You may never have heard of the Muffin Method or the Biscuit Method, but if you’ve made a batch of chocolate chip cookies with the recipe on the side of the Tollhouse Morsel bag, you’ve heard of the Creaming Method. Typically, the Creaming Method involves beating a quantity of butter with a near equivalent quantity of crystalline sugar until the mixture forms a light “creamy” froth. It’s incredibly difficult to do (well) by hand, though my old neighbor Lilly Lundstrom, the Swedish Baking Queen, had no trouble managing it. But then she tipped the scales at 250 and had arms like a longshoreman. The rest of us mortals need a mixer.
So, what does the creaming method accomplish? In a nutshell, a fine texture with a regular crumb (i.e. lots and lots of little holes, all about the same size), like a cake. And in fact the creaming method is the go-to method for mixing cake batters, which bake up into light and tasty — though not actually tender — sweets. But Joe, all cakes are tender, aren’t they? Actually no. For while a good cake layer is yielding to the tooth (a result of that fine crumb), in reality it’s rather firm. Which is intentional, since cake layers need to be strong enough to stack and support the weight of lots of heavy icing and decorations. If cake layers were as tender as, say, a well-mixed muffin, they’d fall apart under their own weight. Professional cake makers place a high premium on firm layers. If you ever watch the gonzo baking show Ace of Cakes on the Food Network, you can see that the cake layers they use are incredibly strong, almost like styrofoam (but, you know, that you can eat).
To create the “cream” that the Creaming Method is named for, you start by putting a quantity of soft butter into the bowl of a mixer fitted with a paddle. Not too soft, mind you, you want it just plaible, definitely not so soft that it’s greasy-looking. You set the mixer going, and once the butter is broken up, you add the sugar in a steady stream. Once all the sugar is in, you turn the mixer up and beat the mixture silly. You’re done when it’s significantly increased in volume, pale yellow looking, and you can no longer see any sugar crystals (though you should be able to feel them when you rub a bit of the mixture between your fingers).
What’s happened here? For starters you’ve combined the two ingredients, but more than that, you’ve driven the sugar crystals into the butter, creating lots and lots of little, regular air pockets. These pockets will go on to form the basis of the cake’s structure in much the same way bubbles in an egg foam form the structure of a soufflé…only in a cake there’s quite a lot more building material (i.e. flour and sugar) involved. But like a soufflé, each little pocket will fill with up with expanding gas and steam in the oven, providing lift. But more on that later, since I’ve got work to do.