While baking is generally a forgiving and friendly mistress, today I’m going to talk about cake fails… sadly, they’re a fact of life – they happen to EVERYONE. A couple of my notable ones are here and here.
Even if you prefer to be fast and loose with your baking, there are some basic steps you can take to make sure that baking mistakes are minimised. After all, baking ingredients are expensive these days, and there’s nothing quite as stressful as baking something that doesn’t quite turn out right when it’s for a special occasion or gift.
Here are the top tips from my years of baking experience – I’d love you to let me know your tips in the comments, or if you’re a beginner baker, your questions.
Check the weather forecast
It sounds strange, but some finickity baked goods can be affected by the weather, especially macarons, and meringues. So if its forecast to be especially hot or humid, you might want to postpone your first attempt at making macarons!
Read. The. Recipe.
Hands up – this is the number one reason things go wrong when I’m baking. I tend to get excited about what I’m making and skip over actually reading the recipe before I start! Not doing so DEFINITELY causes the most cake and bake issues, whether its because you realise you don’t have a certain ingredient, or because you accidentally missed out a step or process that’s different to what you’d normally do – case in point – my Rocky Road Cupcakes. The chocolate cupcake base is based on a recipe by the lovely Annie’s Eats, and is made in a very different way than the usual creaming of butter and sugar method. When I made them, it was a real struggle not to fall back onto my usual routine!
Pay attention to whether a recipe recommends having ingredients at room temperature – if its being mentioned, its important! Eggs should always be kept at room temperature, and in the winter, hard butter can be made soft with a quick burst in the microwave – be vigilant though – you don’t want it to melt!
Before you start, force yourself to read and re-read the recipe, making a note of anything out of the ordinary, such as if the method used is different from what you’re used to – it’s easy to go into auto-pilot and do what comes naturally.
Assemble your ingredients
I like to read through the recipe again, and get everything I’ll need out of the cupboards – its a good idea for lots of different reasons. It means I don’t have to go scrambling around looking for muscavado sugar at the back of the cupboard and holding up my cake once I’ve started making it (especially if I realise that I don’t have enough and need to pop to the shops). It also makes it difficult to forget to add anything to the cake, and most importantly, I can pretend I’m in a cookery show. I draw the line at putting everything into its own tiny bowl a la Delia though – nobody has that kind of time for washing up!
Get the right equipment and ingredients
In my experience, having the right equipment makes a HUGE difference, especially in these areas –
- icing nozzles – your local baking equipment shop, or eBay
- food colouring – your local baking equipment shop, or eBay
- cupcake cases – Lakeland and Sainbury’s are great for reliable greaseproof ones, eBay are fab for cheap cute ones to go on post-baking
- sugar thermometer – don’t try to guess, especially if its your first time making fudge. Mine was a few pounds from Amazon
- stand mixer – OHemGEE they make a huge difference. Mine is really reliable, was under £50, is awesome, and I wouldn’t be without it.
On the other hand, I’ve had lots of success with –
- subbing specified size tins for smaller or larger ones – your cake or bake will just turn out thinner or taller – never fear!
- using inexpensive cake pans – including disposable ones from Wilkinson’s (most supermarkets sell similar, depending on the size of the shop) to make my rainbow cake
- buying inexpensive dark chocolate to go into brownie and cupcake recipes – your recipe may insist you should use Green & Blacks, but personally I’d be bankrupt in no time!
- using natural yoghurt/sour cream/quark/buttermilk fairly interchangeably
If you’re not sure, the best thing to do is, Google it, or ask for advice on Twitter!
The rule with all baked goods is that once the flour has gone in, stop beating. Just mix until the mixture is combined – no more, and bake. If you overbeat, the gluten in the flour gets tougher and tougher, resulting in dense, hard cakes.
The same logic also applies for cream cheese (though not buttercream) frosting – beat until its all combined, then refrigerate, which will firm it up. Continuing to beat thinking that will make it firmer is the devils work – the frosting will merely become very runny and sad :(.
Leave it alone
Once your cake is happily baking in the oven, leave it alone, and do NOT open the oven door for at least the first 10-15 minutes of the cooking time. There is no chance that a cake can be done in this time, and any knock or draft from the door may leave you with a sunken cake.
When you’re baking larger batches of cupcakes, its often necessary to switch them around in the oven so that they bake at an even rate – just be sure not to knock any of the trays – be as gentle as you can, and only open the oven door as many times as you absolutely need to. Again, once the cakes have been in a few minutes, it will be safer, but avoid peeking during the first 10 minutes at all costs.
Whip it out
The cake, that is – as soon as its done. What did you think I was talking about?! I know that a lot of non-bakers are very nervous about how they’ll know when a cake is ready, but its really simple. I find that aiming for the recommended cooking time is best, but always key an eye on your cake and use your own best judgement. I will check cupcakes and cookies at least five minutes before the recommended cooking time is up and test for doneness.
Testing for doneness –
- Cake or cupcake – toothpick inserted into the centre of the cake – when it comes out clean, the cake is done.
- Cookie – getting the oven temperature right and cooking for the recommended time is the best bet with cookies, as it’s very easy to overbake them. I’ve started whipping them out earlier and earlier, even when they still seem squidgy/are just starting to brown – they firm up a lot while cooling.
- Bread – the top will be browned, and the bottom of the loaf or roll will sound hollow when tapped.
- Brownie – the key with brownies is never to overbake, so always err on the side of caution. Once the top has started to firm up and crackle, and the mix is pull away from the sides of the tin slightly, they’re probably done. Remove from the oven, allow to cool a bit, and then check a section in the middle. If they’re still too squishy to be cut into slices, simply return to the oven and cook for a bit longer.
And if all else fails, make my no-bake rocky road bars! Simply melt chocolate, stir in condensed milk, and add to crumbled up biscuits, chocolate, marshmallows and whatever else takes your fancy!