Faced with a bewildering array of flours on the shelf in the supermarket today which one do you choose? And that’s just the first question! Next it’s which sugar? Which fat? And when the recipe says three eggs, does it mean large or small? Free range, corn-fed, organic?
What’s Best? Does it Matter?
For a good cake, you need to start off with Good Quality, Fresh Ingredients. You may choose to use organic but, apart from that, there are other choices you can make that will affect the finished product in taste, appearance and texture.
Let’s begin by looking at flour. First question is whether to use wholemeal or white. Wholemeal flour contains, as it suggests, 100% of the wheat grain. Cakes made with it tend to have a closer texture. It is good for Fruit Cakes but unless you’re particularly keen on incorporating the whole grain, white is probably best for sponge mixtures.
Wheatmeal is a sort of halfway-house flour, containing all the germ and some of the wheat bran. Flours containing bran don’t keep well so buy in small quantities, and use quickly.
Both wholemeal and white flour are available in either plain or self-raising forms. Self-raising flour has a carefully balanced mix of raising agents already evenly blended in, but you may prefer to use plain flour and add amounts of baking powder to suit whatever it is you are making. To replace self-raising flour for most purposes, use 2½ teaspoons of baking powder per 8 oz plain flour.
- If a recipe doesn’t specify whether to use plain or self-raising, use plain.
- Don’t use strong (or bread) flour for cake baking as it results in a very open texture, as opposed to the finer texture you want to achieve.
- Flour should always be sieved before being added to a cake mixture, even if there are no other dry ingredients to be combined with it; this helps incorporate more air.
- Store flour in a cool, dry place.
For cakes made by the creaming method, soft margarine is best. Butter adds its own distinctive flavour but if you choose to use it, make sure it is at room temperature and beat it on its own first to begin the creaming process. Hard margarine is more suitable for cakes made by the rubbing-in method. Some recipes include a mixture of lard and butter or margarine but lard has gone out of popularity today.
Oil is used as an alternative fat in other recipes. Follow the quantities recommended in the recipe. Of course, within the oils and margarines, there is a further choice of vegetable, sunflower, olive and some more specialist tastes. This comes down to personal choice but we suggest avoiding the extra virgin olive oil as its taste is distinctive; we also advise against using low-fat spreads as they can contain a high proportion of water.
Caster sugar is most often recommended for baking because of its fine texture, but, if you’ve run out, granulated sugar can replace it in some recipes e.g. fruit cakes or other cakes made by the rubbed-in method. It’s not really a good idea to use granulated for creamed mixtures as it might result in a slight grittiness and possible reduction in volume.
Icing Sugar is used for … icing! It’s not advisable to use it in cake mixtures unless the recipe specifically states that you should.
The brown and unrefined sugars impart a distinct flavour. Soft brown sugar, whether it’s dark or light, can be used in creamed cakes, while Demerara is suitable for rubbed-in mixtures. Demerara has larger crystals that don’t break down easily; it’s ideal for gingerbreads or other recipes that involve melting.
Barbados is unrefined sugar. It’s very dark and coarse with a strong taste. Again it’s suitable for gingerbreads or fruit cakes, as it imparts good flavour and colour.
Other sweeteners such as honey, golden syrup or treacle should be used only if specified in the recipe.
It’s up to you whether you buy organic eggs from corn-fed chickens that live in woodland; what really matters as far as your cake is concerned is the size.
British eggs come in four sizes:
- very large
The British Egg Information Service advises using large eggs in recipes. If you use smaller you might need to extra liquid or another egg. We at Cake Baker suggest that you opt for free range eggs and maybe even organic. We can’t guarantee that your cake will taste any better but the hens will be happier!
The main thing in making a cake is, as we said at the beginning, to use the best quality ingredients you can. The end product will only be as good as the starting line-up! Now you know all about ingredients, try your hand at these simple cake recipes – Easiest Sponge Cake, Basic Cupcakes and Fruit Cake.