An Introduction to Desserts
The subject of dessert making is one that seems to illicit strong reactions in people. While most people are more than happy to consume dessert, those who have the interest, the discipline, and the talent to produce them are a far smaller group. Dessert making holds a certain mystique and is often associated with disastrous stories of curdled eggs, sunken souffl�s, and rock hard pie crusts. Unlike most areas of cooking where just a basic knowledge of food science is sufficient, dessert making requires a broader understanding of food chemistry and how and why dessert recipes work. Successful dessert making requires precision, patience, and strong attention span.
Dessert & Baking Equipment
The more familiar you are with your own equipment and tools, the more success you'll have. Many factors are involved in dessert making and with each of these comes potential challenges. You could follow a recipe to the word, but if your oven is quite different from the one in which the recipes were tested, you may end up with very different results.
The same can be said of your other kitchen equipment, your measuring tools, the type of metal your pans are made of as well as the freshness of your ingredients, the amount of the moisture in the air, the moisture content of the foods you are cooking with, and even the altitude. All of these, and more, are factors that can directly affect your level of success with dessert making.
Simple Desserts First
Certain areas of dessert production are more forgiving than others and it is always best to start out simple and move on from there as your skill level increases. Don't try to make a wedding cake before you've made a great batch of cookies. As you become proficient in dessert making, you start to recognize certain things and often know early in a project whether or not it is going to come out the way you want. With proficiency comes confidence and creativity and, when you are confident enough to relax and enjoy the process, you find that your creative juices begin to flow. At this level you are able to experiment more and as you understand the basics you also begin to garner an understanding of which areas allow room for creativity and which do not.
Baking cakes is not as daunting as many people believe, but to be successful at it you need to have patience and a basic understanding of the ingredients you are using. It is imperative that you follow recipes exactly because how the ingredients are handled and how they are combined will affect the quality and final outcome of your cake. The basic ingredients for most cakes are flour, butter, sugar, eggs, and often some type of chemical leavening such as baking powder or baking soda. From there, other ingredients and flavorings are added and all of these are factors that determine what type of cake you create. Cakes can be divided into two general categories--foam cakes and shortened or butter cakes.
Foam cakes are light and airy and only use eggs for leavening. Sometimes the eggs are left whole when they are whipped with the other ingredients, as with genoise. Sometimes the yolks and whites are whipped separately and then combined, as with sponge cake. Sometimes either the yolks or the whites are used, but not both, as with angel food cake. Foam cakes are most often made with cake flour because it absorbs moisture well, is finer in texture than all purpose flour, and has a lower gluten content, which keeps the cake from becoming tough. Foam batters must be handled gently and carefully because it is easy to deflate the whipped eggs when incorporating other ingredients into the batter. Because no other leavening is used, this results in a cake that does not have as much volume as it should.
Shortened cakes differ from foam cakes because they always contain fat, usually butter or shortening, and they use baking powder or baking soda in addition to eggs for leavening. Pound cake and devil's food cake are both examples of this type of cake. Shortened cakes are prepared using one of three methods. The first is called the creaming method, in which sugar and fat are creamed together and then the eggs are added slowly, and in stages, so that the batter doesn't curdle. Once the eggs are incorporated, the liquids and the dry ingredients are added either one before the other, or alternately. Cakes made this way are the most light and airy of the creamed cakes.
The second method, the one bowl technique, is the quickest and easiest way to make creamed cakes. In this method, the dry ingredients are blended with the fat and then the eggs and remaining ingredients are added. This technique produces a dense, moist, cake with a velvety texture, but less volume than a cake made using the creaming method.
The third technique is called the combination method and involves creaming the flour and fat and then adding eggs or egg yolks and any other liquids or flavors being used. Egg whites and sugar are then whipped together separately and folded into the creamed mixture at the very end. This method results in a light cake with a lot of volume.
It is very important when baking cakes that you use the proper sized pans and that you know how accurate the temperature of your oven is. It is sometimes possible to use different sized pans if you don't own the correct size, but keep in mind that each sized pan varies from the others in volume and this affects the baking time in addition to other factors. An oven thermometer, timer, and cooling racks are all tools that increase the likelihood of your cake baking experience being a good one.
Frosting cakes is an art form in itself, but making a great frosting from scratch is less of a challenge. There are many types of frostings. Some are quite time consuming and labor intensive such as butter creams and some are fast and simple, such as ganache. Each type is delicious in its own right and which type you use is determined by personal preference, how and when the cake will be served, and how ornately the cake will be decorated.
About the Author
After receiving degrees from the University of Wisconsin and the Culinary Institute of America, Andrea Rappaport moved into a full-time career in the restaurant business. For over 12 years, she worked in various culinary jobs, including as a cook for Wolfgang Puck at Spago, and ultimately as the executive chef and partner of the highly revered San Francisco restaurant Zinzino. For the past seven years, Andrea has worked as the private chef for one family in the San Francisco area, and continues to expand her culinary portfolio by catering, teaching, and consulting.