Daily Archives: 02/27/09

Domes

…can be a good thing if you’re talking St. Peter’s Basilica. If you’re talking about a cake layer…eh, not so much. Reader Tom wrote in this morning to ask what causes doming and what, if anything can be done about it. For indeed a cake layer with a big hump on it can be a pain in the next to stack and frost.

Doming is most often caused when the outer edge of the cake layer bakes up faster than the center. The surfaces areas around the outside edges firm up before the batter in the middle of the layer can fully expand. That leaves the batter no place to expand but inward. When those forces are ultimately felt in the very center of the layer, there’s nowhere for the expansion to go but upward, and you get a dome.

The best ways to eliminate this kind of doming is to a) make sure you oven isn’t running too hot and b) buy better, thicker cake pans. Thicker pans, being more massive, absorb heat more slowly and distribute it more evenly. The result is more even baking and a flatter layer. Some very obsessive bakers use things called “cake strips”, usually long, skinny, cloth-covered magnets (though the very new ones are heat-proof silicone loops that wrap around cake pans like big rubber bands). They add mass to the outside edge of the cake pan, causing it to heat more slowly. I don’t really recommend them unless you’ve got a truly horrible oven full of hot spots.

I should also mention that, depending on how you mix your cake, doming could also be the result of over-mixing. This typically doesn’t happen with the two-stage mixing method or the creaming method (over-mixing is most commonly associated with the muffin method), but of course it always pays to be alert and never mix more than you have to.

In the end, no amount of added mass, even heat and careful mixing can prevent cake layers from doming a bit. Mine below look very flat and even, but on close inspection you can see they have a subtle dome to them. I solve this, as all bakeries do, by slicing off the contours. For more on that see the post How to Prepare a Cake for Decorating under the Techniques menu to the right.

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Laying it on a little thick, aren’t we?

The patriotism, you mean? Oh, no. The fondant. I should have rolled it a good deal thinner before I cut out my stars and stripes. Oh well, little Josephine was delighted by her flag cake just the same. She put in the request and daddy delivered…more or less. I’m glad she didn’t ask where the rest of the stars were. I’d have had a hard time explaining what a “motif” was while she was blowing out candles. Happy fifth birthday to the oldest of the Pastry girls!

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What kind of sifter should I use?

This is a common question, and for me the answer is always the same: a sieve. I never much liked nor trusted those little hand-held sifting machines (how much of my baking powder is still stuck in there?) . To me they just seem like a hassle. A fine-mesh sieve is not only easy, it can be used for other things, and is, in any event, what most professional bakers use.

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A word (or 400) about sifting

A couple of you out there wrote in yesterday asking if sifting is actually a necessary step in cake baking. In a word: yes. However I will concede that in many respects the act of sifting is more like a ritual that we bakers carry out, the practical reasons for which have long since been obviated by technology.

There was a time — in fact pretty much all of recorded history up until about 50 years ago — when sifting was du rigeurfor anyone setting out to bake anything. Even as recently as the early 1800′s, bakers were responsible not only for the mixing, shaping, baking and decorating of their products, they were also responsible for processing many of their raw ingredients. Leavening had to be formulated (or grown), blocks of sugar milled, spices ground and flour sifted.

For in those days there was neither the precision technology, nor the dedication to hygiene and quality that we take for granted now. Sure, in the days before “pre-sifted” flours, sifting served to break up clumps in flour. That, however, was more like a side benefit. Its real purpose was removing all the various “impurities” that typically found their way into a flour sack. These ranged from bits of wheat husks and stalks to twigs, leaves, pebbles, bits of mill stones or small machine parts (depending on where your flour was milled), insect larvae like weevils, rodent droppings — even rodents — and God only knows what else. Indeed, back then only your baker knew the true condition of the flour your bread or cake was made from.

Today, thankfully, we don’t have these kinds of surprises turning up in our sifters. The most we have to worry about is the odd clump, and usually not even that. However since even the finest “pre-sifted” flours can become compacted between the mill and your kitchen, sifting does an excellent job of putting a little space between the flour grains. This is especially important for cake batters, since you want all those little grains to get evenly coated with fat.

Me, I suggest sifting for pretty much all pastry projects from cakes to laminated doughs to tea breads. Anything, in short, where the end goal is a fine, tender texture. It might not be strictly necessary in every case, but then it couldn’t hurt, and it connects you to a tradition that goes back literally thousands of years.

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