It's almost sheer magic -- a liquidy mass of ingredients goes into the pan and comes out of the oven as cake.
In her book CookWise (William Morrow, 1997), Shirley O. Corriher has a chapter called “how rich it is!” which focuses on recipes where fat is a major ingredient.
If you’re not a food chemist but someone who likes to bake cakes, you’ll probably enjoy reading the section on cakes where Corriher explains what makes the liquidy mass of ingredients that goes into the pan come out of the oven as cake. Unlike soups and stews, where ingredients and amounts can be tinkered to customize a recipe, there is only so much tweaking you can do with cakes. Most batters, for instance, are a combination of “tenderizers” (sugar and fat) and “tougheners” (flour, eggs and milk). When the amount of one ingredient is changed, adjustments have to be made in others to restore the balance.
Pastry chefs use formulas and know how much leeway they have when making changes in a recipe. They know when buttermilk can be added to a batter to lighten a cake or oil to make it moister.
“A balanced recipe creates a successful cake,” writes Corriher. If you’re like us, you leave the balancing to the professionals and concentrate on changes you know will work. For example, whenever we make pound cake we glaze the top with a sugary lemon syrup, and when we bake pumpkin cupcakes, we cover them with spicy cream cheese frosting. That’s kind of mixing and matching we used for this chocolate cake with peanut butter frosting.
–By Jean Kressy