Help me become the ace of cakes!
September 18, 2007 6:02 PM   Subscribe

I want to improve my very limited baking skills, primarily focusing on baking cakes. What are essential tools and how-to baking cookbooks?

I am an adventurous cook. Mostly I have avoided baking, due to lack of interest, and I've decided I want to improve my skills. What tools do I need, currently I have a stand mixer, but not much other baking tools, and have many cookbooks, but not focusing on how to bake. Some suggestions I have gotten are Nick Malgieri's baking books and also Baking with Julia.

The last time I made a cake was when I was a kid.
posted by hazyspring to Food & Drink (30 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Important other tools for bread: A couche (or a basket lined with a cloth that you've sprayed with oil and then floured); a clay baking dish or a dutch oven with a lid; a narrowish, tall rubbermaid type container that you can use for proofing.

For cakes: 3 identical heavy, round cake pans; a bundt pan; a silicone spatula; an offset spatula; some kind of turntable for decorating.

Trial and error is really important in learning baking, as one needs to develop an eye/hand for textural changes that indicate whether the dough is ready or the batter is mixed but not overmixed or the buttercream is about to break. Good books with recipes to try while learning these things are Rose Levy Berenbaum's Cake Bible (cakes) and Peter Reinhart's Bread Baker's Apprentice (breads).
posted by rxrfrx at 6:07 PM on September 18, 2007

Get the Baking with Julia. Lock yourself in the kitchen every weekend. You won't regret it.

Also, get good quality pans.
posted by Liosliath at 6:08 PM on September 18, 2007

Seconding, thirding, and fourthing The Cake Bible. It's an incredible book.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 6:08 PM on September 18, 2007

Response by poster: What would you consider a good quality pan and why?
posted by hazyspring at 6:16 PM on September 18, 2007

This is not cake-specific but it is flour specific. It's sort of a marketing tool, but I really like the King Arthur Flour Baker's Companion as a good intro to flours and baking generally. And, of course, the best way to learn is to be able to practice a lot so figure out some way to get rid of a lot of cake as part of a step towards baking more often.
posted by jessamyn at 6:26 PM on September 18, 2007

The Dessert Bible a) has a lot of good recipes, and b) talks a lot about how he came up with them.

The Boston Creme pie is a lot of work but really wows people. The Fallen Chocolate Cake is not so much work but really wows people.

I give it lots of stars/thumbs up.
posted by aubilenon at 6:36 PM on September 18, 2007

A nice, comprehensive baking blog here
posted by growabrain at 6:45 PM on September 18, 2007

Baking with Julia is a great book, get it.

As for pans, I am a big fan of restaurant supply store pans. Cheap, durable, and deep (2" is good). Those 1" deep nonstick Baker's Secret "cake pans" you get at Target are good for box cakes and that's about it.

Now if someone could just tell me how to make chocolate cake like Key's Cafe in Minneapolis...
posted by cabingirl at 7:00 PM on September 18, 2007

A few years ago, I set out on a journey to the local Barnes & Noble. My quest? The perfect chocolate cake recipe for my true love's birthday.

I looked at cake bibles, dessert cookbooks, all kinds of confectioned covers. Finally, after hours of searching for a recipe with just the right sound (moist, not fudgy, fine textured) -- in other words, one that fit _my_ requirements -- I found The Best Recipe. It's a general-purpose cookbook, but it had five, that's right, FIVE variations on chocolate cake, and it explained how the recipe for each was derived. It also explained, in lovely detail, how they arrived at their base recipe. The idea is that you'll learn to customize your own recipe.

This book also explains the difference between cake flour and all-purpose flour (and even bread flour), different types of buttery substances, why butter and sugar (often) get creamed together, how to add the liquid to the butter and sugar mixture, and the difference between baking powder and baking soda.

I recall several promising frosting recipes, also. I made one that consisted mainly of melted chocolate and cream that was exquisite.

It also contains similarly detailed accounts of the perfect pound cake, birthday cake (white), muffins (using yogurt to get the perfect texture), sugar cookies, rolled butter cookies, and French toast (using either squooshy white bread, French bread, or challah). I have also made incredible apple pie using their unusual recipe for pie crust.

The creme brulee worked out well, also.

It's amazing. It's a huge book, too. And they came out with a second edition recently.
posted by amtho at 7:03 PM on September 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

I really think you can't go wrong with The New Joy of Cooking. Its baking section is a thorough and excellent foundation. Lots of basic information that you can use to come up with your own recipes, advice on equipment, plenty of specific recipes and details about their texture and other attributes. I think the time to buy a baking-focused cookbook is when you've exhausted Joy. (Er, not to sound salacious...)
posted by wintersweet at 7:11 PM on September 18, 2007

The Cake Bible is often. You might also want to look at Shirley Corriher's Cookwise. She's got a chapter on cakes, and the book is focused on how and why you do things rather than just giving you recipes to follow. It's a tremendous resource. The cake section is relatively small, so it might be something you'd get from a library rather than a bookstore, but do check it out.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:17 PM on September 18, 2007

I think what you most need is practice. Unless you're doig something exotic you probably have the tools you need already. Silicone spatulas are really great, though. I second Cookwise for geeky understanding of why you're doing various things, Joy for all-around awesomeness (though I prefer the older edition), and I have a friend who likes Berenbaum's Bible though I haven't used it myself.

But really… practice. Make cakes frequently. Try different recipes, and repeat the ones you like. Pay attention to each one, how the recipe varies from others, and how that cake varies from other cakes you've made from the same recipe. After a while, go back and re-read all the cookbooks' cake sections: they'll make more sense now.
posted by hattifattener at 7:44 PM on September 18, 2007

I second Peter Reinhart's Bread Baker's Apprentice. My father and I both have the book and periodically we'll take a weekend where we each make a recipe from the book (we live across the country from each other) and let each other know how it went. It's like we're baking together. The book's easy to follow and enjoyable.
Try the Pain A'la Ancienne. You probably won't be disappointed.
posted by lilithim at 7:55 PM on September 18, 2007

Yeah, I would have to say practice. Get any of the baking books people have mentioned above, and just bake a cake for any occasion. I learned a few things the hard way, but I can now bake a mean red velvet cake, as well as anything else I want to try.

It's a lot of work, but it's fun.
posted by Medieval Maven at 8:00 PM on September 18, 2007

In the episode The Icing Man Cometh, Good Eats/Alton Brown gives a good primer on cake decorating.
posted by birdie birdington at 8:12 PM on September 18, 2007

Best answer: All of these books are great suggestions, especially The Cake Bible and any other baking book by Rose Levy Berenbaum. Baking with Julia runs a photo-finish second.

Some helpful equipment:

- A digital scale - Polder makes a decent quality one for around 25 to 30 bucks
- Measuring spoons
- Dry measuring cups
- A liquid measuring cup - too often people use a dry measuring cup for liquids
- An offset spatula for frosting and a flat spatula for removing cooled cakes from baking pans (get a few in different lengths for different tasks, if you get ambitious)
- Restaurant quality aluminum baking pans - you really don't need to buy the $30 pan with the air pocket in the bottom.
- parchment paper for lining your pans
- an oven thermometer - proper baking temperature makes for better final results
- A stand mixer or a good quality hand mixer
- Cardboard cake rounds for frosting, or a plastic cake stand

All of these tools should be available at your local cooking and bakeware store.


- Fresh ingredients make better cakes
- Butter cream is easy to make and much better than the vegetable oil/cornsyrup alternative
- Real vanilla - it's pricey now, but worth every penny
- Use exact measurements
- Cool cakes completely before removing them from your pan to avoid cracking down the center
- Apply a "crumb coat" of frosting to your cake before the final layer of frosting - this will eliminate little specks of cake in the final product
- Avoid over mixing your batter - mix your batter until it just comes together and is free of lumps; you'll end up with a tender "crumb", as they say, or a nice, tender, moist texture that isn't chewy
- Liberally grease your pan with butter and flour and line the bottom with parchment for easier release

Good luck!
posted by TryTheTilapia at 8:20 PM on September 18, 2007

Ingredients are more important than recipes:

- King Arthur Flour or White Lily Flour are great - King Arthur's catalog has great baking ingredients and tools (a little pricey, so I'd browse there and price elsewhere)

- butter - organic, or european

- the best free range eggs you can get your mitts on

- same with milk. I'd suggest using whole milk as required until you figure out what's what.

I'd start with quick breads or muffins to get the hang of baking - the batters are much more forgiving, and you'll get a sense of what ingredients matter to you most.

Have fun!
posted by beezy at 8:29 PM on September 18, 2007

I have good luck with Nordic Ware pans, although the ones with lots of fiddly decor can be a pain to grease, and then clean after.

Baking is an area where the "Alton Brown school" of knowing why ingredients behave the way they do can really come in handy. Cookbooks that have this kind of advice--even general, ingredient-related advice in a separate section--are worth looking for.

When you want to have a little more adventure and practice technique, try a classic preparation like genoise. Just a few ingredients, handled correctly, become a perfect classic cake base for more advanced desserts.

Oh, and if you can get hold of the Viennese Pastry Cookbook by Lilly Reich, you'll bask in the acclaim of your coffee guests forever. Timeless recipes of impeccable pedigree.
posted by gimonca at 8:44 PM on September 18, 2007

One more thing about super-rich items--I like a nice chocolate hazelnut torte once in a while, but a full recipe has enough calories to run into scientific notation. Look for springform pans in smaller sizes, 1/2 or even 1/3 sizes, so you can cut the recipe down and experiment with smaller portions. The basic Dr. Oetker pans do come in smaller sizes if you have the time to look for them. A 7-inch pan is plenty for a dinner party of 4 to 6, if the recipe is rich enough.
posted by gimonca at 8:49 PM on September 18, 2007

I highly recommend the site The Fresh Loaf for beginner bakers. Many excellent tutorials (with pictures) and very helpful forums. Lots of delicious recipes, product reviews and book reviews as well.
posted by Ostara at 8:58 PM on September 18, 2007

I'll note also that I haven't seen a cake flour from King Arthur in regular grocery stores (and their website appears to say that it's only in their 'professional' product line). King Arthur whole wheat is excellent for bread, by the way.

Softasilk is the cake flour you're most likely to find at the neighborhood supermarket.
posted by gimonca at 9:45 PM on September 18, 2007

A good scale is a must, TryTheTilapia mentioned it above but I have to second it. This one is fantastic: My Weigh 7001. A cup of flour varies so much depending on the weather and how heavily you pack it down that it can change a recipie dramatically - especially for cakes where it's equal parts cooking and chemistry.

You should give yeast breads a whirl sometime too - there's something amazing about watching a heap of flour, salt, water and yeast grow in front of your eyes, then filling the house with the most incredible smells when you open the oven... good luck and have fun!
posted by mikw at 11:40 PM on September 18, 2007

In addition to a stand mixer, I would also suggest a small hand-held mixer too. I picked mine up very cheaply at the supermarket.
posted by essexjan at 1:03 AM on September 19, 2007

How to Be a Domestic Goddess by Nigella Lawson. Read it and salivate.
posted by janecr at 4:58 AM on September 19, 2007

Yet another book: The Simple Art of Perfect Baking by Flo Braker. I like that one because she goes into detail about how the cake should look, feel and smell when you take it out. Baking times vary depending on ovens, and it's hard to screw up with Braker's book. But lots of other great books have been mentioned as well.

If you're into NY style cheesecake, Junior's just put out a really good cookbook that covers everything you need to know and has tons of great troubleshooting tips to ensure a perfect, crack-free cheesecake every time.

N-thing the suggestion to practice.

Other tips:

* don't overmix cookie dough
* I don't think you need to break the bank with European butter, but don't use cheap ingredients, either.
* Silpats are great, and about $20. Better than parchment for baking cookies
* Restaurant supply sheet pans rule. While you're there, pick up the heat-resistant spatulas (less than $5 usually) and a cookie scoop (looks like an ice cream scoop) for consistent cookies
* Buy your parchment from a baking supply store. For us, it was about $35 for literally a thousand sheets. They come flat and are thus easier to cut. Share the extra with friends
* Get a bench scraper -- you'll use it more than you think
* Virtually all (unfrosted) cakes will freeze, so you can make them up in advance and store in your freezer
* Lastly, don't be too hard on yourself. With the exception of my superhuman wife, virtually everyone that worked at our bakery had something they weren't good at. One person could do great cookies, but not cheesecakes, for example. Just give it a shot and have fun.
posted by Atom12 at 6:56 AM on September 19, 2007

3rd the idea of a good digital scale. So much of baking is essentially chemistry and the exact proportions of the ingredients matter greatly. Once you have that in place gravitate towards the recipes that list the appropriate ingredients (e.g. flour) by weight rather than volume. That is one indication that you are using a professional recipe.

Oh and practice a lot but make sure you have some help eating the experiments.
posted by mmascolino at 7:07 AM on September 19, 2007

I'm a big fan of both The Cake Book by Tish Boyle and Baking: from my home to yours by Dorie Greenspan. Also, Martha Stewart's Baking Handbook has consistently given me good results.
posted by twiki at 7:53 AM on September 19, 2007

Seconding Cook's Illustrated's The Best Recipe. They also offer Baking Illustrated, which I have found particularly useful.

The best thing I have noticed with all of their publications, including the magazine, is their explanation, which goes through their process of finding what works and what doesn't. So, for instance, I needed buttermilk for a recipe (which I didn't have), and they give you a recipe for a pretty good substitution (milk and lemon juice, btw, although I don't remember the ratio). They list the types of flour that will work and why it works best, and they give you a second option in case you can't find it. They also provide detailed ratings for ingredients, utensils and cookware, based on the best performance, expense and durability. There's a huge list of conversions for almost any measurement needed in the kitchen and quick and easy tips, using household items, for everything, including the best way to cut cream cheese and how to store fresh veggies.

In other words, Cook's Illustrated has greatly improved my kitchen skills, and my ability to improvise on the fly, if need be. The only bad quality I've noticed is that the recipes sometimes call for really hard to find items and a very well-stocked pantry and fridge. To get around that, I've learned to adjust my list of basic items that I can't live without and plan in advance.

If you don't want to spring for the books, check your public access channels for their show. I'm in southern Louisiana and it airs on Saturday morning at 11 am, and my whole family knows that for that half-hour, I am to be left alone to soak up culinary goodness.

Of course, Alton Brown is a good alternative to Cook's Illustrated, and James Beard's Beard on Bread, dated as it may be, is awesome.

Good luck!
posted by mitzyjalapeno at 8:50 AM on September 19, 2007

Another fan of The Best Recipe. Not much of a fan of needing lots of cooking equipment, but for baking, I think an oven thermometer is a big help.
posted by theora55 at 11:42 AM on September 19, 2007

A digital scale is *the* essential tool I use when baking. Look for cookbooks that give measures in weight--the aforementioned Cake Bible is one, also I believe European cookbooks do so. A 'cup' of flour can weigh 4, 5, 6 ounces... has some good basic recipes that give measures in weight. My family loved the lemon cake from there.

As for 'good pans', well, I have been baking with the cheap $4 'Baker's Secret' pans you find in the supermarket for years. Sure, they wear out faster, but I have baked a lot of great cakes in them. YMMV.

Baking spray--that spray oil with flour in it--is a great time saver, especially if you have an ornate pan to grease.

Test your oven! Find out if it runs too hot or too cold. The best way to do that, IMO, is to bake a cake mix. Those box mixes are precisely measured and designed to withstand overbeating/underbeating, too much/too little liquid, etc. So if your cake comes out muffintopped like a volcano, or lopsided, then you know it's your oven.
posted by lovecrafty at 7:19 PM on September 19, 2007

« Older Need help finding cheap/free advertising for my...   |   Help me buy a great film! Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.