Years ago I used génoise as the base for wedding cakes, but after a few people complained of them being dry, I switched to butter cake. Génoise is meant to be dry so that it can soak up simple syrup, often flavored with liqueur. Even after being soaked, split and covered with buttercream, they do not have the same texture as a buttery layer cake.
Génoise is European and very different from the classic American layer cake. I attribute this lack of appreciation for génoise to what I call the Duncan-Hines Conundrum. American palates have become accustomed to that ultra-moist texture from cake mixes, which are filled with preservatives and made with all sorts of ingredients that a home baker would never add to their own cakes, but their texture is what Americans have become used to and they compare other cakes to this artificially enhanced texture. So how do we make sure our cakes are as moist as they can be?
Each of these tips might seem little, or nuanced, and they are, but add them up and they make a huge difference. Follow each one and you will have moist, flavorful homemade cakes every time.
- Equipment – You can read our take on Why Cake Pans Make a Difference, but in brief, it matters! Well-constructed pans will help your cake rise in a more level manner, avoiding sharp peaks. The edges and center will bake more evenly, eliminating harder, overbaked outer edges. Invest in good pans. (FYI, straight-sided pans give you a boost when cake decorating.)
- Ingredients – Use the ingredients called for. Substituting all-purpose flour for cake flour will negatively alter results, creating a courser, drier crumb. Make sure to measure your flour carefully as well. Too much flour, even two tablespoons too much, will make for a drier cake.
- Technique – Different cakes call for different techniques. Pay attention to what is called for in a specific recipe. If butter and sugar are to be creamed, do not shortchange that step. You are creating air bubbles, which will later translate to loft in your cake. Texture has a lot to do with how we perceive moistness. If you are folding in meringue, take it slow to preserve volume. Again, texture will be positively supported or negatively affected by how well you follow directions such as these.
- Do not overbake – This could be the number-one tip. Many recipes say to bake a cake till a toothpick tests clean. At Bakepedia, most of the time we suggest baking until a toothpick shows a few moist crumbs still clinging. This is because pans hold residual heat and the cake will continue to “bake” after it is removed from the oven.
- Testing for doneness – As for the actual act of testing for doneness, I like to use a bamboo skewer or wooden toothpick inserted in the center of the cake. Crumbs will actually cling. I do not like metal cake testers; I don’t think they offer you as much control in their results. Crumbs do not cling easily to them so I think it is easy to overbake cakes when using them as a diagnostic tool. In our image above you can see the top skewer still shows wet batter; cake must bake more. Middle skewer shows the progress the cake has made in about 5 minutes, but it is still not done. The bottom skewer shows a few moist crumbs clinging. Remove the cake from the oven at this point.
- Cool properly – Cooling cake pans on racks allows for proper air circulation. Unmolding the cakes at the right time allows even more heat to escape, preventing gumminess and a negatively affected texture. You might think you are done baking when the cake is removed from the oven, but proper cooling and storage techniques are key.
- Storage – As mentioned above, this is a vital step. A cake left out on the counter too long will dry out. Some recipes will call for wrapping cake layers with plastic wrap and storing at room temperature before assembly. Make sure they are wrapped well. I use Stretch Tite plastic wrap; nothing else comes close.Refrigeration is actually very drying, so I rarely refrigerate “naked” cake layers. If I am making a cake ahead, I prefer to freeze rather than refrigerate, but even that can be drying. If I have to freeze a cake, I like it to be filled and have a crumb coat to protect it. This is best accomplished with a recipe like Italian Meringue Buttercream (IMBC), which is so butter-rich; it provides a moisture barrier and seals moisture in.
- Proper serving temperature – Different cakes should be served at the temperatures best suited to them for optimum enjoyment. A cheesecake would be an example of a cake meant to be served chilled. On the other hand, a butter based layer cake coated with IMBC that is stored in the refrigerator must be brought to room temperature to be truly enjoyed – and it can take much longer than expected to be warmed up enough. Any trace of chill and the butter in the cake will be very firm and create a perception of dryness. Cold IMBC will be as hard as a chilled stick of butter and you will miss out on its silky, creamy, moist texture.
Images: Peter Muka