Baking basics lead to sweet success Skills: Essential techniques help from-scratch confections come out just right.

September 04, 1996|By Janet Hazen | Janet Hazen,LOS ANGELES TIMES SYNDICATE

Everyone appreciates fresh, homemade baked goods -- especially cakes made from scratch. And while chocolate tops the list, cakes made with fresh fruit run a close second. The use of fresh fruit makes for a moist, mellow-tasting cake with good keeping qualities. When you add the right nuts and frosting, you have a prize winner.

Semantics plays a big role regarding this finicky baked good; referring to the confection as a fruitcake, as opposed to a cake made with fruit, was a mistake I made only once when offering test pieces to neighbors and friends.

It was pretty obvious that no one was interested in the well-known holiday cake dense with candied fruits and nuts, but a two- or four-layer cake spiked with pears and toasted hazelnuts and cloaked in caramel icing -- that was a different story.

Unlike an upside-down cake, in which a distinct layer of fruit and caramelized sugar is covered with batter, this type is made by adding finely chopped fresh fruit (and nuts) to the batter, which is then poured into two standard 9-inch cake tins and baked in the oven.

Consumers tend to classify cakes with terms like "decadent," "light," "rich," "moist" or "heavenly," but bakers categorize cakes, in part, by their basic formula and the method with which they are mixed. One method, called creaming or conventional, often applied to butter cake, also works for those made with fresh fruits.

The components of this particular cake batter -- flour, sugar, eggs, butter, sour cream, fruit, nuts, leavening agents and spices, are separated into three categories: butter-sugar-egg mixture, dry ingredients and liquid ingredients.

A smooth, emulsified batter is made by alternating dry ingredients (added in three parts) with the wet ingredients (added in two parts) to the butter-sugar-egg mixture.

Based on the fact that flour helps the batter absorb the liquid ingredients, this mixing method is especially useful in cases where substantial amounts of juicy, wet ingredients (such as fresh fruit) are included.

Although the components are combined in stages, the process is very simple and straightforward; there are no tricks, complicated steps or special techniques required for making this rewarding cake.

Inspired by the popular apple cake, I started out with the well-liked, established duo of fresh pears and toasted hazelnuts for the first recipe. The classic Southern-style sweet potato pie translates beautifully into an exceedingly moist and rich cake made with deep-gold-colored yams, buttery-tasting pecans and maple syrup-flavored frosting.

Fresh pineapple and macadamia nuts lend a tropical note to the cake topped with a luscious coconut icing, and the banana cake studded with roasted peanuts and slathered with milk chocolate cream cheese icing will appeal to the child in all of us.

From classic and elegant to festive and playful, fresh fruit cakes are easy to make, versatile and fun to eat. Follow the few baking principles and directions provided below and you'll have a marvelous cake to share with friends, family, neighbors and co-workers.

Baking basics

Have all ingredients at room temperature.

Use unsalted butter.

Use all-purpose flour and cake flour.

Use fresh leavening agents: baking soda and baking powder.

Use high-quality, heavy bottomed baking pans.

Make sure your oven temperature is accurate.

Heat oven for 15 to 20 minutes before baking.

Make sure oven shelves are level.

Bake in the center of the oven.

Do not let cake pans touch each other.

Do not crowd pans in the oven.

Cool cakes in their pans on racks for 10 minutes before removing.

Remove cakes from pans and cool thoroughly on racks before wrapping or frosting.

Store cakes at room temperature, not in the refrigerator.

To freeze cakes, wrap tightly with several layers of plastic wrap.

Mixing and baking fruit cakes

Heat oven to 360 degrees.

Generously grease 2 (9-inch) round cake tins. Lightly dust with flour and shake out excess.

In large bowl, combine flours, baking powder, baking soda, salt, spices and nuts; mix well and set aside until needed.

In small bowl, combine sour cream and fruit; mix well and set aside until needed.

Place butter and sugars in large bowl and, using electric hand mixer, beat on high speed until light and fluffy, about 4 or 5 minutes. Add eggs, 1 at a time, beating well between each addition. Add vanilla and beat on high speed for 2 minutes.

Use large kitchen spoon for mixing batter. To butter-egg mixture, add 1/3 of dry ingredients; mix by hand until combined. Add remaining sour cream-fruit mixture and stir well. Add remaining dry ingredients and mix until just combined.

Divide batter between 2 prepared pans. Place both pans on rack in center of oven and bake according to times given for each recipe. Rotate pans from front to back halfway through. Cakes are done when center springs back when poked with your finger, or toothpick inserted into center of cake comes out clean.

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