Mastering cake art
Frosting a beautiful cake takes a certain amount of skill and plenty of practice.
Tips from the professionals certainly help, especially when accompanied by step-by-step photographs illustrating decorating techniques, such as in "Cake Art," by Kate Cavotti and Alison McLoughlin; Lebhar-Friedman Books; $29.95.
This beautifully illustrated 200-page book from the Culinary Institute of America is sure to inspire with its full-page finished cakes. The photos show how to create everything from making a paper comet for piping to finished cupcakes and cakes.
Recipes cover several types of cakes and decorative frostings, including buttercream, royal icing, fondant and ganache. Techniques include working with modeling chocolate, gum paste, marzipan, stencil stamps, molds and more. Everything is deconstructed, providing a shot of confidence for newcomers.
Things to keep in mind
Here are a few baking tips from "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Cooking Substitutions: An A to Z Compendium of Recipe Savers for Spices, Staples and More!" by Ellen Brown; Alpha, $16.95:
Sifting lightens the flour and adds volume, as well as ridding it of any lumps.
If you want to make whipped cream up to a few hours in advance of serving it, use confectioners' sugar rather than granulated sugar. The small amount of cornstarch it contains keeps the whipped cream stabilized and prevents it from spreading.
It's very important to proof your yeast before making a dough. By sprinkling the yeast on water that's between 105 degrees and 115 degrees and waiting for it to begin foaming, you can make sure the yeast is alive.
When using zest, use only the colored part of the rind. The white substance underneath, called the pith, is extremely bitter.
Buy real vanilla extract. You can taste the difference.
Here are some tips that anyone facing a roster of holiday baking can take into the kitchen:
Before your start, read the recipe from start to finish and gather all ingredients.
When making a cake batter with more than two mixtures going together, don't incorporate the batters 100 percent until the final addition. Mix them just 75 percent. This helps avoid overmixing.
"Comb" cake batter up the inside of the cake pan with a spatula and the cake will rise better.
Don't poke a cake with a toothpick or other cake tester; if it isn't done and must return to the oven, then you've just given moisture a way to escape. Instead, touch the center lightly; it is done when it springs back.
When letting a cake cool after baking, place a paper towel on top to trap steam and prevent the cake from drying out.
Still hungry for more?
"The Pastry Chef's Companion" (Wiley, $19.95) is an A-to-Z dictionary that contains more than 3,000 industry terms and their definitions with phonetic spellings and cross-referencing. The authors also provide extensive lists of must-have baking resources that include:
Conversion formulas and equivalents
Seasonal fruit availability
12 steps of baking
What went wrong and why scenarios