Baking Basics

By Melanie Gold

Some of our favorite holiday food memories come hot out of the oven. Maybe your favorite is the smell of pumpkin bread or still-warm oatmeal-raisin cookies, or maybe it’s the sight of a beautifully decorated cake, rosettes and all. Baking can be a tricky business, more akin to a science experiment than cooking. We tracked down three of the region’s eminent bakers, each with decades of professional experience, to help demystify some of the alchemy in baking. Join me for a discussion with Robert H. Erdrossy of Emmaus Bakery, Colleen Laky of Piece ’a Cake in Macungie, and Maria Nunley of Maria Bella Sweets in Bath.

What does it mean to “dirty ice” a cake?

Colleen Laky: I think you mean the “crumb coating.” The crumb coating is the first, thinner layer of frosting that you put on a cake to hide the crumbs. [Crumb coating is used for both traditionally frosted and fondant-covered cakes.] Think of chocolate cake crumbs showing through white frosting—it can look nasty, which is why I hide all the cakes with just a crumb coating at the back of my refrigerator!

Robert H. Erdrossy: The term “dirty icing” has gained popularity in recent years because of the TV shows “Cake Boss, Cake Wars” and others like it on TLC.

Is it really necessary to sift flour?

Maria Nunley: Yes, sifting flour is a must . . . for cake, though; not so much for bread. Sifting will evenly distribute the baking soda and/or baking powder into the flour and it causes aeration in the cake—this is especially true for pound cake—which creates a nice, fine texture. Don’t skip this step. [Aerate flour through a flour sifter, sieve, or wire mesh pasta colander. In a pinch, combine your dry ingredients in a bowl and aerate with a wire whisk, fork, or slotted spoon.]

What is fondant and is it easy for the novice cake decorator to use?

RHE: Fondant is an icing-like substance used to cover cakes that have been dirty-iced and is mainly used on wedding cakes or higher-end cakes. As with anything, with proper practice and trial and error, I feel a novice cake decorator can use it.

What is the difference between all-purpose, cake, and pastry flour, and does it really matter which one is used?

CL: There are different kinds of flours, and the difference has to do with the milling process. All-purpose flour will have a yellowish color to it, and a coarser grind. Cake flour has a finer texture to it. However, baking is a science, and the flour listed in a recipe is the one you should use. Substituting can get you in trouble.

RHE: It matters which you use depending on what you are making. Cake flour will yield lighter airier products than all-purpose flour.

Why does a cake sometimes sink in the middle?

MN: First, the temperature could be wrong. As a cake bakes, the sugar melts as the eggs, flour, and other ingredients coagulate. If the sugar melts too soon [if the temperature is too high], it sinks to the bottom of the pan. Also, when you open the oven door to check on the cake, the wide mouth of the oven causes a huge draft, which affects baking time and could cause sinking in the middle. And even a little shake of the oven, from the door being opened, can cause the cake to flatten.

How do you fix a sweet loaf (such as banana bread) that is hard on top but gooey in the middle?

RHE: Try turning down the temperature of the oven and let it bake longer.

What are the ingredients in butter cream, and how will I know I’m getting the real thing?

CL: Most of the frosting you see out there [“American butter cream”] is made of shortening and confectioner’s sugar. Real buttercream’s main ingredient is, of course, butter. There are different kinds of buttercream, and many bakeries don’t make their own frosting. I do, particularly Swiss meringue, which has egg whites, sugar, and butter. Real buttercream has a slightly yellowish tint to it and will not develop a dry crust shortly after being exposed to the air.

Why does bread require multiple risings?

MN: Bread should have three risings, to allow the yeast to mature and develop a good flavor. Bakeries that mass-produce their bread double the yeast and add a lot of sugar and fat to the recipe. I use a starter that rests overnight before I use it. You can’t rush yeast!

What basic ingredients should a home baker have in the pantry?

RHE: Sugar, flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt.

Why do I need both baking powder and baking soda?

CL: Both baking powder and baking soda are leaveners, which make the cake rise—you don’t want a pancake. Not every recipe will call for baking powder and/or baking soda. [Baking soda is activated by an acidic ingredient, such as vinegar, yogurt, or honey. Baking powder contains baking soda and cream of tartar.]

Do you have a favorite baking cookbook, and what makes it your favorite?

MN: For the home baker, I’d recommend The Joy of Cooking, even for baking, though there is a lot of terminology used and therefore a lot of reading. Anything by Nick Malgieri is good. I particularly like his Great Italian Desserts, but unfortunately that book is out of print.

Should eggs be at room temperature before using them for baking?

RHE: Most of us use eggs right from the refrigerator, but actually they should be used at room temperature or actually warmer than room temperature. To do this remove eggs from the refrigerator and place in a bowl of warm water until you have combined the other ingredients.

How do bakers get fruit and berry tarts to glisten for display?

CL: They are sprayed with a food glaze; the sprayer looks like an air brush. It keeps the fruit and berries from drying out, which happens quickly when they’re exposed to the air.

What formula should customers use for figuring out what size cake to purchase?

RHE: This can be tricky. First you need to decide on the size of the pieces that you are going to want to serve. Then how many layers you want. Do you want a square cake or a round cake? What kind of guests are going to be at the party; 25 offensive lineman or 15 five-year-olds? That will help to determine the size portions that you want to serve.

Melanie Gold is a writer, cookbook editor, and amateur baker with more than 200 hours of hands-on professional pastry instruction.

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