Here are a few basics to understand first.
Cakes usually fall into two classes, those with butter and those without. Butter cakes use butter or other fats that are usually creamed with sugars, but liquid oils may also be used in some cakes. These cakes, using oils, are usually the one-bowl varieties.
Those without butter include the angel food, and sponge cakes. Eggs are used as the leavening agents.
Measuring cups. There are different measuring cups for dry and liquid ingredients. Using a dry measure is recommended over a measuring cup for wet ingredients when measuring flour and sugars. A wet measure is usually the glass types with demarcations to indicate amounts while the dry measures are usually plastic or metal and are meant to be filled up and leveled off. Measuring spoons can be used for both liquid and dry.
Baking pans come in a glass or metal material. Remember to reduce the temperature by 25 degrees if using a glass pan. Older baking pans which have darkened may also require some slight temperature adjustments. If so, this will often be stated in the recipe, but as a rule I begin checking for done about 5 minutes before the suggested time has elapsed.
Here are some substitutions to help you out.
Flour – there are several options for the flour you use when baking a cake. Many cakes call for cake flour. As a new cook this caused me to overlook many great recipes. Why? Well, simply I only had all-purpose flour in the house. I wish I had known then that I could turn it into cake flour with the simple addition of sifting. For each cup of flour called for, take out two tablespoons of the flour and sift that all-purpose flour twice. Keep flour in the refrigerator if possible to keep it fresh.Also, you can drop a couple of bay leaves into the flout canister to keep out those pesky little bugs.
Measuring Flour – be sure to sift the flour before you measure to get an accurate measurement. Sift a second time with other dry ingredients. If you are using all-purpose flour, the leavening agents are included, so read the bag to determine if additional leavening is needed.
Corn starch – You can substitute two tablespoons of flour for one tablespoon of cornstarch when it is used for thickening. This is try in recipes for baking as well. For thickening gravies, mix the flour and the fat, stirring until incorporated and continue to cook until the flour is lightly browned. Add the liquid and stir constantly. But that is another article.
Buttermilk – many recipes call for buttermilk. If you are out you can substitute one cup whole milk with 1 tablespoon of lemon juice OR vinegar and enough milk to make one cup. Let stand about minutes before using. You could also use one cup whole milk plus 1 3/4 teaspoon cream of tartar or one cup plain yogurt.
To substitute for whole milk mix evaporated milk half and half with water to make a cup.
Honey – substitute 11/4 cup of sugar and 1/4 cup of water. For 1 cup of corn syrup substitute 1 cup sugar and 1/4 cup of liquid.
To measure sugar fill a dry measure and level off.
Baking Chocolate – You can use cocoa instead of baking chocolate by substituting 3 tablespoons of cocoa powder and 1 tablespoon butter or margarine for each 1 ounce square of baking chocolate.
Here are some other tips to help you get ready for baking.
Baking time and temperature – Generally pastries like cakes, cookies, and pies should be baked in a moderate oven which is between 325 and 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Cakes are done when a toothpick poked into the center comes out clean,which means there are no particles stuck to it, although it may appear slightly wet. You can also tell that a cake is done if it springs back when touched lightly in the center or the cake starts to pull away from the side of the pan. If you are baking your cake in a glass pan, reduce the temperature in the recipe by about 25 degrees. so if the recipe calls for 350 degrees, cook at 325.
When the temperature is too high you will get a cake that is overcooked on the outside and may not be completely cooked on the inside. The cake will be too dark. A dark cake doesn’t matter if it is frosted, at least as far a the look is concerned, but it can change the flavor of some high sugar cakes.
Fresh eggs are a must in baking. To tell if an egg is fresh you can place it in a cup of cold water. Fresh eggs sink to the bottom. Spin the egg on the counter. Fresh eggs will spin evenly and not so fresh or bad eggs will wobble or not spin at all. When you crack the egg open and put the contents on a plate you can see that the yolk of a fresh egg stands high above the pool of egg white. The flatter the yolk, the older the egg. Finally, insure you buy the freshest eggs by looking at the date on the egg carton. Eggs can be kept for weeks on the grocers shelf so before you check for cracks, check the date.
Butter,margarine,shortening or oil. Butter traditionally is the choice for cakes. You can measure solid fats by covering them with cold water. For example, if your recipe calls for 1/2 cup fat, fill a measuring cup with 1/2 cup of water and add the fat until the water reaches 1 cup. Oil provides a more moist cake in many cases but be sure to use a vegetable oil. Margarine is usually whipped and contains more water and air so it may not always provide the best results, however, if using margarine you can usually use a stick variety. I suggest avoiding the kind in tubs.
Leavening – While there are some yeast leavened cakes,they are not that common so I will stick with baking powder and baking soda. Too much can cause your cake to fall or crumble or fall apart so follow the recipe carefully. If you omit one egg in a recipe increase the amount of baking powder by 1/2 teaspoon. If using baking soda you should use an acid such as buttermilk or cream using 1/2 baking soda for each cup.
Flavorings – Usually used in the form of extracts these liquids should be added to the fats for the best absorption. If using dry spices like ginger or cinnamon, sift them with the flour and other dry ingredients.
While all this seems like a lot to learn, it is important to remember that most recipes take all these things into account so if you are using a good cookbook, however understanding some of these basics will help you bake the best cakes ever.