Simple solutions for your 10 biggest baking blunders, writes Sarah Hobbs.
There are a couple of reasons why the surface can crack while cooking. The oven could be too hot, making the cake rise too quickly and leading to cracking once cooked through. Invest in an oven thermometer to double check you’re spot on with the heat levels.
The other is opening the oven door too often to check the cake while baking, making the oven temperature fluctuate.
OVERCOOKED ON THE OUTSIDE, UNDERCOOKED IN THE MIDDLE
If a cake is overbrowning, then the oven temperature could be too hot, as the cake cooks from the outside in, burning the outside before the middle cooks. The best solution is to reduce the temperature. Or you could loosely cover the cake top with foil to protect it (only for last half of cooking time – the cake does need to create a crust first).
The other problem could be if you are using a fan-forced oven. A fan can be “too violent”, with the strong burst of air browning the cake too quickly.
A baker I know is very fussy about the appearance of a cake so she will bake a cake half in convection oven, then cover with foil and cook the remaining time on fan-forced.
The best way to keep scones soft is to wrap them in a tea towel as soon as they are out of the oven. The steam softens the crust (this is what my Granny, a scone queen, always used to do).
Another way is to place them close together on the tray or in a square cake pan. That lets them bake upward and keeps the sides softer.
Overworking the dough will develop the gluten making harder scones – you need light fingers and a light touch.
If cupcakes spread into each other, then the cases have been overfilled. The cases should be filled only 2/3 – 3/4 full. If too much batter is put in the cup, it will overflow and run into the next cake, also flattening the surface of the cake.
UNEVEN RISING OF CAKE (DOMED)
Again there are a number of causes for this: the oven shelf or rack is at an angle; the oven element is uneven, that is, hotter at one end than the other; or the fan is blowing too hard causing a volcano effect.
If the oven is too hot, the raising agent can get started immediately and cause a dome shape before the cake is cooked through. The same thing can happen if the cake mixture is in a too-small pan.
CREAMING BUTTER AND SUGAR
When a recipe says “beat butter and sugar until light and creamy” what does the “light” part actually mean?
The light part means the butter should be aerated with the sugar, turning from yellow into a pale cream colour. It is important to aerate the butter and sugar before adding the eggs. As long as the butter is softened before beating, this process shouldn’t take longer than a few minutes. The texture should be lighter, as well, but it is mostly referring to the colour.
Never remember to take the butter out of the fridge until you’re about to start baking? You’re not alone – this happens to me all the time. The best thing to do is to chop the butter into small cubes to help it warm up more quickly. Alternatively, place the butter in a microwave on a low setting to gently soften the butter, stirring regularly. Be careful not to melt it.
You can place the butter in a bowl and place the bowl in a warm-water bath or quickly place in the preheated oven until soft.
Or, do what the taste editor’s nana used to do and grate the rock-hard butter straight into the bowl.
If a cake collapses, it could be because there is too much raising agent in the mixture or the oven temperature is too high. If there is too much raising agent, the cake will quickly start rising as carbon dioxide bubbles form. But the gluten will not have set to support these bubbles so the bubbles will collapse and the cake collapses with it.
PREVENTING CAKE FROM STICKING TO TIN
Always grease a cake pan with melted butter or oil spray. A sure fire way is to line the base and sides with baking paper. However, if you are using a pan with a delicate pattern that can’t be lined, grease the pan with melted butter then dust with plain flour (shaking out any excess).
MERINGUES EITHER TOO SOFT OR TOO HARD
When making meringues, make sure the sugar is totally dissolved into the eggwhites before piping.
If the meringue is not cooked long enough – it should be dry to the touch – it could have a soft crust.
If the temperature is too hot, the sugar could caramelise leaving a golden meringue that is too hard with the soft gooey centre disappearing into the super thick, hard crust.