Baking already has a reputation for being very by the book — and this can also unfortunately translate to "complicated" for many folks. In the newest episode of "Bake it Up a Notch," I wanted to explore all the wonderful treats you can make without a lot of equipment, mixing in a bowl either by hand, or with a trusty hand mixer. But a few special tricks can take even the simplest recipe to the next level. Here are my tips for making some of the simplest, tastiest bakes.
1. Get to know (and love) the blending method
The blending method is the simplest mixing method in baking. The ingredients are mixed — or blended — until they are combined into a smooth batter. This is the method used for so many cakes, from quick breads and muffins to anything marked a "one bowl" wonder. The key to the blending method is evenly combining the ingredients without over-mixing, which can leave the finished item tough after baking.
Start by whisking your dry ingredients together — this not only combines them, it aerates them. Whisk your wet ingredients together, too, but separately. This allows ingredients that are harder to incorporate, like eggs, to be partially mixed and more fluid when they combine with the dry, which will allow the batter to come together more easily. I usually start by using a whisk to combine the wet and dry ingredients, because at the beginning, that brings things together a bit better. However, some mixtures are too thick to be whisked, and the batter can just sort of gunk up the whisk wires — so a silicone spatula or wooden spoon works great, too. The goal is to mix the two only until they are uniformly combined. Stop mid-mix to scrape the bowl a few times, making sure everything on the base and sides of the bowl is becoming incorporated. Once everything is combined, you're good to go. Don't be tempted to over-mix!
2. Yes, ingredients really should be at room temperature
It may be especially tempting to cut a corner (like softening butter) when mixing up an easy recipe. Tasks like these can seemingly slow down what would otherwise be a quick, simple baked good. But anyone who has ever tried mixing cold butter and sugar together with a wooden spoon will know — it's actually a lot more work when the ingredients aren't at the correct temperature. The reason so many baking recipes call for ingredients to be at room temperature is because it makes it easier for the ingredients to incorporate into the batter. The good news is that this also makes the batter come together faster, too (like this gingery spice cake, which comes together in minutes).
Need to get to room temperature fast? Try my tricks below:
- To soften butter: place a stick of butter (still wrapped in its paper) in the microwave. Heat for 10 seconds, then rotate the stick so the side that was the base is now on the top. Microwave for 5 to 7 seconds more, and the butter should be just soft enough!
- To take the chill off eggs: Place the eggs in a heat-safe bowl and cover with very warm water until fully submerged. Let sit for 5 minutes.
- To take the chill off dairy or other liquids: place into a heat-safe container and microwave in 3-second bursts, stirring in between. It should only take 3 to 4 times.
3. Prepare the pan thoughtfully
Taking the time to thoughtfully prepare your pan can make the difference in your final bake. I'm not just talking about making it look extra snazzy, it's also important because some styles of simpler bakes are cut and served right from the pan. To ensure your slices come out clean, try these tips:
- When lining a square, rectangular, or loaf pan with parchment paper, try lining it twice. Lightly grease the pan, then place a piece of parchment across one direction of the pan. Lightly grease the parchment paper, then place another piece of parchment going in the opposite direction. Not only will this ensures even coverage, it also makes for easy "handles" to pull your finished item out of the pan come slice time.
- If a recipe calls for the pan to be greased, you can use a light coating of oil, room temperature fat like butter, or nonstick spray. Apply a thin, all over coating, paying special attention to the corners and edges of the pan.
- Nonstick spray is typically my favorite because it allows for an easy all-over coating. When applying nonstick spray to nonstick pans, apply it just before you're ready to add the batter to the pan, otherwise the spray may slide down the sides pool in the base of the pan.
- When greasing a bundt or tube pan, be sure to apply the greasing agent liberally, paying special attention to the center tube and any ridges or details. Appling the grease with a soft-bristled brush can help you get into nooks and crannies for especially intricate bundt designs. Without grease in these areas, the cake is more likely to bake unevenly and/or stick to the pan — dreaded bundt issue. Try these tips to nail the perfect bundt, like this toasted almond and chocolate bundt.
4. It's all about inclusions
Easier recipes sometimes opt for inclusions over finishes like frostings. Inclusions are anything added to the batter to add flavor and texture. Inclusions are typically added towards the end of mixing, after the batter has come together. Many inclusions, like nuts or chocolate, require no major preparation beyond chopping to the desired size before being added to the batter. Other ingredients, like fresh fruit may require peeling, pitting, or chopping. Sometimes, inclusions that contain a lot of moisture can be tossed in flour before they are added to the batter. This helps the ingredients stay suspended in the oven, rather than sink to the bottom of the bake. In my blueberry biscuit buckle recipe, for example, it helps keep the berries centered, so they beautifully stud the middle of each and every slice.
5. Embrace the poke cake
Whether you love tres leches or have never had a poke cake (aka, a cake where flavorful liquid is poured over a cake after baking. This method produces an incredible moist cake with a delicious, custardy texture that is nothing short of craveable. It's typically used on a sheet cake, and the liquid being poured over can be anything from dairy to fruit juice to pudding. Best of all, this method couldn't be easier or more adaptable.
Here are some things to pay attention to in order to nail this simple technique:
- Cake temperature: Depending on the desired results, this method can be done on a warm cake or a cooled cake. Pouring liquid over a warm cake will make it easier to absorb, but will also impact the cake's texture more — producing a more puddingy result. Pouring liquid over a cooled cake may mean the liquid absorbs more slowly, but it can also produce a more cakey end result.
- Your poking tool size: The size of the tool you use to poke holes into the cake will also impact the final result. You can use a smaller tool, like a toothpick or skewer, to make many holes all over — this promotes more even absorption. Using a larger tool, like a chopstick, will produce a more striated effect in the final cake — even making visible stripes in the cake where the liquid was poured in.
- Consistency of the pour: As mentioned, just about any flavorful liquid (or even a custard!) can be poured over a cake in this method, and produce delicious results. The classic cake, tres leches, pours over three kinds of milks, which the cake absorbs to become soft and custardy. Other thin liquids, like fruit juice, can make a tasty option (like this watermelonade poke cake). My personal favorite is using pudding to pour over the cake (like in this chocolate pudding cake). Remember, thicker pouring consistencies will also translate into a slower absorption time.
6. Whip out the low-effort finishes
Just because a cake is easy doesn't mean it has to go naked. There are dozens of ways to make a basic cake more beautiful and more delicious, without going all-in on effort! Here are a few of my most turned-to finishes that can easily gussy up the simplest cake:
- Coarse sugar: Turbinado, sanding, or sparkling sugar sprinkled on top of a batter before baking makes a beautifully sparkly and delightfully crunchy effect after baking.
- Powdered sugar: A sifting of powdered sugar after baking fancies up just about anything.
- Jam, curd and other spreads: Who needs frosting when you can add a pop of flavor and color with just a single swipe? Swirl spreads into batters before baking, or use them to fill or finish them after baking.
- Whipped cream: Lightly sweetened or totally plain, whipped cream is the lowest effort frosting around (and always a crowd-pleaser).
- Garnishes: Add some final flair to your cake by adding fresh fruit, toasted nuts, chopped chocolate after baking.
7. Try serving warm
Looking for the fastest way to go from zero to cake? Try something that's meant to be served warm, like skillet cake; or go for the delightful style of cake the British call "self-saucing puddings," where a portion of the mixture is molten, soft, and thus sauces the cake (self-sauces, that is). I find these cakes simultaneously easy and comforting — a rare combination that makes it as worthy of an after dinner party treat as it is a lazy Sunday afternoon snack. For a bright, homey option, try this lemon raspberry skillet cake.