Cakes make me cry. Not eating them -- making them. You have to be super-precise, there's a lot of bowls and alternating wet and dry ingredients, and the kicker? You need a chisel, a third arm, and some magic fairy dust to pry them out of the pan without having a quarter of the cake stick to the bottom, or the whole thing land on the floor.
More than one of my husband's birthdays have included me sobbing as I scraped half of his cake out of a baking pan and attempted to 'glue' the two halves together with frosting. He's started asking for birthday brownies.
Piece of Cake! by Camilla Saulsbury (Robert Rose, $29.95) wants to help me get over my fears and simplify cake baking. She has created a one bowl method and a staggering number of recipes -- 175 cake recipes, and over 50 frostings and fillings.
The book has an old-school Betty Crocker quality: a hard cover protects ring-bound recipe pages, and even the title font feels circa 1960s. While the head notes aren't much of a read, if it's cake you are after, Saulsbury has you covered -- from the most basic chocolate and yellow cakes, to healthy-ish whole wheat cakes, to interesting olive oil cakes. And for those hooked on the box, the author has recipes for homemade cake mixes, including a vegan and gluten-free variety.
But could it help me make a proper birthday cake without suffering a mental breakdown? First, the sticking issue. Saulsbury recommends baking spray with flour. I know this product exists, but I've always been resistant to it because of the weird ingredients (silica dioxide? Should I really be eating that?) However, a little internet browsing showed me that Spectrum makes a version that isn't too weird.
But in reality, you can overcome sticking by some energetic greasing and flouring. I hunkered down and greased and floured, and post-baking, my cake slipped from the pan to my cooling rack with only minor heart palpitations.
It was refreshing to use a single bowl. I measured my dry ingredients and whisked them together, added my eggs, milk, and softened butter, and then beat away. Here's where it got a tiny bit tricky. Cakes are all about structure, and how to create a cake that rises and maintains a tender crumb. Here, you are using one bowl and none of the standard techniques (cake flour, sifting, alternating wet and dry ingredients), so there is no room for error.
Your butter needs to be soft, but not too soft. Your eggs need to be room temperature. And you cannot overbeat, or your flour will develop gluten and your cake will be tough. So the technique is streamlined, but you need to be meticulous.
My butter was not as soft as it should have been. I mixed the batter for the requisite two minutes, and I still had small pieces of butter. A conundrum -- what would be worse? Bits of butter in my batter, or an over-mixed cake? I resigned myself to butter specks, but I still mixed a little longer and at a higher speed than recommended in an effort to merge my butter and batter. My cake was a shade past tender, but still very tasty. With a little practice, I'm confident I can turn out a tender cake with this method. And I can't wait to try the Sticky Toffee Pudding Cake.
Piece of Cake can streamline your cake making, but you can't be lackadaisical. And if you're a novice baker, it may take a few times to get the hang of how everything should come together. If you're making icing and frosting you will need another bowl, but you can easily whip it up while your cake is cooling.
With a little practice, you can have a cake in the oven in less than ten minutes. It took me 14 minutes (which included the traditional method of greasing and flouring the pan, and a three-year-old dumping in all of my dry ingredients.) To my preschooler's delight, cake may become a regular treat around here. And maybe I can offer something other than ho-hum brownies at my husband's next birthday celebration.
Anna Thomas Bates blogs at Tallgrass Kitchen.