My first two weeks at Fine Cooking have been filled with so many fun challenges but I have to admit, I felt a bit of relief when I was given some cake recipes to work on. I love to bake cakes. Even when they don’t come out exactly right, I feel comforted by each familiar step – creaming the butter and sugar (that’s my favorite! What a fabulous texture.), adding the eggs one at a time, and mixing in the wet and dry ingredients alternately, starting and ending with dry. But, after so many years of just following these steps blindly I realized that I never stopped to understand exactly why we mix a cake this way. Well, I know that proper creaming of the butter and sugar is imperative for creating air bubbles which lift your cake but why the fancy liquid-flour method? I’m always so tempted to just dump it all in and call it a day.
After consulting our copy of Shirley Corriher’s CookWise, I learned that it’s all about gluten development – something you don’t want in a cake. Mixing liquid and flour forms gluten. When you start by adding some of the dry ingredients to the creamed butter and sugar you coat the flour with fat and that inhibits the formation of gluten when you add the liquid. You do run the risk of developing gluten with each subsequent addition of uncoated flour so it’s best to keep the mixing to a minimum. Shirley likes to add a lot of the flour in the first go to help that problem. It makes sense.
So, there you have it. Gluten is the enemy – at least when it comes to cakes. We’ll talk about bread another day.