I was baking a cake this morning and as I creamed the butter and sugar I thought back to some rather solid cakes I have made previously. I am an excessively lazy cook. I don’t like following recipes and I certainly don’t like recipes with multiple steps. Thus I went through a phase of throwing all ingredients for a cake into a mixer and beating until smooth. These cakes always were solid and didn’t rise properly. Why – the ingredients were exactly the same?
It turns out that the annoying steps are actually important. Cakes, breads and pastries are made using wheat flour. This contains gluten, a network of proteins called prolamins. As you knead bread (with warm hands), the gluten forms into long stringy chains which are strong and give home-made bread that solidity.
However for light puff pastries and cakes, you want a fluffy texture. Thus working the batter too much (or over-working pastry on a warm day) will lead to heavy cakes and solid pastries.
So when you make a cake, cream the butter and sugar then slowly add eggs. Flour is the last ingredient and the batter should not be beaten for too long. Keep those gluten chains short!
Shewry PR, Halford NG. Cereal seed storage proteins: structures, properties and role in grain utilization. J Exp Bot 2002;53:947-58.
Barham, P. (2001) The Science of Cooking, Springer-Verlag, New York.