I guess, is... when is beating the heck out of something the right thing to do? Is there a rule of thumb for mixing?
If a cake is made by creaming the butter and sugar and then adding the eggs, I usually beat the hell out of the mixture--it should get moussy and silky. Then I add the flour and liquid. Once I started doing this (not possible until I got a good stand mixer) the texture of my cakes and their volume got much better. The caveat is--you should NOT beat heavily once the flour meets liquid ingredients (which would include eggs) for cakes and tender pastries. Flour + liquid forms gluten which makes things chewy. It's the opposite for a lot of bread recipes, where you want to form structure with gluten.
In the case of French Silk Pie the beating is probably to incorporate a great deal of air into the eggs as you beat with the sugar (extended beating with the eggs also helps to dissolve the sugar completely). The other products you mention are typically not light and full of air (as a french silk pie would be - sort of an airy mousse-like texture), and have other leavening agents to help them rise. So bottom line is when the recipe depends on eggs for leavening, it will usually call for extended beating. Added leavening agent means less beating.
The best bet is to just follow your recipes when it comes to beating times.