Last month, our Baking Club focused on Erin Jeanne McDowell's The Fearless Baker and members were thrilled that McDowell was an active participant in the Club, cheering on baking successes and helping to troubleshoot any missteps.
This month is the Club's first birthday, and we're celebrating by baking through all of the cookbooks we've covered so far (catch up on our first year here), which means everyone gets another month to keep baking fearlessly with McDowell. We've all learned a lot from her, so we're sharing her solutions to a few common baking issues so you can benefit, too.
1. Mysterious floating crusts
It’s never fun to pop a dessert in the oven and then watch with horror to see the crust (that’s supposed to be on the bottom) float up to the top as it bakes. That happened to Mark Neufang with Coconut Tres Leches Bars, and Jill Taylor shared that the same thing has happened to her with Lemon Bars. Erin helped them figured out that the par-baked crusts were still too warm, explaining that crusts can detach on you when they aren’t fully cooled before adding the filling.
2. Sinking jam in cakes
If you’ve ever swirled jam into cake batter, hoped it would stay suspended in the middle, and then been confounded by it sinking to the base of the pan (and sticking), you’re not alone. A number of members had this happen to them, and Erin explained that the culprit is likely the jam itself, not your technique:
Some jams are naturally more dense than others. By nature jams have a lot of sugar in them (it’s the preservative!) so some jams may be more likely to sink. I was going to recommend using a pastry bag to swirl the jam over the top of the batter (which will eventually be the bottom), so if it sinks it may only sink half way. For the record, I make a lot of my own homemade jams, but Smucker’s Seedless Raspberry Jam doesn’t sink for me!
3. Meringue that just won’t whip
Making meringue or a meringue-based frosting requires whipping egg whites to an ethereally light cloud of soft peaks, but sometimes it can seem like the egg whites refuse to cooperate. Mark Neufang made McDowell’s Devil's Food Peppermint High Hat Cupcakes and said: “The cupcakes themselves were great, but that frosting was just runny. I beat it for almost 20 minutes and it never beat to soft peaks!”
Once again, McDowell came through with the solution:
Since this is a meringue-based frosting, whipping for as long as 20 minutes usually means there was a smidgen of fat in your bowl (either remnants from another recipe made in the same bowl OR a tiny bit of egg yolk, which is most likely the culprit). In general, meringue only takes 5 to 6 minutes to reach full volume—any longer, it’s a sign that the egg whites themselves were the problem.
4. Batter overflowing pans
This has an obvious solution—use less batter in the pan!—but is no less frustrating when you’re cleaning the mess out of the bottom of your oven. In some cases, folks were using different sized pans than called for, whether smaller in diameter or shorter in height (McDowell uses cake pans that at least 2 1/2 inches tall), so it’s always important to check what the recipe calls for. But even if you’re using the correct size pan (or are pretty sure you are—one member had an overflow with a decorative loaf pan that McDowell knew from experience wasn’t quite the standard size), as a general rule, McDowell recommends never filling pans more than 3/4 of the way full to prevent overflows. If you have extra batter, use it to make a couple of cupcakes for snacking!
5. Air holes in cakes
Courtney Roberts was surprised to find large holes when she cut into her tasty vanilla pound cake and wondered why. McDowell said that they’re air pockets, which come from incorporating too much air into the batter, and went on to explain:
This usually happens once the flour is added, as the full batter likes to trap air pockets. A combination of slower/less mixing once you add the flour (it’s okay to incorporate plenty of air when it’s just butter + sugar in the mixer), and heavily tapping the pan once the batter is inside helps to eliminate excessive air pockets.
Ready to join in the fun? Find the Baking Club on Facebook, here.