A Cake On Every Plate Transcript

Front Porch

[AB opens the mail box, pulls out an envelope and reads the letter inside: voice over]

Dear Mr. Brown,

    My aunt Gertrude died last week taking the secret to her famous yellow cake with her. I've enclosed the last known sample of this cake which I managed to wrestle from my son, Owen. We have the ingredient list but since she never wrote anything down, we have no idea what to do with them. We hope that you can decipher this mystery and give us back our cake.

Signed, ...

Blah, blah, blah. Ghouls.

Mr. Alton Brown
420 McPeach Drive
Atlanta, GA 30332

The Kitchen

    Ghoulish though it may be, the challenge would be stimulating and the resulting cake might just be good eats.

The Kitchen

[AB turns on a small tape recorder and begins "dissecting" the cake sample]
     Subject is a wedge of chocolate frosted cake cut radially from what appears to be a 9 inch by, I'd say, a one and a half inch round. Removal of the frosting layer reveals a tender, yellow cake, tight texture and relatively tender considering that it has spent about 7 to 8 days in a polypropylene bag. Subject's flavor is [tastes] sweet but not cloyingly so and there is a distinct buttery-ness. Substantial tissue damage suggest the feeding of an adolescent human. This was no boating accident!

    Sorry. What we have here is what bakers call a butter cake, okay? It's the direct descendent of a pound cake—a very, very ancient cake made from a pound of flour, a pound of sugar, a pound of butter and a pound of eggs. True to its medieval roots, that kind of cake is very effective but a little on the crude side. Through the centuries, cooks like Gertrude found that they could make a more tender, more sophisticated, more flavorful cake by replacing some of eggs and some of the butter with milk. Toss in a little chemical leavening and some vanilla extract and you've got Gertrude's shopping list. Of course, if we are to truly grasp her genius, we're going to have to understand the roles that each of these ingredients plays.

[voice over]
    Everything that goes into a cake either toughens, tenderizes, moistens, dries or flavors it.


Tougheners, including flour and eggs, contain protein, starch or both and give a cake its structural integrity.


Tenderizers like shortening, butter and the cocoa butter in both chocolate and cocoa powder, tenderize cakes by coating flour particles. Sugar tenderizes by holding on to water and chemical leavenings tenderize by changing the pH of the batter and by increasing the size of the bubbles in the batter.


Moisteners include water, milk, syrups and eggs—quite the multi-taskers, those eggs.


Dryers include powdered milk, flours, cocoa powder, and other starches. DRY
Although ingredients such as extract, salt, citrus zests, spices and liqueurs bring a lot of flavor to the party, they play little or no role in the structural equation of the cake. FLAVOR

    Keeping all of these players in balance is what cake baking is all about.

Harry's Farmers Market: Atlanta, GA - 10:43 am

GUEST: Shirley Corriher, Food Scientist

    Most yellow cake recipes call for All Purpose flour, and that's good enough for me.

SHIRLEY CORRIHER: I'm betting Aunt Gertrude used cake flour.

    [moves a bag of flour aside to reveal Shirley holding a letter] Well, it seems that Aunt Gertrude's family decided to cover their bets.

AB: So, what's with cake flour?
SC: In the first place, cake flour is made from soft winter wheat and this means 8 grams of protein per cup instead of 10 to 12 grams of protein in all purpose. Less protein, less gluten ...
AB: ... gluten the more tender the cake.
SC: Absolutely. 
AB: What else? What else?
SC: More starch to swell and stabilize the cake. Plus this is finely ground and this is going to make it blend easier and going to give you a much finer texture.
AB: Well, that's enough for me, Shirley. Gotta get ...
SC: Cake flour is chlorinated ...
AB: So ...
SC: That makes it acidic which makes the protein set faster. Again, a smoother, finer texture. And chlorination does something to the surface of the starch. It makes it soak in liquid faster and it also makes the fats stick to it and that's where the air bubbles are.
AB: [sighs] Shirley, would you mind leading me up to the checkout?
SC: Sure. Why?
AB: Because once again you've blinded me with science.

The Kitchen

GUEST: Mr. Hammond

    We can tell just be reading Aunt Gertrude's recipe that she was a very serious baker. Not only did she weigh all of her ingredients, she weighed them metrically. And since there are about 30 grams to an ounce, that means greater precision. And, of course, when you say hello to metric, you say sayonara to fractions which is a good thing for me because as my fifth grade math teacher, Mr. Hammond, could tell ya ...

MR. HAMMOND: That Alton Brown. He can't tell a common denominator from a hole in the ground.

    Just the first in a long line of broken math teachers I've left in my wake.
    You know, just about ever digital scale on the market today switches easily between metric and standard or avoirdupois measurements so there's no reason to cling to the past.
    Now Aunt Gertrude calls for 300 grams of sugar, 350 grams of [cake] flour, 165 grams of butter, 130 grams of egg yolks, 14 grams of baking powder and 160 grams of milk. Oh, and a teaspoon of vanilla extract. Since it's such a small amount, I think it's okay to go ahead and use volume for that. Now notice that the weight of the sugar and flour are the same and notice that the fat weighs more or less the same as the eggs, keeping in mind, of course, that butter's 20 percent water, okay? So this is a very balanced formula for a standard butter cake.
    The reason this recipe doesn't worry its pretty little head over procedural issues is that Aunt Gertrude knew that butter cakes are almost always assembled via the creaming method.

The King Cake, a Mardi Gras must, is a sticky coffee-cake
pastry covered in purple, green and gold sugar.

The Kitchen

            Little Girl

    Step one, have all ingredients at cool room temperature. That's 65 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. This is especially important for butter, which needs to be plastic but not to the point of melting. Of course, you could do what I do and simply skip the butter altogether and go to butter flavored shortening. I trade them out all the time because shortening doesn't melt at mixing temperatures and it's soft enough to work with straight from the container. And, in baked goods at least, I could swear it tastes more like butter than butter. Which is kind of creepy ... but good.
    The trick to switching these out is that you have to remember that butter is about 20 percent water. Whereas the shortening is all fat all the time. So we have to decrease the amount of butter by 20 percent to get the amount of shortening. That means 140 grams of shortening. We have to increase the liquid in the recipe by 20 percent [of the butter's mass]  so that gets us up to 180 grams of milk, okay? Got that? [read below]

    All right, shortening goes into the work bowl and we mix at low speed for about a minute or just until it's soft.

140 grams Butter-Flavored

    Now the sugar and, just to be on the safe side, a pinch of kosher salt. Bump the mixer up to medium and leave it alone for at least 4 minutes. 300 grams Sugar
1 Pinch Kosher Salt

    This is, in my opinion, the single most important step in cake making because it is here that bubbles are born. How's that possible? Well, consider these sugar crystals. Hold out your hand.

HAND: [holds out a hand, touches the sharp rock sugar crystal, pulls back] Ow!

    Yeah. Jagged little pills, no? Imagine a few million of those perforating that shortening right now. Let's listen. [raises his voice speaking for the shortening] Oh, no. Cut that out. Stop. Ow. That hurts. Get that stuff out of me I can't ... oh, stop! I'm dying. [back to normal] As the mixer beats on, all those little holes are going to become bubbles and those bubbles are what is going to create the texture of the cake later on. Yeah, sure. Baking powder is going to create gas, okay? It contains an alkali and an acid and when it gets wet ... well, come on.
    [holds the baking powder under a slow drip which produces foaming] There. See? Now that's a lot of gas and it'll create even more when it gets hot.
    All that gas is fine and good, but unless we've got some seed bubbles in place, the texture they'll create looks kind of like ... [pulls down a sheet of paper with both large and small holes]. And this isn't exactly what I had in mind. Not for cake, at least. By carefully creaming first, we get a texture that looks like this [pulls down a sheet a paper with a lot of the same size, regular holes]. Ahh.

    After a few minutes on high, you can see the mixture has fluffed up and turned light, almost white. That's because the air bubbles change the way light reflects off the surface of the shortening. You notice, too, the extra volume.

    Now we're ready for the egg yolks, now. Besides contributing color and fat and protein and moisture, yolks also provide natural emulsifiers which we need because we're about to add a lot of water-based liquid to a lot of fat and they do not get along. Of course, egg yolks contain a good bit of water, too, so we don't want to dump them all in there at one time. We might overload the butter mixture and then an emulsion would just never come together. So we are going to deposit our ovarian offerings very slowly.

130 grams Egg Yolks

    Do you have to use a stand mixer for this? Well absolutely not. I mean, in Victorian England the well-to-do who did most of the cake baking and eating back in those times used old fashioned hand mixers.

LITTLE GIRL: [sitting on the hearth slowly and drudgingly stirring cake batter] Four hundred and ninety-two. Four hundred and ninety-three. Four hundred and ninety-four. Four hundred and ninety-five. Four hundred and ninety-six.

AB: [in a evil sister voice] And when you're done with that, clean the fireplace Cinderelly.

    Of course if you're short on indentured servants, you can use an electric hand mixer but it'll take twice as long. So if you've got a stand mixer, use it.

    Now at this point we have creamed together the shortening, sugar and salt and we've integrated the egg yolks. So it's time to alternately add the dry and wet ingredients. And we've combined the milk with the vanilla and sifted together the flour and the baking powder. The air in between the granules is going to help work this into the batter faster.

180 grams Milk
1 tsp. Vanilla

350 grams Flour
14 grams Baking Powder

    So we're going to start by slowly adding half of the dry goods. Now by starting with the dry we get to cover the flour particles with fat and that is going to help to create a tender cake because if there is fat all over the flour, then water can't get to the flour and there won't be any gluten, right? Of course if we added this all at once we'd create a big dry, lumpy mess that might not smooth out later.
    Okay. Now, half the liquid. Why half? Because if we added it all, there wouldn't be enough dry matter to soak it up and our emulsion would be in jeopardy. There.
    Now, the rest of the dry. Nice and slow. You're probably going to have to scrape down the sides of the bowl every now and then and that is okay. There. Now the final installment of the liquid. There.

    Hey. Did you turn the oven to 350 degrees and position a rack in the top third of the box? Hmmm?

Preheat Oven To 350°

    Excellent. Now besides the actual oven temperature, nothing affects the way heat moves into the batter more than the pan the batter cooks in.

In 100 B.C. a bride's cake, thought to be a sign of fertility,
was either thrown at her or crumbled over her head.

The Kitchen


    The faster you can get heat into a cake the sooner its structure will set and the finer its texture will be. But as anyone who's ever worn a black aluminum suit or driven a black car will tell you, dark metal absorbs heat very quickly. Bake in dark pans, heat will move into the sides and bottom of the cake too fast, setting the edge prematurely and producing a cake like this [dark and fallen in the middle]

    Shiny stainless steel is pretty. But, it's a lousy conductor. All that shine reflects radiant heat and slows cooking which allows gas bubbles to either merge or escape producing a cake like this [crumbly with a brown edge].

    I like heavy, rolled, aluminum pans with a dull matte finish. Aluminum is an excellent conductor and the understated finish allows heat to move in in just the right rate creating a perfect cake.

    Jane, get me off this crazy thing.
    Now if we wish to bake two cakes of equal size, we're going to have to have two pans with equal amounts of batter in them, right? And the best way to ensure that we do that is to weigh the batter, right? So I'm going to go straight on to the scale and we've got 1870 grams. Okay. [punching into a calculator] 1870 grams minus the weight of the bowl which I weighed beforehand so I know that it weighs 770 grams. That leaves us with 1100 grams even. Divide that by the number of pans, which is two, and ideally we'd have 550 grams of batter in each pan.
    Now as far as the pans go, we want a good bit of lubrication. Rub them down with shortening and then dust them with flour. You do not want to use butter for this. Why? That's right. Butter contains 20 percent water. That water is just going to pool in the bottom of the pan, then it's going to turn to steam. And that's going to keep the bottom of the cake from browning. That's not a good thing.
    So, for even division we will zero out the weight of the cake pans. There we go. And shoot for as close to 550 as we can get. Now depending on your scale, and how quickly it responds, you might want to go kind of slowly here. Take your time to get as close to that 550 as possible. There we go. Yeah. 535. That's close enough for me. And we'll see if we can get all of this into the next pan and that should be about right. There. It looks like there's even going to be a little left over for me to eat later.
    Now at this point just give them a little bit of a jiggle. If you're working with a very, very thick batter, you might need to smooth it with a spatula. But this looks good. Straight to the oven.
    Make sure there are three inches of open space between the pans and between the pans and the oven walls. If you don't have enough room, put one on the top rack and one just below, okay? Even heat distribution is crucial to even rising and browning. Now set your timer for 12 minutes. And when that time is up, don't open the door but turn on the light and take a look. If you've got any uneven browning, you can always rotate the cakes from one side to the other or from to to bottom.
    Hmmm. Time to test. Clean as a whistle. Its extraction time.
    There. [places the pans on upside down cooling racks] Now we need to get these turned out onto cooling racks pretty darn soon. Otherwise, the steam inside the pans is going to condense and that is going to produce soggy bottoms and hey, nobody likes a soggy bottom, right? But right now, the protein and starch structures of these cakes are so very fragile. So I'm going to wait about 10 to 15 minutes before I attempt de-panning. Oh, you notice that the cooling racks are upside down. Curious.

It has been said that if a birthday cake falls while baking,
it would bring bad luck in the upcoming year.

The Kitchen

[stacks the cakes in this order: rack/cake/rack/cake/rack, turns them all upside down so when the cakes fall out, they are sitting on a rack that's right-side up]

    Now I'll let these cakes cool for about an hour and they will be ready to consume. Of course you could frost them even though they don't really need it. They're plenty moist. But if you do, well, heck that's another show. [leaves, returns] What? I said frosting's another show. Well ... okay, one. One frosting and that's it.
    Whenever I want to frost a cake without overwhelming its more subtle sensibilities, I look not to frosting but to whipped cream. Now to whip whipping cream, you've got to create bubbles, right? And that means keeping the fats inside as plastic as possible. So chilling your mixture parts is crucial. Meanwhile, we'll scrounge for flavor. Mmm. Aaah. Good Eats Cocoa Mix. Perfect. Yeah. Powdered gelatin. This will come in handy.

    Place two tablespoons of water in a small sauce pan. Okay. That's actually a metal measuring cup. But that's okay. It's got to be cold water. Then sprinkle in one teaspoon of the powdered gelatin and wait five minutes.

2 Tbs. H2O
1 tsp Powdered Gelatin

    As you can see, the gelatin has absorbed the water or bloomed and now we can melt it. Heat please. Ooo. Low heat. Low heat. Low heat. Good. Just set that over a low heat stirring occasionally until it melts.

    Put your chilled bowl into place and add two cups of whipping cream, half a cup of the cocoa mix, a wee shot of vanilla extract, and turn the mixer on low. Let that just get going and then slowly drizzle in the gelatin mixture. Turn up the speed. And then we can just turn this on high until the mixture looks like ...
    ... about like this. Mmm.

2 Cups Whipping Cream
1/2 Cup Cocoa Mix
1 tsp. Vanilla Extract

[takes a record player, places  the cakes which are sitting on a plate on top of it and turns it on setting the cakes in motion.]
[taking a piping bag, he begins to pipe the top with the icing starting in the center and working outward, he then does the sides]

[using a wide blade such as a trowel, he smoothes down the sides with the cake still spinning]

[voice over as he writes]
    Dear Gertrude's niece,
    I believe our experiment has been a success. Please find enclosed the amended recipe as well as the sample cake. Mmmm.

[eats a piece of the sample cake]

    Due to insurance requirements, we are unable to ship the sample cake but I assure it was and is good eats.

horizontal rule

Proofreading by Sue Libretti

Ed note #1:
AB's math doesn't seem to add up. I'm assuming he's rounding. I'm also assuming he means butter is 20% water by mass and not volume. However, the differences may not matter when using such a small unit as grams:

Reducing the 165 grams of butter by 20%: = 165 g * 0.80 = 132 g of shortening, not 140 grams
That means there is 165 g - 132 g = 33 g of water in the butter.
Adding 33 g of liquid to the 160 g of milk: 33 g + 160 g = 193 g of shortening, not 180 grams

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Last Edited on 08/27/2010