I mean, it doesn’t appear under your “mixing methods” links, Joe! That’s true, and maybe it should, since it’s a perfectly viable alternative to the creaming method, even superior to it in some ways. What exactly does it involve? Unlike the standard creaming method — whereby the sugar and fat are beaten together, then the remaining wet and dry ingredients are added slowly in alternating installments — the two-stage method calls for all the fat, plus about 75% of the liquid in the recipe, to be added to the dry ingredients at the start. The remaining wet ingredients are then added in installments and throughly beaten in.
What does that accomplish? Here again, the answer is related to gluten. The two-stage method is designed to inhibit the formation of gluten networks and produce a more tender cake. Gluten networks, as most of you will recall, are formed when flour is agitated in the presence of moisture. But Joe, isn’t that exactly what’s going on in the two-stage mixing method? You’re adding liquid to flour and agitating it — a lot? Yes and no. Under the two-stage method, a small amount of liquid is added to the dry ingredients at the outset to lubricate the mix, though most of that will be bound up by all the sugar that’s in it (sugar, as many of you also know, is hygroscopic). What’s mostly going into the mixing bowl is softened fat, a lot of it, and by thoroughly mixing it in, what’s happening is that the flour granules are being thoroughly coated, which will greatly interfere with their ability to form activated gluten networks when the rest of the liquid joins the party.
Quite ingenious. For as some of you observed in your answers to my “Spot the Difference” challenge, there’s an awful lot of beating going on in this recipe — far more than you’d ever dream of doing with the muffin method, and a good deal more than with the standard creaming method. It’s those fat-coated flour particles that allow you to get away with it. Indeed in spite of all that mixing, the two-stage mixing method produces cakes that are more delicate and tender than you can achieve by any other means.