Make sure that all of your ingredients are at room temperature, particularly the fat, eggs and any liquid you may be using. It's essential that all these items be at room temperature:
- If the butter is too cold, it won't beat evenly; it won't incorporate air and increase in volume.
- When eggs and liquid are cold, the batter will curdle. Instead of a smooth, homogenous batter, it will separate into liquid and fat, and the cake's texture may be denser than you like.
- If any of the ingredients are warm, the fat will melt and you won't be able to whip air into the mixture.
The second thing to do before mixing the batter is to thoroughly sift together all the dry ingredients. Cake flour and cocoa powder are especially fine, and form small lumps that won't get broken up during the mixing process. Unevenly mixed ingredients can create big holes and tunnels through the middle of the cake, alongside lumps of raw flour. Use a sifter or a wire whisk to make sure all lumps are broken up and those ingredients are well-mixed.
Mixing the Ingredients
You don't have to have a stand mixer to make a butter cake or pound cake, but it sure helps. Begin by beating the softened butter at medium speed until fluffy and light in color, about three minutes. Add the sugar and continue to beat for about four minutes longer. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. With the mixer on low speed, add the eggs one at a time and beat for several seconds between each addition. If the batter does curdle, just continue whipping it; it should smooth out once it warms up.
After you've beaten in the eggs, you must mix in the remaining ingredients as gently and quickly as possible to avoid deflating the air you've so carefully beaten into the mixture.
- Slow the mixer down to low speed and sprinkle in about 1/3 of the dry ingredients.
- Mix the batter while pouring in about 1/3 of the liquid (this includes milk, buttermilk, sour cream, juice, or coffee).
- Continue in this fashion until all of the ingredients are incorporated into a smooth batter.
- Any garnishes--nuts, fruit, chocolate chips or other additions--should be very gently folded in by hand after the batter is mixed.
The Creaming Method
Bakers use the "creaming method"--beating the fat and sugar together to hold air bubbles--and chemical leaveners like baking powder, rather than beaten eggs (like sponge cakes and angel food cakes) to create their fine texture.
The "creaming method" is the same mixing technique you use for a batch of chocolate chip cookies. For cakes, however, you keep beating air into the mix.
Beat room-temperature butter with granulated sugar (superfine, castor, or "bakers' sugar" is best) until the butter is very fluffy and noticeably lighter in color. Don't worry about over-mixing at this point; it's hard to do when creaming butter and sugar for a cake.
Add room temperature eggs one by one, beating after each addition. Adding all of the eggs or too much cold liquid at once will cause the batter to look curdled. Add any extracts or flavorings after incorporating the eggs.
Once you start adding dry ingredients, be careful not to over-beat the batter. The gentle handling is critical to creating a fine, not tough, texture in a cake. Many recipes alternate adding dry ingredients and any additional liquid; mix well after each addition, scraping down the sides of the bowl. Stop mixing when each addition is well incorporated.
Pour the batter immediately into a prepared baking pan--either greased and floured, or greased and lined with parchment paper--and bake in the preheated oven. As the cake bakes, it will rise high in the middle and turn a dark golden brown on the outside. Depending upon your oven, you may need to rotate the cake pans on their racks to ensure even baking.
Don't wait until the cake has pulled away from the sides of the pan to test for doneness: test it by pressing gently with a fingertip near the center. The cake should slowly spring back. (You can also insert a toothpick or cake tester near the center of the cake; it should come out clean, with no batter sticking to it.) Once you remove the cake from the oven, let it cool on a wire rack. Run a knife around the edges of the cake pan to loosen the cake, and invert the pan onto another rack or plate. Cool completely before slicing or frosting.