Cake Disaster
December 20, 2005 9:40 AM   Subscribe

Are you an expert cake baker who can tell me why my cakes are exploding?

I frequently make my husband's favorite pound cake for him. In the past this cake has sometimes bubbled over a bit during the baking, but yesterday and again today the cake came out an inedible mess. About half the cake ended up on the bottom of the oven and what is left in the bundt pan after 75 minutes of baking is still liquid. I have a brand new box of baking soda and I recently switched to artificial vanilla, but other than that everything is the same (same flour, same mixer, same oven, same pan, etc.) After yesterday's fiasco I thought maybe I overmixed, but the result today was exactly the same. Here is the recipe:
1 1/2 C of butter
3 C sugar
5 eggs
1 C buttermilk
1 TB Vanilla
3 C flour
1/2 tsp each of salt, baking soda and baking powder
Cream butter and suger. Beat in eggs one at a time. Add in half the flour, the buttermilk and vanilla, and then remaining flour. Pour into greased and floured bundt pan and bake at 325 for 75 minutes.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy to Food & Drink (25 answers total)
 
Maybe your oven has started running considerably hotter than usual....
posted by TheLibrarian at 9:59 AM on December 20, 2005


Secret Life of Gravy, I'm intrigued that the recipe calls for both baking soda and baking powder. Most cake recipes I've made--me being a good amateur baker but not a professional--call for one or the other.

Baking powder is normally made from one part acid, one part base and one part filler. The base is often baking soda. Now when you mix the base (which you have a double whammy of, with the powder and the soda in the recipe) with an acid--your buttermilk--the batter will start bubbling from the chemical reaction.

Since you say this bubbling is a problem, I wonder if you don't have too much an acid-base reaction going on the mix. My suggestion would be to tweak the recipe by getting rid of the baking powder. The quantity of baking soda I saw for the buttermilk cake recipes I saw ranged from 1/4 to 1/2 tsp., so I think you would be on safe ground here, but feel free to look at the recipes yourself.

Now if the baking powder and soda combo is not the culprit--but really your disaster sounds so bizarre to be anything but--I'd also check to make sure that

* Your oven temp is accurate
* You are not overbeating the butter
* You are using the appropriate pan size for the recipe--that is, you're not trying to get 12 cups of batter into a 10-cup pan or something

Also, a tip: After you measure out your flour, add the salt and soda and whisk to combine. This help ensures that the salt leavener will be evenly distributed in the batter.

(I can remember making biscuits as a kid and every now and then biting into one that tasted like metal. The problem was the leavener was clumped up and mixed evenly through the batter.)

Good luck. Sounds like a mess to clean up!
posted by Sully6 at 10:04 AM on December 20, 2005


Oh, pooh, to be clear:

After you've measured the flour into a bowl, add the salt and soda and whisk to combine.
posted by Sully6 at 10:06 AM on December 20, 2005


Also, the reason this may be a problem now and not before is that you have new baking soda. Baking soda and powder lose their punch with age; perhaps the recipe worked in the past because your baking soda was old and thus weaker.
posted by Sully6 at 10:09 AM on December 20, 2005


Sully6, both baking soda and baking powder are used because the recipe calls for buttermilk, which is acidic - the baking soda neutralizes that. I've seen lots of recipes that have acidic ingredients (usually buttermilk, sometimes lemon juice) call for both powder & soda if the soda alone isn't enough leavening.

Also, the amounts of soda & powder seem normal - the old vs new soda hypothesis is possible I suppose, but I personally doubt it. I've never seen any differences between new soda & old soda when I've baked (or at least the last time I bought a box of baking soda a year or so ago).

As for why your cake is a mess, I dunno.

Did you mismeasure something? Bundt cakes usually rise quite a bit, but coming right out of the pan... that's unusual. You didn't use the wrong measuring cup or something? Sounds like too much liquid. Maybe you bought larger eggs?

Also, maybe your new soda is bad or something. Try mixing some with vinegar in a bowl - if there isn't a strong reaction then it's too weak. Could be too weak soda instead of too strong. I keep my soda in an air-tight jar, but you could have got a bad box.
posted by GuyZero at 10:28 AM on December 20, 2005


If this is still a mystery at the end of the day, send me an email and I can put you in touch with my mother - part of her job is, basically, solving baking mysteries like yours.
posted by whatzit at 10:38 AM on December 20, 2005


Yup, I think it's the new baking soda; the explosive combination of baking soda + acid (buttermilk) makes bubbles to lighten the cake. Try using less. I'd love to hear what Ahatzit's Mom has to say.
posted by theora55 at 10:54 AM on December 20, 2005


GuyZero is right, I think. I second halving the baking soda. It sounds like there's too much carbon dioxide being produced too early. If you find the resulting cake is too heavy, try upping the baking powder slightly (1/4 t or 1/2t amounts).
posted by bonehead at 10:58 AM on December 20, 2005


GuyZero, I get that baking soda interacts with buttermilk to neutralize it. But that's flavorwise, and doesn't mean that too much baking soda--in both its pure form and the soda in baking powder--can't be behind Gravy's cake trouble.

For someone's cake to bubble and explode, as Gravy's has, there is something wrong with its chemical composition. I've heard of undercooked cakes, peaked cakes, cakes that sank, cakes that fell apart--but to explode in the oven? I doubt it's her technique; there is something wrong with the ingredients.

Now if you looked at the buttermilk pound cake recipes I linked to--of which I read maybe the first 15 or so--you'll see that with two (I believe) exceptions all the recipes call for between 1/4 and 1/2 tsp. of baking soda with no addition of baking powder. The quantities of butter and buttermilk are all similar to what Gravy is using, so I have to think it would be safe gamble to try making the recipe without the powder.

As for issues with older baking soda and powder: Yes, you're absolutely right that if you keep your baking soda in an airtight cannister in a cool, dry place, it should last indefinitely. However, I think most people probably leave it in the box it came in, in which case it does lose its efficacy. Baking powder deteriorates over time, as moisture overpowers the drying agent and forces carbon dioxide to be released.

The Straight Dope has more on this, if you're so inclined. This bit seemed relevant:

"Why do some recipes call for baking soda while others require baking powder? That's governed by the other ingredients in the recipe. Since baking powder contains an acid and a base, it has an overall neutral effect in terms of taste. Hence, recipes that call for baking powder often call for milk as well, which is also neutral. By contrast, baking soda is purely basic and as such, gives a bitter taste unless it can be neutralized by the acidity of another ingredient. Usually, the other ingredient is buttermilk or yogurt, and the two produce a balanced taste. I don't know any recipes that call for both baking soda and baking powder and can only speculate that they need great leavening power but have delicate flavors."
posted by Sully6 at 11:03 AM on December 20, 2005


Sully6, I think we're on the same page here. Eyeballing the recipe, it looked OK to me. But you're right that a 1/2 tsp of baking powder or soda can certainly make a difference.

My reading of the post was the the cake didn't exactly explode but that it just seriously overflowed the cake pan. I agree that it's not her technique - not even I could cream butter that badly. :)

I'll stand by using both powder and soda in the recipe, assuming that she's made the recipe before and it worked (which is what she seems to imply). Freshness of the soda is a definite possibility. Twice-in-a-row mismeasurement isn't out of the running though - I have done worse in my "career" baking.
posted by GuyZero at 11:14 AM on December 20, 2005


Maybe your oven has started running considerably hotter than usual....

I don't think so, I just made biscuits yesterday and they came out fine.

* You are not overbeating the butter
* You are using the appropriate pan size for the recipe--that is, you're not trying to get 12 cups of batter into a 10-cup pan or something


The bundt pan is the same one I've always used, so that isn't the culprit and if anything the butter was underbeaten rather than over. My kitchen is considerably colder in the winter and room temp butter (I always start with room temp butter and eggs) is therefore a lot harder. The recipe calls for beating the butter and sugar "until fluffy" but I didn't quite achieve fluffiness.

Also, a tip: After you measure out your flour, add the salt and soda and whisk to combine. This help ensures that the salt leavener will be evenly distributed in the batter.

This is something I do as a rule.


Did you mismeasure something? Bundt cakes usually rise quite a bit, but coming right out of the pan... that's unusual. You didn't use the wrong measuring cup or something? Sounds like too much liquid. Maybe you bought larger eggs?
I was very careful with the measurements-- especially the second time around and there isn't too much room for error. I used my one cup dry measuring cup for the flour and sugar and my one cup liquid measuring cup for the buttermilk. And I definitely used the 1/2 teaspoon for the leavenings. And the eggs are the same ones I've always bought, Grade Large.

Also, maybe your new soda is bad or something. Try mixing some with vinegar in a bowl - if there isn't a strong reaction then it's too weak
Just tested the new baking soda and got a strong reaction. Actually, I haven't tossed out the old box yet, I might just try using that, but I'm almost reluctant to try anything. I've already used up 1 1/2 lbs of butter and at $5.00 a pound, that is an expensive mess.

Unfortunately the cake is not merely half gone, it is inedible. It is more like spoon bread or pudding cake-- very soft and gooey. My husband will not eat this.

If this is still a mystery at the end of the day, send me an email and I can put you in touch with my mother - part of her job is, basically, solving baking mysteries like yours.

I think I would rather consult a professional before trying again. Husband Dave will just have to eat candy.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 11:22 AM on December 20, 2005


If whatzit's mother manages to solve your mystery, please come back to update us all with the solution.

Also, where the heck do you buy butter? $5/lb? US dollars? Wow. I pay, like, $4 CDN, tops. Assuming that the 2-cup blocks of butter I buy weight a pound. Though I sympathize with you for the loss of sweet, sweet butter, regardless of how much you paid for it.
posted by GuyZero at 11:28 AM on December 20, 2005


Husband Dave will just have to eat candy
This is an emergency. I'll try to post a response from her tonight, maybe tomorrow morning (it's Christmas, so you can imagine this is a pretty hosing time of year at work for her.)
posted by whatzit at 11:30 AM on December 20, 2005


My reading of the post was the the cake didn't exactly explode but that it just seriously overflowed the cake pan.

Yes, sorry for the exaggeration. Think volcano rather than bomb. Half the batter is on the floor of the oven but there is none on the sides.

I'll stand by using both powder and soda in the recipe, assuming that she's made the recipe before and it worked (which is what she seems to imply).

That is what has me so confused. I would guess that I have made this cake 10 times before-- My husband loves this cake and normally takes a slice with him to work every night. And the only difference that I can tell is that new box of baking soda. I'm really tempted to try again with 1/4 tsp of baking soda and maybe one less egg, but I'm afraid to monkey around too much with the recipe. When it works it is a glorious cake! Very nice crumb on the inside and a crunchy outside.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 11:32 AM on December 20, 2005


Did you recently move to a higher elevation?
posted by Pollomacho at 11:55 AM on December 20, 2005


Did you recently move to a higher elevation?

No. But thanks for making me laugh.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 12:16 PM on December 20, 2005


That is what has me so confused. I would guess that I have made this cake 10 times before-- My husband loves this cake and normally takes a slice with him to work every night. And the only difference that I can tell is that new box of baking soda.

I really do think that the issue could be that the other cakes were baked with older baking soda, which was weaker and thus did not result in a mess. (Unless, of course, you're keeping your soda in an airtight canister, as GuyZero does.) So now you bake a new cake with new soda and kasplat! (Incidentally, the majority of leavening from this recipe comes from the baking soda, since it's is four times as powerful as baking powder.)

I hope you'll post a follow-up. If whatizit's mom isn't able to help in time, you may want to try these two forums: Cake Central and eGullet.

Also, if you are going to tweak and reattempt the recipe based on the advice of this forum, I would not decrease the baking soda but eliminate the baking powder out of consideration for flavor and the need for leavening. That Straight Dope article, again:

"Since baking powder contains an acid and a base, it has an overall neutral effect in terms of taste. Hence, recipes that call for baking powder often call for milk as well, which is also neutral. By contrast, baking soda is purely basic and as such, gives a bitter taste unless it can be neutralized by the acidity of another ingredient. Usually, the other ingredient is buttermilk or yogurt, and the two produce a balanced taste."
posted by Sully6 at 12:18 PM on December 20, 2005


And, purely out of assistance to a fellow AskMe member, I would try this recipe myself had I not used up all the sugar and butter in the house making cookies all weekend. But in the name of science, I would bake this cake.
posted by GuyZero at 12:49 PM on December 20, 2005


Ooooh, GuyZero, how about a Mefi virtual cakewalk? We could host it at Flickr, like this cupcake one.

(I once baked a chocolate cake that I then carved in the shape of a pig, filled with ganache and frosted with strawberry whipped cream. Sadly, I don't think there are any photos extant.)
posted by Sully6 at 1:36 PM on December 20, 2005


I baked a cake once, and right before adding the baking powder, I noticed that the flour had baking powder mixed in it. Can you check your flour (or use a different brand)?
posted by Arthur Dent at 1:44 PM on December 20, 2005


Ah, self-rising flour. My recipe nemesis... until I figured out it was just flour and baking powder, yeah.

As for a virtual cakewalk, like I said, we're cookie'd up chez Zero. We had a cookie exchange yesterday so there are several dozen cookies of about 10 varieties at home. Perhaps I should take pictures for posterity.
posted by GuyZero at 1:55 PM on December 20, 2005


Can you check your flour (or use a different brand)?

Oh my goodness. You have solved the mystery of the volcano cake. Ugh. The store had sold out of my regular flour (Red Mill, I think it is called) and I just grabbed the White Lily right next to it, "The Light Flour," which I have used before in a pinch. But while I saw the word "unbleached" my eyes didn't register "self-rising."

I wish I had come to AskMe the first time disaster struck. As it is I only have 4 eggs left so Dave will have to eat candy tonight. But tomorrow I will make a grocery run and then Dave can have his little slice of heaven.

Thank you all so much for your assistance.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 4:35 PM on December 20, 2005


Argh. I'm glad you solved your mystery, but I'm just a little too late. Your answer is in here though:

I have come back with... an indefinite answer, but one that concurs with others here. She doesn't know this specific recipe, but pointed out that the most likely causes are overbeating and the new baking soda.

The first impression she had was that the cause of the "explosion" was overbeating, even though it happened twice, because it can happen. Underbeating would tend to make the cake collapse rather than liquefy/explode.

The new baking soda was the second most likely culprit, in her opinion and from this data - baking soda does indeed lose its leavening "oomph," and if you had previously always made this with old baking soda, the new box might just provide too much leavening.

She also wants to add the reminder that even if something changed, it doesn't have to be because you changed something. A change in brand or change of formula within a brand can have significant effects. Even things you can't control for happen; as I'm on the phone with her she's telling me about how when chickens get stressed in the additional heat from the summer the eggs get thinner.

Also, as far as pound cakes, she adds that they have historically been about equal quantities of flour, fat, and eggs; the additional ingredients like leavning agents have only been added in recent baking history...
posted by whatzit at 9:17 PM on December 20, 2005


Thank your mother, whatzit, for her imput.

So I went to the store and got more eggs and Bob's Red Mill Flour and made my cake. It turned out perfect. Just like a picture only fantasically yummy. I just ate a slice and I wish I could magically send some out through the internets so you all could try.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 3:58 PM on December 21, 2005


Secret Life of Gravy, I'm a lonely grad student up the road from you -- you can magically send a piece to me sometime! (Or better yet, let's schedule a meet-up :-)
posted by fionab at 12:57 AM on December 22, 2005


« Older keyboard suggestions   |   Free, multi-user, community website Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.