Cake Dos & Don'ts

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

This rather long post, for cake newbies, can be summarised in three words: Follow the recipe. Newbies are the ones who ask "Can I . . . ?" Old hands would know the saying: Just because you can doesn't mean you should. Experienced bakers may change anything in a recipe, because they know what works or probably works. Beginners, OTOH, may not know a tiny deviation from the recipe can have a big impact on the cake. If you're one of these, I hope this post shows you why you may want to do everything the recipe says, and not do everything the recipe doesn't say.

What to Do Before Your Cake Fails

a) Use an oven thermometer.  »
A lot of ovens aren't accurate. If the oven temperature is wrong, you have two problems. First, your cake may fail, or it may not as good as it could be. Second, if your cake fails, you have no idea what the problem is. It may be the oven temperature, or something else. If you know for a fact what the temperature is, you can at least eliminate the oven from your list of suspects.

Some recipes say "every oven is different". That may be true but one 180°C is the same as another 180°C. Whatever you're baking doesn't care what oven it's in. It only cares what the temperature (and humidity) is.

An oven thermometer measures the temperature in the oven; it can't tell where the heat is coming from. If the top heat is higher/lower than the bottom heat, your cake will fail. Fortunately, most ovens don't have this problem. If you think yours does, toast a slice of bread in the middle of the oven, on a rack at 220°C. If the top and bottom of the bread browns evenly, the oven is good.

b) Don't change the pan type.  »
Only round, square and rectangular "regular" pans made of the same material are interchangeable. The pan type goes with the recipe. It affects how quickly the batter heats up, how deep the batter is, and how much structural support the cake needs. These factors in turn affect how high the cake rises and whether it stays up there or comes back down after cooling down.

My recipes use aluminium pans. If you use dark coloured non-stick pans, your cakes will be different from mine.

c) Scale the recipe according to your pan size.  »
If your pan is bigger/smaller than the recipe's, you must scale the recipe proportionately. Of course, you could scale the recipe first, then find the proportionate pan size. How wide and long the pan is affects the depth of the batter. Deep batter rises more than shallow batter, all other things being equal.

If you don't know how to change the pan size or scale the recipe, please refer to question (i) and (j) in this post: Cake FAQ.

d) Don't replace any ingredient.  »
The only exception is flavourless oil, which may be swapped with any flavourless oil. Changing any other ingredient has an impact on the cake. Once you modify the recipe, it's yours. If you like the final product, congratulations. If you don't? It's your recipe, so you fix it.

e) Don't leave out any ingredient.  »
Bad recipes are like germs and idiots – they are everywhere. If your cake fails, wouldn't you want to know if the recipe really works and is worth another attempt? The only way you'd know, if you don't know much about baking, is by sticking to the recipe.

f) Measure everything accurately.  »
The more exact you are, the higher the chances of executing the recipe correctly.

Accuracy is crucial for fluffy cakes. Why? Because fluffy cakes have very weak structures. When the measurements are wrong, the cake will collapse or it won't be as fluffy as it should be. If you want to bake the lightest and fluffiest cake possible, one that doesn't collapse but is one the verge of collapsing, the balance of ingredients must be spot on. If you're not the obsessive-compulsive-anal-retentive type, don't bake fluffy cakes. Try fruit cakes instead.

g) Observe the eggs/whites/yolks you're whisking.  »
How long it takes to whisk eggs/whites/yolks to the stage required in the recipe depends on the speed and size of the whisk; the size, shape and material of the bowl, the atmospheric humidity and temperature; and the freshness, temperature, size and quantity of eggs being whisked. For beginners, this is not the time to multitask because you need to watch what you're whisking, like a hawk. Your cake will fail if the eggs/whites/yolks are under- or overwhisked. The latter may happen in seconds, so go slow towards the end and keep testing.

h) Once you start whisking eggs, work quickly.  »
If kept waiting too long, whisked eggs/yolks lose their air bubbles and whisked whites lose their extensibility. If you have to check on your baby, go to the loo or read the recipe, do it before you start whisking or after the cake starts baking.

i) The cake is done when it's done.  »
The baking time in the recipe is a guide, not cast in stone. Why? Because it's difficult to whisk every batch of eggs/whites/yolks to the same level of thickness/stiffness. The stiffer the whites are, the faster the cake sets and browns. Yolks and whole eggs have the opposite effect as they thicken.

If you scale the recipe, the baking time may vary by 5-10 minutes. You should test if the cake is done as per the recipe whether or not the recipe is scaled.

j) Prep the cake pan as directed.  »
Some readers line/grease the pan when the recipe says nothing about lining/greasing the pan. And then they whine when their cake fails, insisting they've followed the recipe to a T. These people should relearn their alphabets.

There're two parts to "following to a T":
  1. Do everything the recipe says. 
  2. Don't do everything the recipe doesn't say.

k) Keep an eye on the cake in the oven.  »
Knowing how and when the batter rises, sets, browns and sinks (!) helps with the post-mortem.

l) Cool down as directed.  »
It ain't over till the fat lady sings cake cools down. Don't let your guard down at the last minute or your cake may shrink excessively or collapse.

What to Do After Your Cake Fails

m) Retrace your steps.  »
Check if you had:
  1. The right ingredients.
  2. The right amount of ingredients.
  3. The right method for combining the ingredients.
  4. The right pan size.
  5. The right pan type.
  6. The right preparation for the pan.
  7. The right oven temperature.
  8. The right baking method.
  9. The right method for testing if the cake was done.
  10. The right cooling down method.

n) Don't meddle with the recipe.  »
When you meddle, you change the recipe. Why did your cake fail in the first place? Because you changed the recipe. You can't solve a problem with what causes it, can you? 

o) Don't ask me why your cake failed.  »
 Why not? Because:
  1. If the recipe works, then why your cake failed boils down to which part of the recipe you didn't follow. The best person to answer the question is you, not me because I wasn't there when you did it.
  2. If you think the recipe doesn't work, the last thing you'd want is advice from the person who posted the recipe that doesn't work.
  3. If the recipe really doesn't work, you're not going to hear it from me.


Leng Leng said...

Hi KT, can I use Santan (coconut milk extract) instead of hot pressed coco oil. What is the difference between hot and cold pressed oil please? Thank you so much. Drooling ...... every time I browse your wonderful blog. Keep it up. I am searching for melting pineapple tarts

Mabel said...

Love your recipe, making my 2nd. Appreciate the great video and writeup. 赞!

Hannah said...

I tried this recipe and made cupcakes :D they baked for 17 minutes really nice recipe

KT said...

Sunday morning, 9 o'clock Singapore time. I'm having a piece of green chiffon cake (and coffee) for breakfast. Looking at my cake as I eat, I suddenly realize why yours turned soggy. It was (probably) because the sugar in the batter wasn't fully dissolved. After the cake was baked and stored for some time, the sugar eventually melted, turning the cake soggy.

Mystery solved (I hope)!

cindy liong said...

Thanks for remembering my post and replying!:)...that sounds like a possible reason! How then can I be sure that the sugar has melted? Please advise. Thanks!

KT said...

1. Use castor sugar, which dissolves easily.

2. When whisking egg yolks, rub a bit of the yolks between your fingers. Keep whisking till the yolks don't feel gritty.

3. When whisking egg whites to firm peak stage, do the rubbing test when the whites just reach soft peak stage. If very gritty, reduce the whisking speed (maybe switch to manual) to give the sugar more time to dissolve completely. Even if it doesn't, you have to stop whisking at the firm peak stage or your cake won't rise well. You should then eat the cake before it turns soggy. Next time you whisk egg whites, add the sugar a bit earlier (but not too early).

alen said...

I have tried this recipe for 2 times and it turned out hubby loves it so much..thanks for the tips...God bless you more!

Ponn oliver said...

Love your recipes KT! Tried the big mould pcc, turned out to be a success. Will sttempt cupcake's version now.
What are the chances they will rise when using those paper cupcake liners on cupcake tray as opposed to using cardboard ones?

KT said...

The chances are low if you use pandan leaves. If you use pandan essence or artificial food colouring, the odds are better.

Ponn Oliver said...

Thanks for your input. I guess cardboard moulds are a must buy in this case.

MF said...

I can't find bread flour. Can I take normal plain flour instead?

Kamal said...

Hi KT, I made OCC today ... taste great ... texture' good.. however when took it out of oven & inverted it... it de-moulded by itself & became flat... pls find some photos attached... could you tell me the reason for this de moulding? (sorry for the inverted photos...for some reason all efforts to correct the view failed)

KT said...

I have uploaded one of your photos right way up. Moral of the story: try harder.

cg said...

Hello, I am very amazed with how nice your cake looks. Perfect surface and so unbelieavable. My cake always turns out like hill on the surface. :( Any secrets?

KT said...

Do you think there are secrets to something millions of people can do?

Marina said...

Can I double the recipe to make a larger cake? If so how much longer should I bake it? I made it once and it absolutely wonderfull:soft, texture, taste ..fantastic.

Mel said...

I have watched your videos umpteenth times and was amazed how great jobs you have done on your castella cake. The cake texture so perfect!

KT said...

Probably another 5-15 minutes. Use the visual cues detailed in the recipe.

Risliana Dewi said...

hi KT, I wonder is it possible to change the pandan juice with milk and cream cheese? I want to make a cheese soufle cupcake, any method you can suggest me? Thank you

KT said...

Dear Risliana Dewi, of course it is possible.

Bernie said...

It was such a pleasure to watch you put your cake together. You clearly have a feel for when things come together. Thanks for sharing!

Vivianne said...

I decided to try this recipe. I was very puzzled by the fact that you don t use butter in your cake. Haven t you even seen the movie (about cooking) Julie and Julia with Meryl Streep? My friends say that this cake may look good but the flavour may dissapoint me. I hope i prove them wrong. I also enjoy the remarks on air bubbles. (In chemical engineering (cosmetics-or food industry) air bubbles are not allowed.) As i am waiting for your cake, i am listening to Dinah Washington "mad about the boy" or mad about your cake? :)

Vivianne said...

Today i had good and bad critics about the cake. It is true that it has the texture of sea sponges. So that is someting special and original. The negative part is that we use many eggs (so it is not appropriate for people who are not allowed to eat many eggs) I also think it smells like eggs. Some cakes smell like vanilla,cocoa, yogurt, lemon - orange zest... according to the materials that we use. Since it s a Japanese cake, maybe we Europeans are not familiar to this flavour. I have to experiment with it and decide. Is seems to be an omelette cake!

KT said...

You omitted the honey or no one could taste it?

Vivianne said...

Of course I used the honey, I don t think that it covers the smell of the eggs. The cake s total gramms are 305. The eggs are 145g. So 47% (per cent) of this cake is eggs. Maybe it is not supposed to be a sweet cake. Like quiche laurraine ( tartes that are not sweet) Maybe you discovered a different kind of cake category.

KT said...

How can a cake that's about 25% sugar and 0% salt taste like quiche that has no sugar at all and is salty?

As for your smell of eggs, that comes from the sulphur in egg whites. Fresh whites have less sulphur; stale ones have more.

Vivianne said...

Today i decided to change the recipe. I only used 3 eggs,normal baking
flower. I also decided to use small muffin pan. At the first
experiment i put cheese (regato kerrygold-grated-shredded). The second
contained cheese and ground pepper. The third contained cheese and
fouantre turkey. They tasted better than the original recipe. Especially those with the black pepper.... They had perfume from the pepper and not the scent of eggs.

marian said...

A semi success. :) tried using smaller cups and it got slightly burnt. Nonetheless, still good. Will be making it again, so tt I can get something as awesome as yours. :)

Victoria said...

i have tried this, but instead of buttermilk i have used soy milk because i have problems with lactose. and it worked. it was erfect, very tasty and really easy to do ! great recipe :)

June chan said...

Hi kt, this is my 2nd attempt on your honey castella cake. Instead of using your corrugated card method I used Wilton's bake even stripes to create the same effect. Your recipe taste is ok but the texture was a bit "elastic" that's the comments I got from my colleagues. So, this time round I changed your recipe by mixing cake flour n bread flour together n the texture is not as elastic as the first one.

KT said...

Hi June, how much egg white did you use?

Alisa said...

Hi kt! Baked today sponge cake, honey aroma - super!!! But why he cringed a little at cooling? 've inverted, as you said, but he himself withdrew from the walls of the mould?

KT said...

Hi Alisa, did you use a pan that's not non-stick? Did you weigh the ingredients, correctly? Did you insulate the pan? Did you use an oven thermometer?

Alisa said...

Hi KT. The form is not non-stick, and I did not treated. temperature the oven to 160 C. Took a double portion - but protein eggs, 200 gr, and yolks of eggs 100 g (got it from 5 eggs). Can flour is not so? Or add in flour even potato starch?

Dana Tučková said...

hi what doe´s it mean BREAD flour, It is really flour for baking of bread?

KT said...

You changed the recipe and then ask me why your cake didn't turn out like mine.


Vivianne said...

KT. I like you when you are strict and methodical. But don t be impolite to people who try your recipies and are interested in your blog. Cool down. Unless you are a professional pâtissier. Apart from that, some of your readers may be very young at age and will not follow the instructions accuretaly. They do it for fun and because they find something in you and in your recipies. Don t make them dislike you. You are smarter than that. We are not here to fight, we are here to cook and eat. Explosions are not allowed in the kitchen.

Debbie McDougall said...

Hi there

Does anyone know how many actully eggs you have to use for the pineapple coconut ogura cake. It does not say
Thank you

Rina Lin said...

Could someone tell me the measurements for the egg whites and egg yolks? Apparently in our country we don't use the same measuring system...

Lilis Chandra said...

Hi KT.. Are you using duck egg? I see your yolks is red rather than yellow.

Lizchan said...

Hi KT.. I use oven thermometer and preheat oven to 170. The thermometer shows exactly 170. But when I open the door and put in the pan.the thermometer drop to 150 or 140 like that. Then through out the whole process the meter never rise back to 170. Is it the same thing with yours? Should I increase the heat? Is it because of the heat so my cake rise up high while in the oven and deflate half once out.especially the sides it shrinks lot as compared to the middle part.please kindly advise. Thanks

KT said...

Did you put a tray of water in the bottom of the oven?

Lizchan said...

Yes. I follow the recipe. Put water in the baking sheet at the bottom and pan in the middle rack. I put in the water together with the pan. Is that right?

Lizchan said...

May I know how your thermometer works? Mine drop even when I bake non water bath recipe like chiffon. Once open the door temperature drops and rise very slow but never reach back to the degrees when preheated. My thermometer is like this...

KT said...

What was the temperature your oven preheated to when you baked your chiffon cake? What did the temperature drop to after you put the cake in the oven?

Lizchan said...

When baking chiffon I preheated 180. Thermometer shows 170 like that. Then when put the pan in the thermometer drops to 140 or 150. When the cake cracks, i cover the pan with aluminum foil sometimes cover with baking sheet. The temperature drops even lower to 130. My chiffon never fluffy like yours. *sigh

I didn't take a picture of Ogura. will make again and show you. If you do not mind.


KT said...

The drop in the temperature for the chiffon cake, to 140-150C, sounds about right. For the Ogura cake, the drop should be more, to about 110C, if there was an additional tray of water. Was there? I'm guessing there wasn't even though you say there was.

If you don't understand why a heated oven becomes cooler after the door is opened and room temperature stuff placed inside, you should go ask for a refund for your brain.

Amira said...

Can I use powdered glucose instead of liquid glucose? :)

BK said...

I don't understand....I tried 3 times but still failed, not only cake shrunk and collapsed completely after removed from baking tray. Whats happening?

Irene said...

Hi, any youtube video to share about this chocolate tart?

Thanks in advance

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