Ratio, Method and the Difference a Pan Makes

“Rebuilding” a kitchen and improper planning sometimes result in lessons learned. Sometimes that lesson is simple, follow the directions.

I like making pound cake. For one thing it’s simple. It’s also a quarter butter and a quarter sugar. The rest is just a matter of necessity. I’ve definitely experimented with size and shape before, but it was more calculated versus a last minute decision. The great thing about ratios is that you can scale up or down pretty easily. In baking, a key component for cakes is the pan in which they are baked in. Not having a loaf pan, I opted to pour my batter into my nine-inch square pyrex pan and hoped for the best. The problem here was that I was now baking in a new oven, with a new pan shape and had to figure out what my new cook time would be. That aside, the one thing I didn’t account for was the pan depth. The batter of course was quite spread out and as a result, the finished product was more crust and less soft and buttery cake. Pound cake requires a particular depth to crust ratio for success which this end result didn’t meet. As I commute back and forth between Boston and New York, I’ll have to bring down a spare loaf pan for my next batch.

Square Pound Cake

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Experimenting with Size: Miniature Pound Cake

Cooking vessels in baking to me are just as important as the recipe and execution because they affect the overall presentation. I was looking for something new, and after making miniature desserts for my mom’s birthday party (yeah, I have yet to write about that), I decided to make mini-pound cakes as an easy breakfast food for the morning using the lighter cake flour variation I had made previously.

The batter was much more difficult to cleanly get into the mini cups.

Mini Poundcake Batter
Mini Pound Cake Batter

The portion sizes, being much smaller took less time to bake which was a plus.

Baked Mini Pound Cake
Baked Mini Pound Cake

After they had cooled a bit, they were taken out of the cups and placed onto a cooling rack so that they did not become soggy.

Baked Mini Pound Cake Cooling
Baked Mini Pound Cake Cooling

The result of these smaller pound cakes was about the same as a full sized loaf. An interesting taste difference was created by the higher crust to inside ratio. Having these pre-portioned instead of having to cut slices for breakfast was really nice. As a breakfast food these are highly recommended, easy to make and delicious.

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Cooking Through Ratio: Choosing The Right Ingredients

Pound cake has become part of my repertoire and for good reason. It’s delicious, satiating, easy to make and the ratio is easy to memorize. 1 part butter, 1 part sugar, 1 part egg and 1 part flour. I first made pound cake in August, added blueberries as a twist, made it with brown butter as a tribute, and many other times in between. Pound cake is simple and yet versatile and a perfect candidate for variation and yet with all the flavor components that can be added, the basic ingredients matter just as much if not more when it comes to the final product.

Recently the show Good Eats featured pound cake as an American Classic food. Though born in England, the pound cake is equally popular as an American food staple. Alton adamantly believes that the ratio, despite many attempts to class it up or change proportions is a “good eats” as is. One key difference is that he suggests the use of cake flour instead of all purpose flour. Cake flour, according to the box is 27 times finer than all purpose flour. It also has less protein which means less gluten and has been chemically altered to produce better results with cakes. I decided to give this a try and see if my results in fact did yield a softer, smoother final product with the same great taste I enjoy.

The process was the same. Using the creaming method, I combined room temperature butter and sugar together. I then added in the eggs, one at a time as they were incorporated and a teaspoon of vanilla. Lastly, after slowing down the mixer to it’s lowest speed, I added the cake flour, just until it was incorporated, being careful not to over-mix so as to not create any more gluten than necessary which would make the pound cake chewy and tough.

The batter was a lot smoother and easier to scrape and pour than ones made with all purpose flour. The benefit of using cake flour would be evaluated after its baking.

Pound Cake Batter
Pound Cake Batter

After about 90 minutes, the baking was done. No difference was visible at first glance. The truth was locked inside.

Baked Pound Cake
Baked Pound Cake

Once cooled, I sliced into the bake loaf and discovered the truth behind the wisdom of using cake flour. The inside was certainly smoother while the taste of course was unaltered with a softer mouth-feel.

Pound Cake Slices
Pound Cake Slices

This was an interesting experiment and as with most food experiments, I am willing and  happy participant. Not having cake flour on hand will not prevent me from making pound cake in the future, but this was a great lesson on how ingredients can affect the overall results of a food product.

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Good Bye Gourmet: A Final Lesson with Brown Butter Pound Cake

To further my learning and garner inspiration I recently subscribed to both Bon Appétit and Gourmet magazines. I had been on the fence about doing so and wondered if it really was worth the money. After all I have the food network and public television and the internet at my fingertips right? Magazines are dying by the dozens. Why would I want subscribe? Truth be told, TV and food blogs aren’t all there is out there nor are they always the best sources of information and/or inspiration. I ultimately subscribed and so far have really enjoyed the content I have read through. Both magazines provide a depth and perspective that really isn’t available on TV and most blogs and information sites. It’s nice to have clear and concise information to read through, along with tips, photos and recipes. Just reading through the magazines on a monthly basis is an efficient way to obtain a culinary education, follow trends and learn about food.

Recently and and unexpectedly to most, the news came out that Gourmet magazine would cease to exist. The major reason the magazine’s demise was the shrinking revenue the magazine received as a result of advertising. Professionally, being in the ad business in a growing and new form of advertising media where dollars are shifting to, mobile advertising, this was less of a shock to me perhaps than most, but unfortunate to say the least, and hey, by the way, I just subscribed! Perhaps what is surprising to me is that the magazine is not that the magazine is shutting down during a troubled economy as a result of declining revenue and tough operating conditions,  but that it is doing so when the American and global interest in food is at a high and continues to increase. People are cooking and learning how to cook now faster than ever as a means to save money and as a result in the popularity of rising chef stars that have a tremendous cultural impact on food and culture.

The effect of the news about the magazine’s closing was not all negative. The outspoken food community is showing their support and appreciation for this long-standing magazine through the use of social media and blogging. Examples include a newly formed twitter account, Save Gourmet and a blogging event “Let’s Celebrate Gourmet“, on the blog A Mingling of Tastes written by blogger Julie O’Hara. Social media and blogging can have a powerful effect on  raising awareness around issues, events gathering support for causes. If the positive support for the magazine is enough for the powers that be to reverse the decided course of action remains to be seen.

I decided to show my support by following Save Gourmet and by participating in the “Let’s Celebrate Gourmet event by following and blogging about a Gourmet recipe. Even though I don’t have a favorite recipe per se, I do appreciate the magazine for the learning that I have benefited from so far. I also appreciate the clear and concise recipes that are provided. I have only cooked from one recipe before with great success, while also benefiting from inspiration, but this would not deter me from participating. Knowing what is required, the prep and total cooking time and necessary equipment take any apprehension about making a recipe away. For this post, I chose to attempt a new recipe as a final lesson and tribute to the magazine and decided to make Brown Butter Pound Cake.

Up until this point, brown butter represented a mistake in cooking and not a height in culinary sophistication and wisdom. I had only observed it after putting a pat of butter on a pan that was too hot and watching it turn dark before my eyes, never getting a chance to flavor and aid with the cooking of the intended food object. My latest issue of Gourmet has an entire page (144) dedicated to making food using brown butter and that praises it for its distinctive nutty taste, stating that its use will result in a “culinary home run”. So it goes with food. Everything seems to have a time, a place and proper use. That’s life.

The recipe of course was easy to follow. Using the brown butter admittedly required an open mind while convincing myself that I would not be working with or ingesting some sort of poisoned or foul tasting food. The cooking times were pretty true to what was promised and the results surprisingly good given the use of what I once thought was a tainted culinary bi-product.

Brown Butter Pound Cake
Brown Butter Pound Cake

Taking “risks” and trying new methods open one door after the other as I learn each and every day. While Gourmet’s doors may be closing, it sure has left an indelible impression with its loyal readers and food culture as a whole. I only wish I had the chance to experience more of what it had to offer.

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Cooking Through Ratio: Doughs and Batters – Blueberry Pound Cake

Blueberry Poundcake
Blueberry Poundcake

Angel food cake is next in the series, but unfortunately I don’t have a tube pan or a springform pan to make it in. Although this is a short week, I still wanted to make something that I could eat for breakfast on my way to work. The economy may be getting better, but my wallet has yet to show it. Cheap and tasty is the name of the game. Pound cake seemed like a delicious idea.

Drawing on some inspiration from Megan Chromik’s Delicious Dishings blog post on Blueberry Pound Cake, I opted to make some of my own using some frozen blueberries I had in my freezer that I had picked up at a farmer’s market. Although the book calls for a hour bake time, I am still noticing that I need more than that to make pound cake in my oven. I’ll have to figure that one out.

The result was amazing. The blueberries appeared to vanish leaving little blue pockets of “taste”; the result excellent. What a delicious breakfast to look forward to this week. Starbucks has nothing on this pound cake!

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Cooking Through Ratio: Doughs and Batters – Pound Cake and Sponge Cake

Batter up! I’m now onto batters, the next part in the first section of Ratio in my Cooking Through Ratio series. Batters differ from doughs with one significant difference in that they contain more liquid than solids making them pourable. Another interesting thing about batters is that you can create them using the same ingredients and the same ratios but what matters most is the order that the ingredients are added and therefore batters are categorized by the method the ingredients are combined in. For instance batters can be classified by mixing method including the creaming method, foaming method, the straight mixing method or variations of them.

The first items under batters are the pound cake and sponge cake. At first I wondered why there were two seemingly different cakes under one chapter, but the reason became apparent quickly. A pound cake is 1 part fat (butter), 1 part sugar, 1 part egg, 1 part flour and is so named because a traditional cake uses a pound of each of the ingredients. A sponge cake is 1 part egg, 1 part sugar, 1 part flour and 1 part fat (butter). As with all ratios, the ratio dictates the order the ingredients are added and these cakes differ dramatically in terms of the order and therefore different methods.

The first cake to make was the pound cake. Pound cake brings back childhood memories of my grandmother. She used to love eating it and I would enjoy eating it with her.  Although we didn’t make it ourselves at home, we did enjoy cutting thick buttery slices from a box of Entenmann’s All Butter Loaf Cake. Sometimes strawberry jelly was added but it was just as good plain right out of the box. Making pound cake on my own was something I was looking forward to.

Last Thursday night while the oven was preheated to 325 degrees F, I got out my 9-inch loaf pan, measured out the ingredients, utilizing a half portion of the required ingredients and got to work. The mixer was placed on the counter, paddle attached. As the ratio indicates, the butter was put into the mixer bowl first and beat with the paddle attachment on at a medium speed. Sugar and salt were added and beat for a few minutes. This is technically the leavening stage in creaming method. As the sugar is beat into the butter, tiny air bubbles are formed. These pockets are what will expand during baking as the gas expands. The change in the butter is apparent as it becomes lighter in color as a result of the air pockets.

Pound Cake: Creaming Butter and Sugar
Pound Cake: Creaming Butter and Sugar

Eggs are added next one at a time so that they can be incorporated into the butter, sugar and salt. As the egg incorporates, the mixture appeared to become soupy and separate a bit. I was worried that the air bubbles in the butter were getting destroyed, but slowly everything started to blend together.

Pound Cake: Adding Eggs
Pound Cake: Adding Eggs

At a lower speed the flour was added to the batter. As it was added slowly a dramatic change started to take place. The batter pulled together and the flour slowly absorbed some of the moisture. To ensure that not too much gluten was created, I made sure to only mix everything as long as it took to incorporate the flour as instructed.

Pound Cake: Adding Flour
Pound Cake: Adding Flour

The batter was quickly placed into the loaf pan and placed into the preheated oven.

Pound  Cake: Batter Before Baking
Pound Cake: Batter Before Baking

After an hour I used a paring knife to check on the baking. It needed a bit more time, and 10 minutes later the cake was cooked through.

Baked Pound Cake
Baked Pound Cake

Once cooled, I sliced into the pound cake and was surprised by how dense and rich it was. My visual observations were confirmed with a delicious bite.

Pound Cake Slices
Pound Cake Slices

This pound cake differed a lot from the Entenmann’s that I remembered eating as a child, but was great nonetheless.  The texture and the sweetness were clear reminders of what this really was, a cake made in a loaf pan instead of a normal cake pan. Perception with food truly does have a powerful impact.

With the first cake batter completed, I continued on to sponge cake last night. As noted the ratio is the same, but it’s the method that differs. Sponge cake is what you think of when you think of birthday and layer cakes. I remember eating amazing homemade birthday cakes with raspberry or strawberry jelly between the layers and a sweet frosting growing up. Mom was not big on processed foods and boxes of cake mix. My sister Ashley and I ate the real deal, and so after reading over this ratio I was happy to see how easy making a good cake can be.

This cake started off with the foaming method whereby the whole eggs and sugar were first whipped in the stand mixer using the wire whisk attachment. This causes the eggs to triple in volume and produces bigger bubbles than the creaming method which yields a fluffier cake.

Sponge Cake: Whipping Eggs and Sugar
Sponge Cake: Whipping Eggs and Sugar

Once the eggs and sugar had foamed, vanilla was added and then the bowl was taken off of the stand mixer and flour was folded in gently using a spatula after it as aerated in a food processor. The folding of the flour into the egg Ruhlman points out helps preserve the network of bubbles created during the whipping.

Sponge Cake: Folding In Flour
Sponge Cake: Folding In Flour

Once the flour was folded in, melted butter was folded in as well. This was hard to incorporate and I felt like it didn’t quite combine like the other ingredients before it. It’s possible that I did not fold it in enough, although being the first time I was careful to not over-mix and destroy the bubbles.

Sponge Cake: Folding In Melted Butter
Sponge Cake: Folding In Melted Butter

The fluffy batter was placed into a cake pan immediately and placed into the oven which had been pre-heated to 350 degrees F.

Sponge Cake: Poured Batter
Sponge Cake: Poured Batter

After 40 minutes the cake was fully baked and pulled out f the oven.

Sponge Cake: Baked
Sponge Cake: Baked

Once it has sufficiently cooled, I cut a slice and was able to see the dense network of air pockets that were left from the bubbles in the batter.

Sponge Cake: Slice
Sponge Cake: Slice

Although the book instructions allowed for the addition of baking powder, I opted not to use any and focus on the ratio. I’m sure the baking powder would have provided a nice lift, but this cake was a perfect texture for adding some tasty Maine wild blueberry jam, that I picked up on our family trip to Kennebunkport a few months ago.

Sponge Cake with Wild Maine Blueberry Jam
Sponge Cake with Wild Maine Blueberry Jam

Two cakes in less than a week are enough to ruin any diet, but in my quest to learn certain sacrifices must be made no matter how hard they are and how much I suffer. It’s a tough life that I live; I know this. At least this lesson is not tough to swallow.

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