In order for your baking to be as good as it can be, you need to use top quality ingredients, and you need to know how to put those ingredients together to get the results you want. This is where really understanding mixing methods comes in to play. The Creaming Method is the Big Dog of cake and cookie mixing methods. If you aren't really up on it, go read all about it. I'll wait.
If you own The Cake Bible, you are familiar with the two-stage mixing method, as the author, Rose Levy Beranbaum is partial to this method. While the creaming method yields a fairly light but strong cake, the two-stage method yields a tender cake with a velvety crumb. Cakes made with the two-stage method also don't rise quite as high as cakes made with the creaming method. Curious. You can use either method to mix a shortened cake, so how can the results be so different? Let's explore further.
First, let's look at the "how" of the method. Then, we'll contemplate the "why."
1. Combine all of your dry ingredients, including sugar, in your mixing bowl. Whisk them well for at least 15 seconds to evenly distribute the salt and the leavening.
2. Mix the eggs with the flavorings and 1/4 of the liquid. Stir well to break up the eggs.
3. Put softened fat and the egg/milk mixture into the dry mixture, and mix on low to moisten. Then, mix on medium speed to help develop some structure and aerate the batter. Scrape the bowl frequently, and mix for about 1 1/2-2 minutes.
4. Add the remaining liquid in 2 additions, mixing just a few seconds after each addition to blend. Scrape bowl frequently.
Let's put it into practice with a real recipe, shall we?
Basic Yellow Cake
- 2 sticks unsalted butter
- 2 cups sugar
- 13 oz (3 cups) cake flour, sifted
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 4 large eggs
- 2 teaspoons vanilla
- 1 cup whole milk
Make sure that all of your ingredients are at cool room temperature--about 68 degrees. Milk, eggs, butter--everything.
Put the flour, salt, sugar and baking powder in the mixer bowl. Whisk very well to aerate and evenly distribute the salt and leaveners.
Mix the vanilla, eggs and 1/4 cup whole milk.
Add the softened butter and the egg mixture to the mixing bowl. Mix on low, and then increase speed to medium and mix for 1 1 /2 to 2 minutes. Scrape bowl once or twice to make sure you're mixing evenly.
Add the rest of the milk in two additions, mixing just a few seconds after each addition. Scrape the bowl between additions.
Scrape the batter into your prepared pans (magical Cake Release, fat and Release foil or fat and sprayed parchment) and bake in the middle of your oven at 350 degrees F until golden brown and done. You can check by pressing on the top. When done, the top will spring back. If it's not done, you'll leave little dents in the top of the cake. You can also check by inserting a cake tester, toothpick or a clean broom straw into the center of the cake. It should come out clean. This whole process can take from 25-40 minutes, depending on your oven.
So, that's the "how." And now for the "why."
In the first step of the creaming method, you're blending two tenderizers--plastic fat and crystalline sugar. The sugar crystals tear thousands of little holes in the fat--holes that can trap air, which will then expand in the oven. Then, when you add the dry ingredients alternately with the wet ingredients, you agitate flour in the presence of water (in the milk and egg whites). This encourages gluten formation, which adds strength and structure to your cake.
In the two-stage mixing method, after blending your dry ingredients--flour, salt, sugar, leaveners-- you are mixing in a limited amount of liquid (milk+whites) in the presence of sugar. Sugar inhibits gluten formation by stealing some of the liquid that would usually activate the gluten. Having the flour and sugar well blended, plus limiting the amount of liquid in the initial mixing, ensures a tender cake. After adding the balance of the liquid, mixing is limited, thus further inhibiting gluten development.
So, why won't it rise as high? Creaming the fat and sugar is the best way to aerate a cake. But, in using the creaming method, you also end up sacrificing some tenderness. In the two-stage method, you can attain reasonable aeration by sifting the cake flour, whisking the dry ingredients together and then mixing in the fat with eggs and a limited amount of water. You'll never get the kind of aeration that you can with The Creaming Method. What you sacrifice in rise, though, you more than make up for in tenderness.
So, it's pretty much your call. If you want a high, strong and delicious cake, use the creaming method. If you want a cake with a tighter velvety crumb that is tender and delicious, use the two-stage mixing method.
If you are really gung-ho about a tender cake, try separating the eggs. Add just the yolks, flavoring and 1/4 of the liquid at the beginning, then mix the whites with the remaining liquid and add that in two additions. Since you've decreased the amount of water and increased the proportion of fat during the initial mixing phase, your cake will be very, very tender.
Try it--make the same recipe twice. Once using the creaming method and once using the two-stage method. Not in the same day, if you don't want. Decide which method you prefer. You might even decide that you can change up your method, depending on how you'll use the cake. For torting and stacking, you'll need a sturdier cake. Just for eating, you might like a more tender cake. It's entirely up to you.