I never had the kind of grandmother who baked all through the day in a red and white checkered apron and greeted us at the door with a plateful of warm chocolate chip cookies. My grandmother was far too busy updating herself to the latest computer gadgets and playing tennis to spend much time in the kitchen. My mother also seems to have been born without the cooking and baking gene. She is more comfortable traveling around the world that she is in a pair of oven mitts.
As a result, I didn’t have the usual family resources to consult when I became interested in baking. Nevertheless, I was determined to try, because few things look, taste, or smell as good as freshly baked treats. Taking what information I could from beautifully illustrated cooking and baking books and websites, I became particularly enthralled with the way in which many items managed to be a visual as well as flavorful masterpiece.
Few edible items manage to look nearly as impressive as a fabulously decorated cakes. I was intimidated for a long time at the prospect of attempting my own cakes, because it seemed like it must be such a complicated process. On the other hand, I always felt like I was either wasting money or compromising taste by purchasing a cake from a grocery store or a specialty bakery.
Cakes are a festive and delicious addition to any special occasion, but they can be shockingly expensive to purchase. Additionally, many store-bought cakes seem to give much less thought to the actual baking process than to covering the cake with fondant dinosaurs, meaning the cakes look fun but don’t taste that special.
Fortunately, it’s possible to make a great cake at home. Best of all, most of the ingredients are already in your home, ensuring the best ingredients and best possible taste for your product. And it turns out that decorating tools such as fondant are not that difficult either, meaning you can create beautiful and original cakes in your own kitchen.
Grinding Flour from Grain
Flour is the foundation of most cakes – a kind of framework from which all of the sweet and tasty ingredients are added. For many of us, “flour” automatically means wheat flour, but it’s possible to grind flour out of pretty much any grain. What’s Cooking America has a great breakdown of all the different types of flour and what many of them are commonly used for. I would recommend starting your baking adventures with wheat flour and then experimenting with different flours if you want to try for different tastes and flavors.
Grinding your own flour ensures that you will have access to the freshest flour possible. Home-ground flour loses fewer nutrients than flours that are commercially ground. Also, home-ground flour will usually have a richer flavor than store-bought flour even after it has been stored for some time.
Once you have chosen your grain, it should be rinsed before grinding to wash away the powdery coating that can imbue the flour with a bitter flavor. The seeds should then be thoroughly dried, which can be best accomplished by spreading them flat on a baking tray and letting them dry in a warm and dry location.
Seeds can be ground by hand using a mortar and pestle, or using an electric grinder. Hand grinding takes a long time, but it is also the best way to ensure that you end up with very fine and evenly ground flour. To make sure that chunks of seeds do not get lost in the flour, be sure to grind a small amount of grain at a time.
Baking With Honey
Many people like to substitute honey in place of sugar whenever possible. According to the Home Baking Association, honey can be substituted relatively easily into baked goods such as yeast breads and pancakes. However, Honeyview Farm recommends using caution when attempting to bake cakes with honey. Honey can create a heavy texture, since granulated sugar plays a role in trapping air bubbles. For best results, use a recipe that has been tested for honey. With other recipes, you may need to experiment with different combinations of granulated sugar and honey.
Making Confectioner’s Sugar
Making’s confectioner’s – or powdered – sugar for cake icing is a very simple matter. A regular blender or small coffee or spice grinder can easily handle the task of grinding standard white sugar into the powdered consistency necessary for smooth frosting. If you have a plastic blender, be aware that sugar crystals are hard enough to scratch the sides when you blend. An electric or manual coffee grinder might be a better choice if you don’t want your plastic blender getting scratched.
One cup of granulated sugar will get you one cup of confectioner’s sugar after blending. The sugar should be stored in an air tight container, and adding one or two tablespoons of corn starch will help keep the sugar from caking and improve thickening when you are turning the sugar into icing.
Churning (or Shaking) Butter
Butter can play a roll in both the cake ingredients and icing, depending on the recipes you use. Homemade butter is a wonderful addition to one or more of these elements, and like flour and powdered sugar, it is surprisingly easy and quick to make, with no fancy ingredients or tools required.
In fact, only one ingredient is necessary: cream. Making butter from cream is simply a processing of agitating the cream until the fat separates from the liquid part of the cream. With a Tupperware style carton and a bit of tricep and bicep endurance, this entire transformation can take mere minutes.
Omnomicon has a great illustrated step-by-step description of this process. Not only does it tell you exactly what to look and feel for as you shake the carton of cream, it also provides some delicious-looking pictures of the final product, in case you needed any added incentive!
Fondant is used to cover cakes or to add shapes of any description that are difficult to make with icing. It is essentially a sugar dough that can be dyed with food coloring and rolled out very thin. Large sheets of fondant may be laid over full cakes, while smaller pieces may be cut into special shapes by hand or with cookie cutters. You can even sculpt 3-D shapes that will harden if you add gum tragacanth.
One of the easiest and tastiest ways to make fondant is to use marshmallows as your sticky base, to which you can add confectioner’s sugar, shortening, and coloring if you choose. More complicated recipes involve unflavored gelatin and glycerine to create the necessary dough-like consistency and pliancy. These recipes are still relatively easy, and may be preferable for bakers who prefer not to take the shortcut of using a processed product like marshmallows.
If you want to cut your teeth on the marshmallow method, CakeJournal has a great step-by-step tutorial with photo illustrations. For the completely from scratch recipe, I like the instructions at thecookduke – there are no illustrations, but the directions are extremely detailed without being overwhelming. This site also includes some examples of cakes decorated with fondant, so that you can get an idea of the ways in which it can be used to make your cakes extra special.
No matter the occasion, nothing says celebration like a cake. And whether you are a prepper or not, a homemade cake adds that special gift that tells the recipient how much you love him or her.
©2012 Off the Grid News