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Cake primer


Cakes are the sweetest quick breads of all. About the only thing common to all cakes is the fact that they are called cakes. Although most of us might agree on what should go in a “cake,” cakes can, literally, contain anything from soup to nuts. Conversely, every ingredient you might assume ought to be in a cake will be absent in some variation. The only two ingredients that you’ll find in all of them are some kind of sweetener and a little salt to intensify flavor. (Some cakes don’t even contain flour.)

Cakes can be made with butter, margarine, lard, vegetable oil, or not fat at all. They can be made with one egg or a dozen, with just the whites or yolks, or with no eggs at all. They can be flavored simply with vanilla, or with other extracts, liqueurs, spices, fruits, vegetables or nuts. They can be enjoyed straightforward, light and simple; they can be a vehicle for elegant toppings or icings; they can be the binding for a profusion of fruits and nuts. All these and more can be called cakes.

King Arthur cake flours

King Arthur cake flour

A typical cake flour is bleached with chlorine. Among other things, bleach toughens the flour's protein so that it can hold more of those ingredients (sugar and fat) that put stress on a cake's structure. We don't believe in bleaching flour; so our King Arthur Unbleached Cake Flour Blend is a bit higher in protein (9.4%) than a typical bleached cake flour, which allows it to successfully “carry” the cake's high levels of sugar and fat. Our cake flour produces a medium-fine texture cake, moist and flavorful—with absolutely no added chemicals.

Aerating flour

The first is to incorporate as much air into the flour as possible at the outset. All flour is pre-sifted through many layers of silk screening before it is bagged and shipped from the mill. During shipment, all flour settles and compacts. Our mothers and grandmothers used a sifter to restore flour to its original sifted state. Today it is still desirable to accomplish this even when flour is labeled “pre-sifted,” but here’s a simpler way to do it.

Before you measure, fluff up the flour in the bag with a spoon. Then sprinkle it into a “dry” cup measure, and scrape off the excess with the back of a knife. Flour measured this way weights 4 ounces per cup. Flour scooped from a bag will weigh as much as 5 ounces per cup. Our recipes, unless otherwise specified, are written for 4 ounce cups of flour. If you used the scoop and sweep method in one of our recipes, your cake might better be used as a door stop! Four-ounce cups of flour also contain significantly more air which is the first leavening agent in a cake and where a “light” cake begins.

Adding cornstarch

If you choose to use King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour for your cakes, you can approximate the characteristics of a “cake flour cake” by substituting cornstarch for some of the flour in the recipe. To do this, spoon 2 to 4 tablespoons cornstarch into a 1-cup dry measure. Sprinkle in King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour until the cup is full, then scrape off the excess with the back side of a knife. Blend thoroughly.

While this technique will produce lighter cakes, many King Arthur fans use our unbleached all-purpose flour straight because they prefer the hearty, moist texture of “King Arthur cakes.” Plus, many of us who prefer robust cakes use some whole wheat flour in place of unbleached all-purpose.

Cake leavens

Baking powder

Cakes used to be leavened by yeast or by the air that was beaten into the eggs and/or butter in them. (The electric mixer has taken most of the drudgery out of this part of cake making.) Although getting air into cakes manually is still important, most cakes today depend on the leavening power of baking powder which is a combination of baking soda (alkaline or “sweet”) and an acid (“sour”) in powder form. When this magic powder is mixed with a liquid and exposed to heat, it begins to bubble and foam. It’s producing carbon dioxide, just as we do when we exhale and just as yeast does when it’s making bread rise. Cakes that contain an acid in another form, such as sour milk, buttermilk, or fruit juice, need only the “sweet” half of baking powder, the baking soda.