I'm tired of eating faux-souffle.
June 26, 2009 9:47 PM   Subscribe

I've made four cakes, and two of them have fallen. Enough with all the plates of beans -- please help me overthink (and correct) my cakes.

I'm pretty sure the problem has to do with the fact that I'm not following the recipes. I don't want to make anything as huge as a two-layer 9'' cake (but I also get a kick out of making two-layer cakes). So, I've been halving cake recipes and using two 6'' cake pans. The packaging for my 6'' pans said to cook them at 350 for 25-30 minutes.

The first time I did this (using this recipe), it turned out beautifully. The second time, one of them had fallen by the 25-minute mark, and the other fell immediately upon me testing it with a toothpick. The toothpick came out with stuff on it, so it didn't seem overcooked. The third time (using this recipe), both of them looked really iffy at 25-minutes, but I couldn't tell what was going on with them, and they fell right before my eyes as I tested them with the toothpick.

I'm growing very angry at my toothpicks!

Here are some factors I'm pretty sure I'm not getting wrong:
* Freshness of ingredients. I checked all of their expiration dates, especially the baking soda and baking powder. All of them are good.
* Ratio of ingredients. I've been very careful, measuring. I've read that even halving a baking recipe can lead to disaster because of the chemistry-magic involved... But, really? Is it that disastrous an idea?
* Altitude. My town's elevation is 1,117 Ft. That's pretty normal, isn't it?

Here are some factors I'm pretty willing to blame:
* Those stupid toothpicks. Am I testing for doneness too early? I know you can also test by putting your hand on it and so on, but so long as the batter isn't wiggly anymore, I don't really understand what to look for. I also worry that I'm opening the oven too early into the cooking process, but I can't see into the oven too well without doing so.
* Recipe-to-pan ratio. Yeah, 6 is not half of 9. But it worked the first time I tried it, so I figured it was okay. Was I just really lucky the first time?
* Oven temperature and cook time. I am having a lot of trouble finding any understandable guide about how to alter temp and cook times for cakes. I've read that oven temperature should stay the same, is that true? I would assume that, given less batter and smaller pans, I would have to cook the cake for less time.. But, this last time, the recipe called for a 350 degree oven for 25-30 minutes and even mentioned that you should check early, but my smaller cakes fell after cooking for 25 minutes at 350! And they came out all gooey, so it's not like they were overcooked. Yes, I make sure the oven's preheated (but maybe I shouldn't trust it's thermometer?).

My main suspicion is on the baking time and temperature, but I just have no clue how to correct it.

So, any advice? Am I just an idiot for trying to alter recipes? Am I making any other obvious mistakes, from what I've said? Is there a good way to ensure you cook a cake properly, when you're altering the size of the recipe?

Thanks for any help you can offer. I really enjoyed making the two cakes the came out well, and I loved seeing people enjoy these confections of my own making. The fallen cakes have really left me feeling frustrated and let down by my own lack of baking skills.

Oh, and the recipes really are delicious, even when they fell for me. I'd recommend them, definitely.
posted by Ms. Saint to Food & Drink (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
But, really? Is it that disastrous an idea?

Yes, as you have discovered. Baking is chemistry. Altering recipes can be perilous, because the ingredients don't always scale. And when you alter ingredient amounts and the recommended pan size, you are begging for trouble.

You can get away with a lot of handwaving fakery in regular cooking (didn't saute the onions in precisely two TB of olive oil? Not a big deal) that you just. can't. in baking.

Try following the cake recipe(s) a few times to the letter, and see the difference. And you might want to check Harold McGee's sections on baking or leavening in his book On Food and Cooking.
posted by rtha at 10:18 PM on June 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Baking really is an exact science. If you want to scale down cake recipes, you'd be better off preparing the recipe as is and just using some of the batter. Wasteful, yes, but at least the ingredient proportions will be correct. Or bake and freeze the extra layers.

As far as timing goes, opening the oven door too soon can definitely cause cakes to fall. It's not the toothpick, it's the change in temperature caused by cooler air coming in. One way to avoid opening the door too soon is to wait until you can actually smell the cake. That's one sign of doneness.

Other random tips:
make sure all ingredients are at room temperature
don't overmix or undermix the batter
don't overfill the pans (halfway full is about right).

Good luck!
posted by Majorita at 10:50 PM on June 26, 2009

Yep, baking is chemistry.

Definitely get an in-the-oven thermometer, and see whether 350F on the dial equals 350F inside.

Also see if you can get hold of a baking book that uses weights, not volume measurements. (Order a non-US edition if you have to.) Definitely get a nice set of scales -- one with a 'tare' button so you can weigh your containers. Even if you're using US recipes that call for cups, you can then check that your cup of AP flour is 125g (grams are good! really!) because you can be +/- 25g depending on how packed it is.

(You can get away with rough and ready cup measurements, more or less, with something like cornbread where the meal is pretty hard and the volume/weight thing stays fairly consistent, but not flour. But as an expat limey, I'm just not going to trust cup-based recipes when wheat flour is involved.)
posted by holgate at 11:35 PM on June 26, 2009

While you're right, and 6 is not 1/2*9, two 6" layers is approximately equal to 1 9" layer (let's use the formula for the area of a circle, 2*pi*r^2: 2*(2*pi*(3^2)) ~ 2*pi*(4.5^2)). It's just a bit less, in fact. So if you're trying to make layers that are 2 inches tall (for example), leave just a tiny bit of the batter out when you halve a recipe for 2 9" layers and split it into two 6" pans.

My guess is that you're actually overbaking the cakes, and that's why they're falling. Every time I let a cake go just a minute or two too long, they fall, and I wind up with super-dense, though delicious, cakes.

However, I would guess that your oven's thermostat is off. Plus, you lose heat each time you open the oven. If you expect to need to bake at 350 for 25 minutes, I'd recommend setting the oven for 375. Once preheated, put the cakes in the oven and immediately turn the heat down to 350. Set the timer for 15 minutes, and do not open the oven until the timer goes off. When it does, rotate each pan 180 degrees, and switch their places. Then, bake for another 8 minutes or so without opening the oven.

Also, ignore what the cake pans say, and pay attention to what the cake recipe says. If you're using a recipe written for a 9" pan but switching to a 6" pan, reduce the time by ~5-8 minutes. When you stab the cake with a toothpick, don't hit the center; instead, go for a spot about halfway between the edge of the pan and the absolute center. Cakes will continue to cook once they're out of the oven, so as long as they don't look jiggly you really don't have to worry about them being underdone.
posted by amelioration at 11:40 PM on June 26, 2009

This is only skimming the recipes, not actually making them, but #2 sounds like it has a lot of liquid/fat in it compared to the amount of flour. That's just a gut reaction. Also, now I'm craving cake in the middle of the night.
posted by gimonca at 12:36 AM on June 27, 2009

Baking really is an exact science. If you want to scale down cake recipes, you'd be better off preparing the recipe as is and just using some of the batter.

Or use a calculator.

Also, yeah, throw out any baking recipes that give you measurements by volume. Measuring by weight is far more precise and far less prone to error. I am a useless baker, and even I can make flawless cakes now using weight (metric, please) based recipes.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 2:25 AM on June 27, 2009

Former pastry chef here.

Everyone is right. Baking is chemistry. Don't mess around with ratios, whatever you do. And seriously, get a cookbook with weights instead of cups and teaspoons. It makes a huge difference. You may have to get a professional book, but you'll be happy with the results. The Culinary Institute of America has lots of great books available on Amazon. The Professional Baking book by the CIA does have a conversion formula that works.

Check your oven temperature, for sure. Some ovens vary as much as 25 degrees.
posted by cooker girl at 2:42 AM on June 27, 2009

Cakes are indeed sensitive to small changes in some ingredients, but don't feel that you can't play around with them. I've never had a problem scaling cake recipes, so long as I'm precise about my measurements. Nthing that a nice digital scale makes scaling a lot easier than volumetric measurements.

Beyond that, I'd try some recipes that are more thoroughly road-tested. Take a look at epicurious or allrecipies -- sites that have starred ratings from many users. If a recipe doesn't have at least 4 1/2 out of 5 stars, pick another to learn with. Bon Appetit is usually pretty good, but typos happen. Foodblogs often post recipes that are unreliable or poorly explained, and then get a lot of enthusiastic comments like "ooh, that looks great!" from people who haven't actually tried the recipe.

Finally, the cake section of Shirley Corriher's CookWise suggests that cakes usually fall when they have too much baking powder or baking soda - the bubbles "get too big, run into each other, float to the top, and --pop-- there goes the leavening." She also mentions, as a rule of thumb, that typical ratios are 1 to 1.25 teaspoons of baking powder per cup of flour, or 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda per cup of flour. The first recipe you tried has three times that much baking soda, and the second recipe has both soda and powder that, together, should be enough to leaven twice as much flour as the cake actually has. I'm thinking that these recipes are both pushing the envelope of appropriate ratios, and so are especially unforgiving.
posted by jon1270 at 3:54 AM on June 27, 2009

Smitten Kitchen recommends baking at a lower temp for longer to prevent rounding of layers (300 instead of 350). I'd try that before junking the recipe --- maybe with the smaller pans they're just rising too fast.

But I'm more of a cook than a baker, and willing to try the baking equivalent of banging on the side of the box a couple times before digging out the manual and a set of allen wrenches. Getting an oven thermometer would probably help, too, you may easily be off without knowing it.
posted by Diablevert at 6:58 AM on June 27, 2009

You might be interested in checking out The Cake Bible from your local library. The author, Rose Levy Beranbaum, goes into great detail regarding falling cakes and preventing them. Two of the major culprits, as you correctly pinpointed, are oven temperature and baking time. A third is pan size.

You might also consider baking one nine-inch cake and splitting it in half horizontally to make a layer cake. Beranbaum's book has great instructions on how to do this as well.

You can really learn a lot from this book - it's well-written; her tips, recipes, and instructions are clear; and the cakes I've tried from it always come out very well. Plus, she tells some good stories about cakes gone wrong!
posted by k8lin at 8:42 AM on June 27, 2009

Or bake and freeze the extra layers.

This is a super fabulous suggestion. Please do that. Then you can have cake twice, with the effort of once!
Even thought this may not help with these specific recipes, as a resourse this book is fabulous. As mentioned above, it's all about how to measure things accurately by weight and then how to adjust them based on solid ratios. My husband and I cannot recommend it enough.
posted by purpletangerine at 1:17 PM on June 27, 2009

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