This is normally the place that I would post a picture or a video, but the video I have found is rather risque. Very funny, but a bit on the Salty Side. So, if you would like to see The Best Cake Ever from Curb Your Enthusiasm, by all means, click on the link. If you’d rather not, here’s a picture of Alton:
So, my friend Drew, over at How to Cook Like Your Grandmother posted awhile back asking folks to send in their Perfect Birthday Cake Recipe. Then, he asked me if I’d make like Alton Brown and compare and contrast them. So, since I’m helpful and all, I did.
Eventually, I will have a keen chart up on my main site, whenever I can pull myself together enough to finish it. The site, not the chart. I’m sort of bulling my way (whatever meaning you take is accurate here) through Dreamweaver. I have a mean new design that my friend Linda created for me, but I am slow. Enough dawdling, though. Here it is as a Word Document: Handy Cake Analysis Chart For now, it will Have to Do. As you will soon see, I labeled the cakes Cake 1 through Cake 9. Because I just ooze with an Excess of Originality. And here we go:
Things that initially stand out to me:
- The only chocolate called for in Cake 6 is 4 tsp cocoa powder. Either it’s a typo, or it’s not a very chocolatey cake.
- The cakes that do not contain eggs use a lot of liquid fat—Cake 1 uses 1 cup of oil, and Cake 6 uses 1 cup of Miracle Whip (basically oil and a little egg and sugar). Eggs are good for binding and tenderizing, so upping the fat ups the tenderness. These cakes are also made using The Muffin Method. Unlike The Creaming Method, which has you add eggs one at a time, all the liquid ingredients are mixed together and then folded in with the dry. A bit more thorough folding than you’d do when making a muffin will help to activate enough gluten that the cake holds together without eggs.
- Cakes 3 and 6 don’t call for salt. Use some, especially in chocolate cakes. I’d go with about a teaspoon. And in Cakes 8 and 9, up the salt.
If you’ll notice, the cakes that call for baking soda as the sole leavener or in addition to baking powder also contain acidic ingredients:
Cake 2 contains brown sugar, sour cream and chocolate
Cake 4 contains cocoa powder
Cake 5 contains buttermilk
7 contains sour cream and vinegar
The deal with acidic ingredients is that you want a batter to be neutral in pH or only very slightly acidic in order for the batter to set up properly. If the pH is too high—the batter is too “basic,” or alkaline—the cake will never set up, and you’ll just end up with hot pudding. It’s a balancing act, and the soda—which is one of the strongest bases available in the kitchen—helps to neutralize overly acidic ingredients, such as coffee, yogurt, molasses (brown sugar), sour cream, crème fraiche, buttermilk, chocolate and non-alkalized (NOT Dutch Process) cocoa powder. In light of that, I would consider stirring a little baking soda into the 2 cups of coffee used as the liquid in Cake 1.
Cake 3 contains a crazy lot of sugar (over three cups by volume), lots of eggs and a relatively small amount of flour. This cake will bake up to be very rich and sweet and a bit more gooey-pudding-y than dry cakey. Again, it doesn’t call for salt, but certainly add some—1/2 to 1 tsp. The chocolate will thank you. Also, since it is so rich, it might be good to just hit it with some powdered sugar or a thin glaze or maybe a fruit sauce as opposed to trying to frost it.
I’m a little concerned about Cake 6. The sole leavener is baking soda, 2 teaspoons of it, but there is only one ingredient—Miracle Whip—that could be considered acidic and might need to be neutralized, but you’d only need maybe ¼ teaspoon to do that, and you’re still left with 1 ¾ teaspoons of soda, which is enough to leaven 7 cups of flour. If this cake bakes up how I think it will, just based on its ingredients, it looks like it would be ridiculously overleavened and then collapse in a heap. Even if I’m right about the cocoa measurement being mistyped, I think it’s still too much baking soda. I would consider changing the recipe to read 2 tsp baking powder and ¼-1/2 tsp baking soda (depending on the amount of cocoa called for). Oh, if your batter is too alkaline, it will taste like soap. Trust me; this is not a Desired Flavor in a Baked Good.
Cake 7 is the sour cream cake. Note the vinegar in the mix. The reaction of the soda and vinegar helps to aid in leavening. If you ever made a paper–mâché volcano in elementary school, you know what I mean.
Cake 8 is Alton Brown’s cake, and it is well-balanced. Notice that it doesn’t contain any whites. That means less water and more fat, so it will be more tender (not as much gluten formation). If you’re going to refrigerate this cake, use the butter flavored shortening. If not, use real butter. Butter flavored shortening is scary stuff, but it does stay soft in the fridge. Personally, I think ¼ tsp salt is too little. I’d up it to maybe ¾ tsp, but add it to taste.
Cake 9, the hot milk cake, is put together kind of like a genoise—beating the eggs and sugar until very light and fluffy before sifting in dry ingredients and then folding in the milk/butter. This, too, is a well balanced cake, and you could just as easily make it using The Creaming Method or The Two-Stage Method. Just use cool milk and solid, softened butter, not melted butter.
About the fats used: the cakes made with liquid fat or shortening will stay moist in the refrigerator. The cakes made with butter will get kind of hard and dry out a bit in the fridge. If you are making a frosting that needs to be refrigerated, either make an all-oil/shortening cake or maybe substitute ½ of the butter called for in your recipe for oil.
Also, if you’ll notice, many of the recipes that call for cocoa powder and/or chocolate also use water rather than dairy for the liquid. This is because dairy tends to blunt the flavor of chocolate while water allows it to bloom. A chocolate cake made with water will be “chocolateier” than a chocolate cake made with milk.
Oh, and while I’m thinking about it, let’s talk for a moment about the mixing methods. Cakes 1, 4, 5 and 6 are all made with The Muffin Method. Guess what you get with that method. You got it–muffins. If I want a muffin, I’ll make a muffin. If, however, I’m looking for a perfect balance of tenderness and structure with a well developed crumb, I want a cake. So, I’ll either use The Creaming Method or the DEPMAT method.
If you have any other insights about any of these cakes, please feel free to add. I’m sure there’s something I’ve missed, and I’m just as sure that you will pick up on it. If you have a perfect birthday cake to offer to Drew, send it his way, along with why you like it so much.
Update: Last night, while I was brushing my teeth, I remembered reading in Shirley’s Bakewise that she substitutes extra leavening in place of eggs. You know, since eggs provide lift as well as water and fat. So, maybe Cake 6, the cake about which I was Concerned, might be okay. Maybe one of those teaspoons of soda is playing the part of The Egg. Just a thought.