Cakes, cakes, cakes—as in “pound,” “layer” and “sponge,” the three basic categories. These range from the heaviest textured batter of a pound cake to the lighter, less-dense layer-type cakes and, finally, to the super-light and fragile sponge cake.
If you respect and understand the mechanics, ingredients and mixing processes involved for each type, these in-demand desserts are just that to make—a piece of cake.
Batter ingredients—eggs, sugars, flours, leaveners, fats/oils and other liquids—are similar in nature for most cakes, but each type does entail specific and unique differences. I’m going to focus more on the flours and certain chemical leaveners.
Cake flour, a chemically bleached soft-wheat variety, is the type most commonly used for gluten-based cakes. The characteristics of such flour are critical to maintaining a tender cake. And the chemical bleaching process helps produce a softer structure. Of course, for your baking confections, the cake flour needs to be replaced with a gluten-free flour, ranging from an all-purpose blend to one as simple as almond flour. Depending on the type used, I’d consider increasing the amount by 20 percent (based on the original weight of cake flour listed).
If the cake batter recipe calls for baking powder, make sure that the starch it contains is truly gluten free. If it isn’t or you’re not sure, simply make your own version. Follow these instructions to create your own single-acting baking powder, which will work as long as you’re using it immediately. It won’t work in batter made ahead of time, then frozen or refrigerated. Remember 2-1-1 as a simple ratio for preparing your own baking powder. Mix, then sift together 2 ounces cream of tartar, 1 ounce baking soda and 1 ounce cornstarch.
Eggs and egg whites
Replacing some of the eggs in a recipe with egg whites provides the extra protein structure missing from some gluten-free flours. Use two egg whites in place of one whole egg. You can also whip up the egg whites to a medium peak, then carefully fold into the batter at the very end. The whipped whites introduce more air to the batter, improving its texture.
Consider using a tubular-shaped cake or Bundt pan. The hole in the center assists in baking the middle of the cake by transferring heat to the center area, which can reduce the chance of it falling.
Is it ready?
Remember, gluten-free cakes tend to contain hidden moisture due to their extra-dense cell structure. So, don’t be afraid to bake the cake a few extra minutes to drive that moisture out. Also, use a good pencil-type thermometer to check the temperature in several places. The cake will be ready when the internal temperature is around 210° F and it starts pulling away from the walls of the pan. Once fully baked, immediately remove from the pan onto parchment or a cooling screen.
Pound cakes tend to have the longest shelf life, while sponge cakes dry out quickly. If you’re baking a cake ahead of time for an event or occasion, consider storing in the freezer after it cools to room temperature. Just wrap well before freezing. In the case of layer cakes, dabbing simple syrup on top of each layer when assembling will bring back needed moisture:
Syrup Simple as 1-2-3
To make simple syrup, combine one cup of granulated sugar with one cup of water in a saucepan, and bring to a boil. Allow to cool to room temperature before using. Store extra syrup in the refrigerator.
Richard Coppedge Jr. is an award-winning chef and professor of baking and pastry arts at The Culinary Institute of America. He is the author of Gluten-Free Baking with The Culinary Institute of America: 150 Flavorful Recipes from the World’s Premier Culinary College and Baking for Special Diets.
Illustration by Danel Vasconcellos
If your mouth is watering over the image at the top of the page, check out the recipe for the Chocolate-Peanut Butter Layer Cake!