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One of the many things that I’ve never understood is why so many people have never made a cake. There are lots and lots of people out there – in the pub, sat next to you on the bus, possibly even reading this article now – who have never discovered the simple joys of a sponge cake you made yourself, still warm from the oven, with a pot of tea. Anybody can make a cake, and if you’ve been following my somewhat sporadic writings on T&C you’ll have picked up a few tips about how easy it really can be, and today I’m going to write about exactly how easy it is, and how simple the odd variation is, and why experimenting with cakes is worth every failed attempt. Yes…

C is for Cake.

There’s a little bit of magic involved in making a classic sponge cake, but once you get to grips with the basic recipe you’ll discover that it’s a piece of – aha – cake to adapt it, experiment with it, mould it to fit what you might have in the cupboard to make it a bit special. A good sponge is moist, light, slightly crumbly and be ever so slightly sweeter than you’d expect. It should melt in the mouth, and smell like childhood, and have a lovely golden surface which begs to be broken with a good
knife, or better still, a cake fork.

We’ll cover that last bit first; the golden surface. If your oven is too hot the surface will burn before the middle is cooked. Similarly, if it’s too cool it will inevitably dry out before the surface looks properly done. My oven is a gas one, but it has accurate temperatures – checked with an oven thermometer – and your oven may differ. Fan-assisted ovens are particularly prone to giving odd cake results, and when recipes say “refer to manufacturer’s instructions” and the manual for the oven says “refer to the recipe” then you know you’re in trouble. Rule of thumb for fan-assists; reduce temperature by 10 C, increase cooking time by 10%, but don’t hold me to that. Like I say, I use a gas oven, and for basic sponge cake I use GM4, roughly 165C , 325F.

Ingredients: butter, sugar, eggs, self-raising flour, baking powder. Maybe some vanilla if you like. You’ll need all of these, plus baking parchment, an 8” round tin, a sieve, decent-sized mixing bowl, small bowl, fork, wooden spoon and metal spoon. If you have a rubber spatula, then that’s good too. You really do need scales as well, but you can also use science if you don’t have them.

You’ll note that I didn’t give proper quantities of your ingredients up there. That’s because I don’t know what they’ll be. The classic, old time Victoria sponge you’ll find in recipe books everywhere says “two eggs”, plus – probably – 100g flour, a similar quantity of butter and sugar. But… how big are those eggs? Can you use two small eggs, or two extra large? What if you’re using duck eggs (which make a rich sponge, which isn’t to everybody’s taste but worth trying once)? What happens if it’s a double-yolker? There’s no mystery to the solution, but it seems the only people who routinely use it are WI members. This is the take-home message from this article:

Weigh your eggs.

That’s more-or-less it. Some recipe books even say that, but don’t explain why, or even tell you what to do with the information. Once you’ve found out how much your eggs weigh, you use exactly the same weight of sugar, butter, and flour. If you’re making a two-egg sponge, and the eggs weigh 110g in total, use 110g of butter, 110g of sugar, 110g of flour. It’s that simple. If your eggs weigh over 125g you’ll need two 8” tins, unless you're using a deep one. Under, and it’ll fit in one tin but be thick enough to slice in half.

The tins, then: an 8” round tin will just about accommodate 500g of cake mix, but if you’re at all concerned don’t be afraid to split it into two. Remember what I said about baking parchment in the last article? Take a length of it, scrunch it up, unscrunch and stuff it into the tin around the base. Don’t bother with greasing the tin; silicone paper will cheerfully be non-stick enough to live with here. 

You’ve weighed out the ingredients, now crack the eggs into a small bowl and beat together until blended, then leave to one side. Take the butter and sugar (fresh butter, caster sugar) and if the butter isn’t at room temperature – ergo, soft - when you start, pop it in the microwave for five seconds. Beat the sugar and butter together with the wooden spoon until light and fluffy; this is known as creaming the mixture. You can tell when it’s done because it really does lighten up and go fluffy, and if you lightly tap the spoon on the side of the bowl the mix will drop off. If your butter isn’t soft this process can take ten minutes of vigorous exercise which can be tiring on the wrists, if it is soft then five minutes. You’ll feel every second of those five minutes, if this is the first time you’ve done it.

Next, start beating the eggs into the mix. Add the eggs a bit at a time, beating them in before adding more mixture. If the mix looks like it has split – as in, separated – don’t worry about it, just beat it a bit more and get it as smooth as possible. If you’re using vanilla add a teaspoon of it now.

Add a teaspoon of baking powder to the self-raising flour, then add it to the mixture using a sieve. Using a metal spoon, gently fold the flour into the mix until it’s all well incorporated. Folding the flour in is all about keeping as much air as possible in the mixture, so using the edge of the spoon cut through the middle of the mixture, scoop up the mix, and roll the spoon – and the mix - over the flour. Don’t beat the mixture, treat it gently. Once the flour is all folded in, that’s it. Put the mixture into the cake tin, and smooth the top over. Put in the oven on the middle shelf, and leave it for 35-40 minutes.

The toothpick test: it need to be dry when it comes out. But you can also tell if a cake is done by listening to it, and looking at it, and smelling it. The cake should be golden brown on top, and have come away from the edges a little bit. It should smell sweet and biscuity, and it should be making faint little pops and whistles. But, use a toothpick as well, just to make sure the middle is cooked all the way through. If it’s cooked, take it out of the oven, lift the parchment out of the tin, unwrap the sides, and leave to cool. If in doubt, put it back in the oven for five more minutes.

Now that we’ve covered the basic sponge, let’s take a look at variations on a theme. Sponge cake is sponge cake is sponge cake. Once you’ve got the basics right you can add all sorts of things to it.

Want a chocolate cake? Swap 25g of flour for 50g of cocoa. Or melt a 100g bar of chocolate over hot water (see last article), leave to cool, then stir this into the mixture before adding the flour. Lemon cake? Zest a lemon into the mixture – again, before adding the flour – and when the cake has come out of the oven spike a few holes in it with a cocktail stick, and drizzle the juice of the lemon mixed with two tablespoons of granulated sugar over the top, leaving it in the tin to cool.

Practically anything can go into the mixture before adding the flour; try adding an apple, cored, peeled and diced, or a handful of frozen fruit, or fresh fruit, or even dried fruit. When using fresh fruit you might need to add a bit more flour, but in the apple and berry cake I only added 15g more flour for an apple and a handful of frozen berries, and it came out very well indeed.

Extra flavourings are fine, but steer clear of adding too much alcohol as it can affect the eggs, too much spice makes a cake taste like a scented candle, and if you want boozy cake you’re far better doing the Christmas cake thing and drizzling it into
cooked cakes.

Once you’ve got the basic first steps right making a cake you’ll discover it’s an easy thing to put one together, and making a cake to give someone you’re visiting is always worth the minimal effort involved.

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