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Baking SOS

Okay, bakers, I need some help here.

Several years ago we found an old baking book from 1937 that belonged to my grandmother. While I am merely a good baker, she was a fabulous one. So I started baking from this little cookbook hoping to recall some family favorites. Not happening.

Of the 7 recipes - all cakes or coffee cakes - I've made, all have fallen in the middle. Most of the cakes were fine until the last few minutes of baking; almost all of them fell during the last 5 minutes of baking The flavor of the finished product is wonderful and the texture of the parts that don't fall is also wonderful. In fact, they'd be really, really good cakes if they didn't end up with sinkholes in the middle.

The first thing I've done is to reduce the amount of leavening by half, which sort of helped. The cakes now come out of the oven looking like they should, but fall within the first 5 mintues of being out of the oven. I've also experimented around with different size pans, which hasn't seemed to make much of a difference.

1) Was flour that much different in 1937?
2) Am I possibly overmixing
3) What other baking ratios should I be looking at...flour/sugar? flour/sugar/fat?

Open to suggestions at this point

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  1. oven temp? is maybe your oven temp/calibration off ?
    what is your leavening?how much?
    in 1937 aluminum had not been introduced into baking powder for the home cook/most were cream of tartar and sodium-bicarb/you may have to change leavening brands,there a few without aluminum/or mix your own
    I have some books with ratios and conversions of leavening but won't be back here until tomorrow

    9 Replies
    1. re: lcool

      I agree with the leavening advice and also wonder if you're using cake flour. I have cookbooks from my grandmother of that vintage that use soft flour. Pan size can make a big difference, but I always suspect oven temp!

      1. re: marthasway

        The recipes specify "Town Crier Flour" which was a brand of flour back in the 30s. As far as I've been able to discover, this was a flour mill in Kansas City that was absorbed by Archer Daniels Midland in the 60s.

        I've been using AP flour because the bulk of the recipe say to sift 3 times, which to me, would indicate an AP flour more than cake flour. The cake I made today (posted below) did not require any sifting and I used AP. I've got tons of dates left, lots of on-hand nuts and we like this cake, so I can easily remake it using cake flour and see what happens.

        The recipe specified an 8" x 8" pan which is exaclty what I used. It does make a full pan. There isn't enough batter for a 9" x 13" pan but it might work in an 11" x 7" pan. I also thought about using muffin tins and shortening the baking time.

        1. re: DiningDiva

          I remember my mom sifting all of her flour. I almost never do. In part that is due to better handling and milling of the flour. It never seems packed or clumpy. I might do more sifting it I made more cakes and less quick breads, biscuits and pancakes.

          1. re: paulj

            A lot of the reason for sifting flour used to be to get bugs and such out. At this point it's mostly to mix ingredients and to get consistent measurements.

          2. re: DiningDiva

            I used to have a Swan's Down recipe book from the 30s-- SD is a brand of cake flour, and that booklet called for sifting three times in every recipe - so sift, sift, sift. It lightens the texture of the flour unbelievably-- it's a visible difference. (no, it's not for bugs, as was suggested downthread)

            I also agree with the leavening being significantly different -- lots of baking powder today is double-acting (once with liquid and once with heat), and I have been told that in the 30s it was all single-acting -- so it could be it's overinflating to a point that the protein structure of the flour just can't support itself.

            My grandmother said that they had to tiptoe around the kitchen when she got the SD book above so that their cakes wouldn't fall...sounds like some combination of ingredients led the structures to be very fragile.

            1. re: sunshine842

              How well I remember :-)

              Every time there was an angle food cake underway we kids were sent outside to play and we couldn't come back in until it was out of the oven and had cooled for a while

            2. re: DiningDiva

              "TOWN CRIER FLOUR" was a very soft bleached flour,think WHITE LILY,

              SWANS DOWN,Pillsbury's "SOFT as SILK" and one from King Arthur,an excellent soft pasty flour that I do not think they retail,only available via direct order or 25# bags at a restaurant supply.

              Some of the tips mentioned by other posters.Non-Aluminum baking powder was essentially DOUBLE ACTING and ACIDIC ,CREAM OF TARTAR is very low PH.

              Buttermilk- not changed enough to matter about acid.If your grandmother clabbered milk for buttermilk or used sour milk,think whole milk.Reduced fat milk just wasn't prevelent until well into the 70's.The vinegar,likely Heinz Distilled White,lemons were too damn expensive.

              SIFTING,needed then,rarely now because of climate/moisture control is nearly universal,from mill to table.

              I have several old books,circa 1890-1939 ,to include many from Calumet,the baking powder people.Non-Aluminum baking powder or mixing cream of tartar+bicarb does matter for most of these baking recipes.

              SIZE OF PAN ?? under filling a loaf pan is just fine.If the difference is less than 20% just reduce baking time,not temperature.

              HOME MIX BAKING POWDER to equal 1 tsp of MODERN .....

              1/4 tsp baking soda + 1/2 tsp cream of tartar...use right away if mixed,DOES NOT KEEP.Best to use 2 containers in your mise,add LAST MINUTE OF DRY,FIRST TIP OF LIQUIDS....there is your reduction right away

              I almost never "measure" with cup.I am 99.9% a tare weight scale user for wet and dry.

              that said...1 cup pastry flour = 4oz , an accepted universal that works for me using both WHITE LILY & KING ARTHUR

              PS an old Calumet recipe for waffles is my go-to for sweet or adapted to savory.The baking powder matters,lighter,crisper with zero chemical odor of taste

              1. re: lcool

                I happen to have a box of Swans Down, I'll try again this weekend and see what happens with it.

          3. re: lcool

            The recipe temp was 350* and that's what the oven was baking. I've made the recipes using conventional and convection, and conventional works better.

            The recipe I was using today called for baking soda + buttermilk or sour milk. I used milk soured with some mild apple cider vinegar this time, tho' I've used buttermilk in the past. It was a fairly new box of baking soda. The original recipe called for 1 tsp. of baking soda to 2 cups of flour and 2 cups of brown sugar. I believe current baking indicateds something like 1/4 tsp per cup of flour, so I reduced the baking soda to 1/2 tsp. I've got 2 thoughts on this...one that there is too much sugar to flour which may be affecting the structure, and two, that even tho' I've not noticed a difference in the final product with either buttermilk or soured milk, perhaps the vinegar in the milk is causing too vigorous a reaction with the baking soda.

            I'd be interested in knowing what your ratios indicate.

          4. Cakes (circa 1937) were often made using solid shortening (creamed before adding sugar and eggs) instead of "Salad Oil" (today's "Vegetable Oil") You don't mention which you're using in your recipe.
            You might try leaving what appears to be a successful bake in the oven, turn the oven off and allow the cake to rest for 5 - 10 minutes while the oven cools.
            I agree that your oven temperature reliability needs to be examined.
            I don't believe the leavening agent is your problem, as long as you're measuring carefully and using the exact amount called for in the recipe.
            You describe yourself as an experienced baker so you already know about the center oven placement, protected baking environment, etc which leads me to believe discussing those issues would serve no purpose here.
            Are you using a steel, aluminum or some other metal baking pan? Is the pan dark colored or polished (shiny)? Is your cake pan filled correctly (not overfilled)? You may want to try reducing the amount of batter you pour into your pan(s).

            2 Replies
            1. re: todao

              Thanks for the suggestions. The oven is pretty reliable, but I also have an oven thermometer in it to be sure. To be honest I forgott verify the temp today, but the usual temp variations aren't particularly substantial.

              I'll try letting it rest in the oven while it cools, I like that idea.

              Yep, very careful with the measurements. Actually wish I could weigh them but the recipe is in measures not weights.

              Baking pan is glass (Pyrex), and yep, it was dead center in the oven

              The recipe specified butter for the recipe I made today, so that is what I used.

              1. re: todao

                I agree with the suggestion about shortening. Spry and Crisco were the latest modern thing in 1930s. Because they weren't lard, people thought they were healthful and light. I can remember watching my great-grandmother bake in 1937 and am sure she used nothing but Spry. I baked with it through the 1950's (a big 3-pound can cost 29 cents!).

              2. How about posting one of the recipes? One of us might be able to identify a difference from typical modern recipes. I assume you haven't had this problem with recipes from other sources.

                4 Replies
                1. re: paulj

                  You are correct, the only time I've experienced cakes that sink when finished has been from this little cookbook. Here's the reicpe (as originally published) I made today

                  CARAMEL DATE CAKE

                  2 Cups A.P. Flour

                  2 Cups Brown sugar (recipe does not specify packed or not, I did packed)

                  1/2 Cup Butter

                  1/2 Cup Dates pitted and chopped

                  1/2 Cup Nuts, any kind, chopped

                  1 Cup Sour milk or Buttermilk

                  1 Egg

                  1 Tsp Soda, which I''ve already reduced to 1/2 tsp.

                  1 tsp. Vanilla

                  Pinch of salt, which I've added

                  Mix flour, sugar and butter together, reserve 3/4 cup for topping. To remainder add the chopped dates and nuts. Combine well beaten egg, sour milk, soda and add to flour mixture. Add vanilla. Pour into well greased and floured 8"x8" pan. Sprinkle reserved crumbs over the top. Bake in a moderate oven (350 degrees F) about 50 minutes

                  The instructions are verbatim from the cookbooklet. As you can see from the brevity of the instructions, it's from a time when people actually knew how to cook and bake ;-).

                  The cake is very good, but a bit too sweet, which is leading me to believe that the flour sugar ratio may be off.

                  1. re: DiningDiva

                    Usually when making cakes with solid butter, the butter is first creamed with the sugar (however, brown sugar is often classed as part of the liquid components).

                    I believe 1/4 tsp of baking soda is enough to balance a cup of buttermilk, though I have success with pancakes using your ratio, 1/2 tsp. But I'd be tempted to add 1 tsp of baking powder to that recipe. The 'startard' ratio for baking powder is 1 tsp per cup of flour

                    I know that for quick breads, sugar can typically be cut in half without problems. In fact there are savory quick breads with no sugar. I'm less sure about the flexibility with cakes.

                    I wonder how this would bake in loaf pan (i.e. as a quick bread).

                    1. re: paulj

                      Thank you for your suggestions. There is too much batter for a loaf pan but too little for 2 loaf pans. Hence my thought about trying either an 11" x 7" or muffin tins.

                      Yes, most cakes do call for the butter or other fat to be creamed first and the sugar dissolved in it. However, with this cake you make the quasi-struesel topping first. I've thought about reducing the brown sugar by at least half, mixing as directed, reserving out about 1/3-1/2 cup and then adding brown sugar to the reserved crumbs to bring it up to 3/4 cup required in the recipe. I also think the volume of crumb topping could be reduced.

                      Willing to try adding baking powder. The recipe is not exactly a quick bread, nor is it exactly what we know as a layer-style cake.

                    2. re: DiningDiva

                      Do you suppose there could be a difference in the "real" buttermilk they had back then vs. the Cultured Buttermilk we have today? The acid content could be different, no? Leading to a different reaction with the soda?

                      I'm not a baker so just throwing out a wild guess. But you said this problem is with all recipes from this book so that probably isn't it...

                  2. I suspect you have more experience baking than me but during my research on baking. I have gotten the following possible reasons for cakes falling.

                    Over or underbeating - too much or too little air is incorporated into batter.
                    Underbaking - oven temperature too low and / or too short a baking time.
                    Probably not thoroughly baked - Bake longer or reduce the heat by 25 degrees F and bake longer.
                    Over or under measurement of liquid or too much sugar.
                    Too small a pan
                    Excessive jarring or moving of the cake during baking.
                    Opening the oven door before cake sets
                    Too much baking powder or baking soda Keep recipe close to 1 teaspoon baking powder or 1/4 teaspoon baking soda per cup of flour.
                    Excessive mixing of the batter.

                    I suspect too much leavener. In 1937 gramma may not have been using double acting baking powder. Make sure you are only using 1 teaspoon baking powder or 1/4 teaspoon baking soda per cup of flour. Too much baking powder causes it to over expand and then fall.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: Hank Hanover

                      Many of the items in typical fallen cake lists look like they were compiled by Goldilocks - 'too much or too little of ...'. Somehow beating or ratios have to be just right, which does not help in deciding what the corrective action should be.

                    2. If it happened with all of the recipes, I'm guessing it's your oven temp that's the problem, not the ingredients, or the ratios of ingredients.

                      1. It doesn't sound like ratio issues to me either. It sounds to me like it just isn't finished baking in the center yet - which could be a function of pan size / oven temp / cooking time / pan type (heat conduction). I would start adjusting time/temp before I started messing with other things.

                        Does the cooked outside of the cake taste right?

                        1. Thank you all for your replies. For the record...the recipe I've been working on

                          1) has no baking powder in it, so that is not an issue with this recipe. It probably is with some of the others
                          2) my oven is reliable, but I will use my oven thermometer next time as oven temp is an important controllable
                          3) I've already reduced the baking time on all the recipes because the original times are too long
                          4) I used the exact pan the recipe called for and it was not over filled
                          5) I've used both conventional cooking and convection cooking, conventional works better

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: DiningDiva

                            McGee in his latest Cooking Secret books attributes the sunken middle to batter that rises before it can set and stay up on its own. So that would be either too much leavening, too short baking time. If there isn't enough lift, you are likely to get something that is dense, with a modest rise in the middle, with cracking (more typical of muffins)

                            http://books.google.com/books?id=8c_k...

                            1. re: paulj

                              Based on what I'm seeing, that makes sense.

                          2. I just found this resource at King Arthur Flour: http://www.kingarthurflour.com/tips/q...
                            They discuss leaveners that were probably in use in the 30s and even have some alternatives to emulate them.

                            I'm sure if you noodle around on the site you'll find a ton of info about flours too. And you could always call them on their baking line and get help to find the right combo of flours and leaveners to reproduce what you're looking for.

                            That recipe and your memories are worth the work to investigate the necessary adaptations to preserve part of your family history.

                            4 Replies
                            1. re: rainey

                              Rainey, terrific link, thanks for digging it up and posting.

                              1. re: DiningDiva

                                Interesting that the KA article uses the 1/2t baking soda per cup buttermilk ratio.

                                But they also talk of adding some extra leavening to 'lift the raisins'.

                                What would be interesting to learn about your problem cakes is whether the center lifts, and then sinks, or just does not rise as much in the first place. Watching through a glass front oven, or carefully sneaking a peek during baking might do the trick. I stress the carefully since peeking is supposed to be one of the causes of a sunken top (it's the sudden cooling).

                                The recipe that you posted is relatively heavy on dates and nuts, which can affect lift. In part it's those additions that made me think of a quick bread and loaf pan. With the narrower, deeper loaf pan, the batter isn't affected as much by the lack of support in the middle.

                                McGee describes a cake as a balancing act between structure and tenderness. Flour and eggs provide the structure, but by themselves leave the cake dry and dull. Fat and sugar provide tenderness and moisture.

                                1. re: paulj

                                  Paul, interesting you should ask about whether the center rises correctly or not. I have a glass front oven and have watched the process. Short answer...yes, the center rises well and gives no indication that it will sink. Every single one of them has risen appropriately and every single one of them as cratered at some point. The cake I did this past weekend rose beautifully. It sank as it cooled, which to me, would seem to indicate it lacked sufficient structure (gluten development?) to support itself.

                                  When I try a new recipe from this particular cookbook, the first time I will make it exactly as written to determine what works and what doesn't. When I first started experiementing with these recipes, some of the cakes rose and then sank before the baking time was completed, and some sank only after being removed from the oven. The first recipe I made was for a gingerbread. I watched it raise - in fact it rose so much I was worried it would overrun the pan - only to see it fall 15 mintues before it was done. I think that one could very well have been due to pan size and it's the only recipe I haven't tried more than once. This was an esepcially interesting cake as the flavor intentisived and got better over time. Flavor and texutre on all the cakes has been very good, with the sunken parts clearly being baked through, just denser due to collapsing in on itself.

                                  There are several biscuit recipes, maybe I'll switch from cakes to biscuits and see what happens with them :-)

                                2. re: DiningDiva

                                  Happy to have been able to find it.

                                  When there's a baking question King Arthur is usually the answer -- if not their site, then their master bakers who are really an incomparable resource.