BBC Food blog: Cake: man v machine

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As part of our on-going series on the kitchen gadgets that really count, this time our eye turns to cakes. Discussions in the office pit me against the rest of the team who believe an electric hand whisk is an essential piece of kit when making cakes. I remonstrate that people were making cakes long before we had electricity in our houses, but they insist: cakes are just better when an electric whisk is used. Time to find out…

 

Mary Berry’s Victoria sandwich is a baking classic and highly rated by users of BBC Food. 

The set up
A basic sponge recipe is needed so that we can easily assess any differences in texture, taste and appearance. Moist cakes such as fudgy chocolate cake and carrot cake have more tolerance for slip-ups than simple sponges, so I decide to plump for the classic Victoria sponge. Mary Berry’s perfect Victoria sandwich is our highest-rated sponge cake recipe so, knowing the recipe works, it seems a sensible choice.

The electric hand whisked method
This method has one step: tip everything into a bowl and go at it with an electric whisk. I can’t believe it’s going to work, but it does. It really does. I made cakes for years without an electric whisk, so it is ingrained in my consciousness that making cakes means beating the living daylights out the butter, furiously whisking eggs in individually and carefully folding in flour. But in just a couple of minutes, the batter is as smooth, glossy and aerated as it would have been after half an hour’s elbow grease.

The hand mixed method
Dare I disobey the doyenne of baking? The rules of the test are that we following the same recipe method exactly with precisely the same ingredients, but I know for certain that the tip it all in and mix method will not work well without the oomph of an electric whisk. I decide to cheat ever-so-slightly and cream the butter and sugar together before adding everything else. Working this way really doesn’t take very long either. The mixing time is double that of the electric method but when you’re only talking about a couple of minutes, that hardly matters. And the batter looks the same, but the purpose of mixing the ingredients isn’t just to incorporate them – it’s to add the air bubbles which vastly improve the texture of the cake. 

The finshed cakes side-by-side.

Spot the difference: the hand-made cake (left) and the one made using an electric whisk (right).

Results
In the bake, both cakes rise well (though the hand-beaten sponge rises a little inconsistently) and before they are cut you can’t spot the difference. When you cut into it that all changes: the crumb is obviously softer in the cake made using the electric whisk and, on eating, the texture is far superior. It just melts in your mouth the way a good cake really should and the flavour is better, just a touch more buttery.

I’m genuinely impressed at the results you can achieve by throwing all the ingredients into a bowl and mixing with an electric hand whisk. Even after I invested in one I continued to beat, whisk and fold because I thought that was necessary to get the best result – but there’s really no need. In fact, the only disadvantage of using an electric hand whisk is that it is possible to overbeat the batter resulting in a flat cake, which is highly unlikely to happen when mixing by hand.

 

slices of cake

A piece of cake: the cake made with the electric whisk (left) has a much lighter texture.

Making a cake without an electric mixer? I know from experience that great cakes can be made without an electric whisk, but you’ll need plenty of time and a strong arm. There are no shortcuts if you’re working by hand. Here are some tips:

  • Choose your recipe carefully (you need one that makes the batter in stages) and make sure your butter is really soft before you start (according to McGee on Food & Cooking the optimum temperature is 18C/65F, but for the sake of your arm muscles aim to get it as soft as possible without it being melted).
  • For the best results, you’ll need a hand whisk of some description for mixing in the eggs (a cheap balloon whisk is perfectly adequate) though you can use a wooden spoon if that’s all you have.
  • If possible use a heavy bowl to help prevent it slipping around while you’re working (alternatively place a damp cloth under the bowl).
  • Cream the butter and sugar together for as long as you can manage. Old cookery books tell tales of this taking up to 30 minutes, though it’s not necessary to take it quite so far, it does prove a point.
  • Whisk in your eggs individually, taking a good few minutes over each one. Add a little flour if the batter starts to split.
  • Finally, carefully fold the sifted flour into the batter in a few batches.

Try these recipes and be prepared to put your back into it:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/victoriasponge_13555
http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/victoriaspongewithst_90309
http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/lemon_drizzle_cake_with_90476

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