cake & whipped cream: two hard {science} lessons

The first time I made a tres leches cake, it was fantastic.  And not just because I’d never made it before, either.  Or perhaps, it was beginner’s luck…  The cake was light, airy and drenched in just the right amount of unmeasured three-milks solution.  The whipped cream topping was perfect, too.  Unlike what I’m required to do in the lab at work, I didn’t take notes on my experiment.  The raw data was perfect, but other than memory, I had no way of recreating it.  Well, memory didn’t serve me today.  It was on vacation.

Lesson #1:  When adding the dry ingredients to your creamed eggs and sugar mixture, be gentle.  Beat on low, or fold in the flour/baking powder/etc., especially if you’re using all-purpose flour.  The batter isn’t your ex, and it’s not the mean girl who wouldn’t let you sit next to her on the school bus.  It’s cake, for Peet’s sake!

Oh… where was I?…

Moving on.

Over beating the batter develops the gluten (a protein) and makes the cake dense and tough.  It’ll still taste great, but the structure will be different.  Unless you’re going for a dense, flourless cake– a totally different topic– cake should be light and fluffy.  Cake and pastry flours contain less protein content, so you might get away with slight overbeating, but why risk it?  As the played out sign reads:  Stay calm and… uuummm… don’t carry on for too long!  Or use other than all-purpose flour.

Lesson #2:  One of the most delightful things in life is whipped cream.  It really is.  And I’m not referring to the toxic, canned aerosol stuff your teenage neighbor uses to get high off of.  I’m talkin’ about simple, fresh, three-ingredient, homemade whipped cream.  Once again, the last time I made it, coincidentally to accompany the perfect, pilot tres leches cake episode, I knew when to stop.  Beating, that is.  I stopped at the first sign of a stiff peak.  Not a minute later like today, when I practically churned the cream into  butter.  You see, whipping cream contains fat, and when whisked or beaten, it allows air molecules to get involved.  In case you care, air contains cool stuff like Oxygen and Nitrogen, amongst others.  The air molecules enter the cream and create soft, fluffy peaks.  If the mixing stops, the soft peaks eventually lose their structure and the cream becomes liquid again.  However, if you keep beating the whipping cream, the fat molecules lose their protective outer membranes and join forces to envelop the air bubbles, trapping and stabilizing them.  Hence, stiffer peaks that stick together.  Once this happens, there’s no going back.  The stiff whipped cream is 1)  harder to spread, 2) like myself, cracks under pressure and 3) not what the doctor ordered.  So, take it easy and stop when you see a soft, fluffy cloud.

Class adjourned.

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