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Let's bake a cake

Decoding the science of folding batter, adding alcohol, and oven temperature—just in time for Christmas

Illustration by Krish Ashok
Illustration by Krish Ashok

The Italians describe baking in a way that only their ilk is able to. They say that baking bread is about taking something alive, killing it, bringing it back to life with the help of something else and then sacrificing that something else to give birth to bread. If you got lost in the pronoun jungle, let me help you out. It’s about killing the wheat plant, taking its grain, milling it into dead flour and then bringing it to life by adding water, salt and yeast, and as it rises, coming alive, putting it in the oven and sacrificing the yeast to give birth to glorious bread. The drama is well-deserved because no one who looked at the odourless and tasteless powder (wheat flour) would believe that just water, salt, yeast, time and heat could transform it into the utterly heartwarming flavours of fresh baked bread.

For most of humanity, yeast wasn’t the tiny dried granules you are familiar with in your modern kitchen. In fact, it wasn’t something bakers even knew existed because yeasts are single-cellular fungi that are pretty omnipresent and rather invisible. Simply letting flour and water sit at room temperature for a few hours causes it to ferment, and this is how sourdough bread is made even today—by taming wild yeast (and some lactobacteria, which lends the sour in sourdough) that is naturally present in wheat flour. But temperamental biological agents aren’t the only way to leaven bread. Baking soda and baking powder do the trick too, and, in fact, are preferred when baking bread’s saccharine cousin—cake.

We can’t possibly do justice to the universe of baking in a single column, so I am going to condense this to five key elements—flour, kneading, additives, leavening agent and oven. Let’s start with flour. If you are baking bread, high protein flour (typically called bread flour) is preferred, but you can use maida (refined flour) enriched with something called Vital Wheat Gluten to increase its protein content. As I explained in the story about the science of wheat, atta is a bad idea because it has damaged gluten. If you are baking cake, it’s best to use something called cake flour, which is very low protein wheat flour that is milled more finely than maida. But you can simply use maida too because as long as you don’t over-knead the dough, your cake will be fine, which brings us to element number two—kneading.

If you are baking bread, you need to knead or let the dough sit and knead itself (a process called autolysis that causes wheat flour to knead itself in the presence of water over time, and thus helps you avoid having to exercise your deltoid muscles), but if you are baking cake, you need to avoid kneading as much as possible because a cake is expected to be airy, fluffy and light, not chewy, and kneading builds gluten structure. Even just using a ladle to mix the batter will end up encouraging gluten formation. Time also builds gluten, which is why flour is often the last thing that is added to cake batter.

The third element is additives. When baking basic bread, all you need is salt, but if you work in butter into the dough, the bread will be softer in texture and tastier (because there is literally no ingredient that single-handedly improves any dish by a bigger margin than butter). Fat in general shortens gluten structures and lends a flakier mouth-feel to whatever you are baking. This is why a croissant, which can sometimes have up to 80 layers of butter and dough, tastes the way it does. When baking cakes, on the other hand, some form of sugar is the primary additive, and sugar can come from a variety of sources—honey, fruits, etc. It is also not uncommon to use alcoholic liquids like rum or brandy when making cake because it serves two purposes. Alcohol retards gluten development and thus helps the cake retain a lighter, less chewy texture, and the liquor itself has tons of other flavours that infuse the cake.

The fourth element is the leavening agent. Bread uses yeast because slow fermentation adds tremendous flavour. Cakes use baking soda and/or baking powder because the dominant flavour profile of the cake comes from the additives, not the fermentation of the flour, which, if anything, gets in the way of a primarily sweet-tasting flavour. Baking soda/powder simply serve the purpose of pumping carbon dioxide into the batter and creating a fluffy canvas for the additives to shine.

The fifth element (or as the late author/satirist Terry Pratchett calls it, the element of surprise) is the oven. Baking is a cooking method that requires temperatures well above the boiling point of water because the aim is to get just enough water in the dough or batter to evaporate while letting Dr Maillard do his magical browning reaction at temperatures of 110-170 degrees Celsius. So, you need a convection oven, which comes in three configurations in this part of the world. The most popular variety is a oven-toaster-grill (OTG), whose oven setting will do the job. An air fryer is another alternative that has become rather popular of late despite its somewhat misleading name. It’s really a small-sized convection oven, whose size enables it to bake faster than an OTG or a regular-sized oven, which is the third variety, and tends to be less commonly found in India although it’s a standard presence in every single home in the West.

Baking requires precision, unlike cooking, where you can mostly approximate ingredients if you know what role they play in a dish. Baking, however, is a carefully choreographed dance. It’s about bringing to life a precise proportion of ingredients in a warm oven in a slow and leisurely manner. As author Dean Koontz puts it—Where there is cake, there is hope. And there is always cake.

Illustration by Krish Ashok
Illustration by Krish Ashok

Krish Ashok is the author of Masala Lab: The Science Of Indian Cooking.

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