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Pound cake.

Slice into a well-earned pound cake. Image courtesy of Flickr user christine592.

In the days before pre-packaged cake mixes and electric mixers, baking a cake was an arduous process. Pretend you're living more than a century ago. How long do you think you can hand-blend ingredients without tiring? Ready your biceps, everyone. There's a long road ahead.

According to The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, written in 1747, to make a proper pound cake one must combine ingredients and beat them together for an hour by hand or by spoon. The result of slacking on this labor is a dense, heavy-textured cake. 

Thank chemistry for this burden. A traditional cake's makeup consists of two competing parts: structure-building flour and eggs, and structure-weakening butter and sugar. The flour and eggs create scaffolding, if you will, that must contain the gas bubbles that escape from the fats and sugars to create moist, fluffy cakes. Without this scaffolding, the tasty fats and sugars escape during baking and result in dense, collapsed disks. Likewise, without fat and sugar, you lack a sweet, rich dessert.

The gas bubbles are generated from mixing, and the harder you stir, the more air is generated. Look lovingly at your electric mixer, which speeds up this process nearly ten-fold. The best outcome: an arm that isn't too tired to fork a soft chunk of cake into your hungry mouth.

Jennifer Dionisio is program associate for the Roy Eddleman Institute.

Related links:
First Fridays at CHF: Let Chem Eat Cake
Kitchen 101: Poached Eggs [Periodic Tabloid]

Posted In: History

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