Every day I receive emails from visitors with questions about a cooking technique or a recipe. I can't get to them all but I try to get as many responses out as time permits and if I don't know the answer, I'll ask one of my chef friends.
Here are a couple I've received that deal with baking, a subject I am not that comfortable with, so I sent them to my friend Chef Jenni Field who is a great baker and pastry chef.
Cracks In Cake
This one comes from Debbie who says, "I tried the apple cake recipe, it is fantastic except for the part about the cracks in the middle of the cake. In fact, I had the same problem with other cakes as well, can u let me know what is the probable cause of this?"
Here's how Chef Jenni replied, "My first thought is that, with fruit in the center, you're bound to get some cracking as the fruit boils and then settles down upon cooling. I'm not sure how much cracking you're getting, but with a "homey" dessert like an apple cake, I'd just hit it with some powdered sugar and eat up!
If you're getting cracks in other cakes as well, it could be from over-mixing or from using the wrong flour. Depending on where you live, flours can be very different from one another. In the US, stick with a nationally available all purpose flour for the most consistent results.
In regard to over-mixing the apple cake, try folding in the dry ingredients rather than trying to beat them in. (In cakes using the creaming method - adding dry and wet alternately after creaming the fat and sugar, mix until just combined after each addition).
Also, check your oven temperature--if the oven is too hot, it could cause things to rise and peak, creating cracks in the cake. This is great for muffins, but not what you want with cake. If you don't have one, get an oven thermometer to check the temperature."
All Purpose Flour
Here's another baking related queston I asked Chef Jenni to help with:
Anna says, "I have tried using natural unbleached, all purpose flour to make a layer cake and have been unsatisfied with the texture. I tried using 2 tablespoons less of the all purpose flour (which I read is the equivalent of cake flour). I have tried replacing some of the all purpose flour with corn starch. None of the things I've tried have given me the light, airy cake that I get when I use the package mix. I do want the cake to be all natural. Any suggestions?"
Chef Jenni replies, "I bet it's their mixing method and not their flour that's messing them up. Mass-produced cake mixes contain emulsifiers and tenderizers that are not available to the home baker. So, generally speaking, a home-baked cake will most likely not be as light as a cake mix cake. Notice I said "not be as light," not "not be better." I stay away from cake mixes because of all the additives.
If you've tried using different flours and even using less all purpose to stand in for cake flour, I would consider buying some cake flour. It is more finely milled than all purpose flour, and so your results tend to be a lighter, finer texture. If you've tried cake flour already and still aren't satisfied with your results, I would look to your mixing method.
If you are using the creaming method, make sure that all of your ingredients are at cool room temperature (about 68-70 degrees F) and that you thoroughly cream the fat and sugar until it is very light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, and beat each one in thoroughly before adding the next. Then, thoroughly whisk together all the dry ingredients and add about half to the batter.
Mix until incorporated on medium-low speed. Add half of the liquid and just mix in. Follow that with half of what's left of the flour, the rest of the liquid and then the rest of the dry. Mix just until incorporated after each addition and scrape the bowl frequently.
Following this procedure should result in a well-aerated cake that is fairly tender. If you want a more tender cake, try the Two-Stage mixing method on my web site."
More About All Purpose Flour
Cher asks, "What does all purpose flour have in it? Any baking powder or baking soda?"
Chef Jenni says, "You are not alone in your confusion over flours. There are a wide variety of flours on the market, and it seems like more are introduced every day.
All purpose flour is a blend of high and low protein flours. The manufacturers blend the flour so that there is enough gluten in it to make a reasonable (often excellent) loaf of bread but not so much that you will end up with a chewy birthday cake. This is why they call it "all purpose:" it is good to use in a variety of baked goods.
When you ask about baking powder and soda, I assume you mean self-rising flour. All purpose flour and self-rising flour are not interchangeable, because self rising flour does contain leaveners and salt. Self rising (or self raising) flour is one of the first "baking mixes." Rather than having to measure out all purpose flour, baking powder and salt separately, a cook can just measure the self rising flour--everything else is already in there."