Module Six: Gluten Free Cakes

Gluten Free Pastry School Heading with images of gluten free cakes

THEORY

I never really liked eating cake growing up, but over the years I realized that it wasn’t cake that I disliked, but the emphasis on aesthetic over flavour. Not to mention the fact that many gluten free cakes tend to be so dry no amount of buttercream could save them, or so comically dense that I question whether ‘cake’ is the appropriate description for something that could be used as a door stop. 

It wasn’t until I attended pastry school that I started to really enjoy making cakes. This is because I learned how to incorporate flavour and texture while also making it aesthetically pleasing. After graduation I wanted to take everything I now knew about traditional cake baking and apply that to developing incredible gluten free cake recipes.

Now more than 6 years has passed since I graduated from pastry school and I’m finally sharing my gluten free cake baking experience, research and recipes. My goal for you is that after completing Module Six, you will be ready to create your own gluten free cake recipes taste delicious and look stunning.

Let’s get started!

CAKE

The fundamentals of baking gluten free cakes: When someone is new to gluten free baking and they ask me where they should start, I always recommend cakes. This is because cakes rely very little on gluten for texture and structure so adapting a recipe to be gluten free is much easier than you might think. 

Kira Bakes Gluten Free Pastry School, Cake Module Infographic

If you look at most traditional cake recipes that use wheat flour they often call for cake flour instead of all-purpose flour, or a combination of the two. This is because cake flour has the lowest amount of protein (approx. 5-8%), compared to all-purpose flour (approx. 10-13%). The lower level of protein reduces gluten development which helps to create a much lighter more delicate cake crumb.  

Before we get out the mixing bowl and whip up a delicious gluten free cake, I first want to help you understand a few key fundamentals specific to gluten free cakes. Once you are familiar with the types of cakes and mixing methods you will have a better understanding of why some recipes and methods are easier to adapt and how to confidently bake any cake recipe.

What is Cake?

Kira Bakes Gluten Free Pastry School, Cake Module Infographic

Cake is a baked good that is made from a batter containing lots of air cells which are created during the mixing process. Cakes range from simple everyday bakes such as banana bread or blueberry muffins all the way to extravagant multi-layered cakes made for weddings or other special occasions. Cakes can be made gluten free by replacing wheat flour with gluten free flours and starches. Other recipe adjustments may be required to account for the higher absorption rate in gluten free flours and the elasticity lost from the lack of gluten. Some cakes that are naturally gluten free, Torte cakes for example, generally use ground nuts in place of wheat flour.

Types of Cakes

For the purposes of this lesson, we are going to focus on two types of cakes. Sponge Cake and Butter Cake. The ingredients and mixing methods used will determine if the cake is categorized as a ‘Sponge’ or ‘Butter’ cake.

Sponge Cake

Sponge cake, also known in the pastry world as ‘Foam Cake’, is a light and airy cake with a bouncy ‘spongy’ texture. Traditionally this cake uses little to no fat (so no butter or oil) and it doesn’t include any chemical leaveners (baking powder and baking soda). Instead, they almost always are leavened from whipping eggs into a sabayon (whole eggs or egg yolks and sugar) and/or meringue (egg whites and sugar). 

Kira Bakes Gluten Free Pastry School, Cake Module Infographic

Ingredient Ratio: Sponge cakes have a higher proportion of eggs to flour.

Note that many modern sponge recipes have been adapted to include a small amount of baking powder to ensure a more consistent rise as well as the addition of fat (oil or melted butter) for flavour and extra moisture.

Types of Sponge Cakes Include: Victoria Sponge, Swiss Roll, Genoise, Angel Food, Chiffon, and Dacquoise.

Kira Bakes Gluten Free Pastry School, Cake Module Infographic

Butter Cake

Butter cake, also known as ‘Shortened Cake’ is a classic American style cake that uses butter (and sometimes shortening) to create a rich, fluffy cake. All butter cakes will use the ‘Creaming’ mixing method which involves whipping softened butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. This type of cake also needs a little help from chemical leaveners (baking powder and baking soda) to get a good rise and produce a delicate crumb structure.  

Kira Bakes Gluten Free Pastry School, Cake Module Infographic

Ingredient Ratio: Butter cakes have a higher proportion of flour and butter to eggs.

Types of Butter Cakes Include: Pound Cake, Carrot Cake, American Yellow Cake, Chocolate Cake, Red Velvet Cake, Hummingbird Cake.

Kira Bakes Gluten Free Pastry School, Cake Module Infographic

Don’t Forget About Quick Breads!

Quick breads can be confusing because often the end result is more like a cake than a bread. For example, banana bread or blueberry muffins are both quick breads. Historically, quick breads got their name from a traditional method of bread making (both savoury and sweet) that didn’t include yeast. In today’s modern kitchen it essentially just categorizes a baked good that can be prepared quickly and made using chemical leaveners (baking powder and/or baking soda).

Kira Bakes Gluten Free Pastry School, Cake Module Infographic

Types of Quick Breads Include: Irish soda bread, banana bread, cake loafs, muffins, biscuits, cornbread, pancakes and scones. 

Gluten Free Cake Mixing Methods

When it comes to cakes there are definitely some traditional cake mixing methods that lend themselves quite well gluten free cakes. For example, sponge cakes that are made using the ‘Egg Foam’ method are the easiest to adapt. This is because the method uses a higher proportion of eggs to flour, so naturally the fact that we are replacing the small amount of wheat-based flour with a gluten free flour won’t have much effect on the final result. On the flip-side, Butter cakes that use the ‘Creaming Method’ can be trickier because the cakes structure relies much more of the high proportion of wheat flour in the recipe. 

Kira Bakes Gluten Free Pastry School, Cake Module Infographic

All in all what, I have found in my years of developing cake recipes is that all three traditional cake mixing methods (creaming, foaming and two-stage) can be used with great success when making gluten free cakes. There are just some that are easier to prepare than others and some that require more adjustments to the base recipes.

Creaming Method

Cakes, quick breads, muffins, and cookies made with the creaming method develop their light and airy structure through the incorporation of air during the mixing process. 

First the butter (or other fat) and sugar are whipped (creamed) together until light, smooth and fluffy. Eggs are incorporated one at a time until emulsified. Finally, the dry ingredients are added and if using a liquid this step is done by alternating back and forth between dry and liquid. 

Foaming Method

The foaming method uses eggs that are whipped or beaten to incorporate air before being added to the cake batter. The air in the egg foam creates a light and airy batter that helps to leaven the cake.  

Egg foams can be very fragile so it’s important to use a light hand and be very delicate when incorporating the egg foam with the cake mixture. The goal is to retain all the volume and air in the egg foam while creating a homogenous cake batter. 

There are three different types of ‘Egg Foam’:

  • Cold Egg Foam. This method involves whipping eggs and sugar until it has reached maximum volume. Maximum volume is about four to six times the original volume. The dry ingredients and melted, cooled butter or oil are carefully folded in until well blended but still aerated. 
  • Warm Egg Foam. This method is more stable than the ‘cold egg foam’ because the egg proteins are slightly cooked before whipping. For this method the eggs and sugar are warmed using a Baine-Marie until they reach 43C/110F.  The egg and sugar mixture is then whipped until maximum volume is achieved. This will happen much faster compared to the cold foam method as the egg proteins will be more relaxed and the sugar has dissolved.
  • Separated Egg Foam. This method is a version of the ‘Cold Egg Foam’ method but involves separating the egg yolk and whites. The egg yolks and egg whites are then whipped separately. Depending on the cake recipe the egg foams are then folded together or added at different stages in the cake mixing process. 
Kira Bakes Gluten Free Pastry School, Cake Module Infographic

Two-Stage Method

This method is best used for high-ratio cakes. High-ratio means that the cake that has a higher proportion of sugar and emulsifiers when compared to other cakes. So the weight of the sugar is greater or equal to the weight of flour, AND the weight of the eggs is greater than the weight of the fats. This method combines all the wet ingredients, including the eggs, which are then blended with the dry ingredients until smooth. 

Gluten Free Cake Ingredients: What Roles They Play

Knowing why we use certain ingredients in a recipe is key if you want to start experimenting and playing around in the pastry kitchen. We all have that one recipe from our grandmother or maybe it was something you saw while watching the Great British Bake Off that you always wanted to try and make the gluten free version. By understanding the role of each ingredient, you will begin to see where you can make substitutions and adaptions. 

  • Gluten Free Flour: the gluten free flours and starches act by absorbing moisture and gelatinizing, working to form a tender crumb structure. 
  • Xanthan Gum: When it comes to gluten free cakes, xanthan gum helps build and hold the cakes structure while also keeping it fresher longer.  Gluten free flours absorb a lot of moisture, but they also dry out must faster when compared to wheat flour. Which is why adding just a pinch of xanthan gum can be a real game changer. 
  • Eggs: Eggs are doing most of the heavy lifting in cake baking. It’s all about structure and eggs are providing strong proteins and leavening power to help build a reliable structure. Also, when a recipe calls for egg yolks it adds richness and softens the texture of the cake.
  • Sugar: Sugar in a cake recipe does a little bit of everything. 
    • It provides sweetness of varying degrees depending on the type of sugar used and quantity. 
    • It helps leaven a cake when creamed with butter.
    • When whipped into a meringue or sabayon base it stabilizes the egg proteins, helping to create the overall structure. 
    • Finally, because sugar is hygroscopic (it absorbs water), this means it will hold onto the moisture which not only makes it more enjoyable to eat but it will also last much longer.
  • Fat: Fat provides flavour and moisture. Cake will take on some of the richness and flavour from whichever fat you use. So choose your butter and oil wisely! If you want to get technical (which I aways do!) the fat can also be considered a leavener. When fat is whipped with sugar in a recipe, like in the ‘creaming method’, it provides leavening.
  • Liquids: The liquids often used when making cakes include water, milk, coffee or fruit juices. Liquids in a gluten free cake are there so the starches can gelatinize and the sugars can absorb the moisture. The liquid will also contribute to leavening as it evaporates during the baking process, creating steam that pushes up against the batter making the cake rise. 
  • Salt: Salt is all about balancing the flavour in a recipe. Don’t underestimate this tiny ingredient as its subtle addition will keep you coming back for just one more bite. From a food science stance, it will also strengthen the egg proteins which will help create a better cake structure.
Kira Bakes Gluten Free Pastry School, Fun Gluten Free Cake Fact

Fun Fact! The overall flour (dry ingredients) in most cake recipes add up to less than 30% of the overall ingredients. Compare that to breads and pastries which are closer to 50%. This is one of the reasons it’s much easier to convert a cake recipe to gluten free as opposed to something like a bread recipe.

Mis en Place for Baking Gluten Free Cakes

Kira Bakes Gluten Free Pastry School, Cake Module Infographic

Step 1: Arrange your oven racks to the required position.  Most recipes will require a cake to be baked on the centre of the oven unless noted otherwise.

Step 2: Preheat your oven. Baking a cake in an oven that hasn’t been preheated will produce a cake that is sunken on top and gummy in the middle. No thank you!

Step 3: Prepare your baking pans. Before you start mixing your cake batter, get your pans ready. Follow the instructions in the recipe but generally this will mean you have to grease and line the pans with parchment paper.

Step 4: Scale (measure or weigh) all your ingredients. For recipes that require room temperature ingredients like butter, eggs and milk you may have to take them out of the fridge a few hours before you start baking. For room temperature butter I will often leave my butter out on the counter overnight so it’s ready to go when I wake up. 

See these tips from bon appetit for bringing your eggs and butter to room temp if you are in a hurry or just plain ol’ forgot.

Tips and Troubleshooting Gluten Free Cakes

Kira Bakes Gluten Free Pastry School, Cake Module Infographic

How to Prepare Cake Pans

Gluten free cakes have a very delicate crumb structure, especially when they are warm out of the oven. Because of this, you will want to prepare the pan by adding a thin layer of grease (butter, oil or shortening) before placing a sheet of parchment paper along the bottom of the pan (and sometimes the sides). By preparing the cake pan before pouring in your batter, you should have an easier time removing the baked cake without damaging the overall structure. 

Generally, all gluten free cakes need to be baked in a pan that is greased and lined. There are exceptions to the rule as some sponge cake made using the ‘Egg Foam’ method (such as angel food cake or chiffon cake) do best in a dry cake pan. This is because the batter actually needs to climb up the sides of the pan as it rises in the oven.

Kira Bakes Gluten Free Pastry School, Cake Module Infographic

NOTE: Unless otherwise specified in a recipe, pans should be filled three quarters full with cake batter. This allows just enough room for the cake to rise and not spill over.

Why Did My Gluten Free Cake Batter Curdle?

Kira Bakes Gluten Free Pastry School, Cake Module Infographic

Cakes rely on combining two ingredients, fat (butter and/or oil) and water (water in milk, eggs or other liquids). Fat and water are considered ‘unmixable’. So when you combine the two, they create a fat in water emulsion. The result of this are tiny particles of fat that are surrounded by water. When this happens, it causes the mixture to curdle.

When making gluten free cakes, the goal is to blend (emulsify) these ingredients so the fat can hold onto the water. This is called a water in fat emulsion.  Below are some of the techniques used to a achieve a smooth, curdle-free gluten free cake batter:

  1. Using the right type of fat. Different fats have different emulsifying abilities. Something like a vegetable shortening contains natural emulsifiers that will help it hold on to larger amounts of water without curdling. Butter can still be used but note that it has a much harder time holding into water and is more likely to curdle. When using butter know that you will need to pay closer attention to the temperature of the ingredients used and the techniques and speed at which you are mixing the cake batter. 
  2. Use Room temperature ingredients. It is much easier to blend fat and water together if the ingredients are room temperature. To be specific, this is a temperature of around 21C/70F.
  3. Take your time when mixing. Don’t rush the initial stage of combining the fat and sugar (creaming). By giving the fat and sugar time to fully blend together it will allow the fat to build strong cell structures so it can retain more water (when the eggs, dairy or other liquid are added). 
  4. Add ingredients gradually. When adding any liquid (including eggs) to a mixture, it should be done gradually. If added too quickly they will not be able to absorb properly and will almost instantly curdle the gluten free cake mixture.

So, what if you do everything right and the gluten free cake batter curdles? Is it ruined? Definitely not! Baking a gluten free cake from a batter that curdled means the cake won’t rise as much and the crumb structure will likely be tighter (denser). It can also subdue the overall flavour of the cake. But it is not the end of the world if your cake batter curdles.

How to tell when a Gluten Free Cake is Baked

Kira Bakes Gluten Free Pastry School, Cake Module Infographic

There are three ways you can confidently check that your cake is fully baked and ready to come out of the oven.

  1. Insert a cake tester or a wooden skewer into the centre of the cake. If it comes out clean with just a few bits of cake attached, it’s done!
  2. When the cake is browned around the edges and has begun to pull away from the sides of the cake pan.
  3. The cake is ‘Springy”. If you gently press your finger against the centre top of the cake it should spring back without leaving an indent.

How to Cool a Gluten Free Cake

Kira Bakes Gluten Free Pastry School, Cake Module Infographic

Step 1: After removing your cake from the oven, allow it to cool in the pan for approx. 15 minutes. All cakes (but especially gluten free cakes!) tend to be very fragile immediately after baking. By giving them this time to set-up and cool it will be much easier to remove it from the pan.

Step 2: Run a metal spatula or small knife between the cake and the pan making sure to press the knife against the pan so you don’t damage the cake.Place a cutting board or wire cooling rack on top of the cake pan and flip the cake pan over. Tap the top of the pan lightly and slowly remove the pan to release the cake. Peel away any parchment paper and allow to cool completely.

Step 3: Place a clean tea towel over the cake as it cools as this will help retain some moisture that would overwise evaporate.

How to Store Gluten Free Cake

Kira Bakes Gluten Free Pastry School, Cake Module Infographic

Same Day Usage: For cakes that you plan to serve that day, you can keep it out on the counter with a tea towel covering it until it is ready to be served or frosted.

Storing for One Day: When making a gluten free cake the day before you should allow it to cool completely before wrapping it in plastic wrap. Place the wrapped cake in the fridge for one to two days. 

Storing Longer than One Day: To store a gluten free cake longer than two days I recommended freezing the cake. Once it has cooled completely, double-wrap the cake in plastic wrap and then place it in a freezer bag. You can freeze most gluten free cakes for up to one month. When ready to serve, remove the gluten free cake from the freezer and allow it to defrost in the fridge overnight. 

How to Frost a Gluten Free Layer Cake

Building and frosting a layer cake is a skill that all cake lovers should know how to execute. Now to achieve a perfect layer cake you don’t need to spend hours and hours meticulously cutting cake layers and smoothing frosting. With just a few key pastry chef techniques you can whip up a showstopping layer cake in no time!

Preparing the Gluten Free Cake Layers

When it comes to cutting gluten free cakes in half (horizontally), I usually prefer not to do it. Because gluten free cakes tend to be more delicate so there’s a greater chance it will break. My recommendation to help maintain the texture and structure of a gluten free cake is to instead assemble the cake using whole cake layers. You can then simply trim off any domed tops, if need be, but otherwise they will layer just fine.   

But if you have a gluten free cake recipe that is denser and sturdier that can handle being sliced horizontally, then this is how you do it.  The method for cutting and dividing a cake into layers is called ‘Torting’:

  1. Place the cake on a turntable (preferred, but not necessary) or a large cutting board.
  2. Use a serrated knife (bread knife) to gently trace around the halfway point of the cake.
  3. Slowly begin to saw and cut into the gluten free cake, turning the wheel (or cutting board) inch by inch until you have made it all the way around.  Keeping your knife centered as you go until you have cut all the way through.

Frosting the Gluten Free Cake Layers

Place a cake board on a cake turntable (if you have one), or whatever chosen serving plate or cake stand you are planning to use.

  • Note, if frosting the cake directly on the serving plate or cake stand you can place several rectangle sheets of parchment paper along the bottom of the cake to keep the plate clean. Once you are done frosting the cake, you can simply remove the parchment sheets.
  1. Begin by adding a tablespoon of buttercream to the centre of the cake board and place the first cake layer on top. Note that you want the flattest part of the cake to be against the cake board so it sits flush. If layering whole cakes, the bottom layer will be right side up. For layers that have been cut, the bottom layer will be cut-side up. 
  2. Add buttercream or frosting to the centre of the cake layer and spread it across to the edges. Try to create an even layer that’s roughly ¼ to ½ inch thick. 
  3. Continue by stacking the next gluten free cake layer on top of the frosted layer and centre it. Apply a gentle pressure to make sure there aren’t any air pockets between the layers. 
  4. Add more buttercream or frosting and repeat until all the cake layers are stacked. 

Note: For the last cake layer, place it cut side down, or so the bottom of the cake is facing up. This will ensure you have a nice, flat cake top.

Crumb Coat the Gluten Free Cake

By applying a ‘crumb coat’ to the cake, you are locking in all the loose cake crumbs so they don’t end up in the final layer of frosting. This step is SUPER EASY and makes a cake instantly look bakery worthy!

To apply a crumb coat simply use a few tablespoons of buttercream and, using an offset spatula, smooth a thin layer of buttercream around the whole cake. Take special care to fill in any holes or gaps between the cake layers. Then place the cake in the fridge to set for 15-20 minutes or until the buttercream layer is firm. 

Final Gluten Free Cake Frosting

Now for the fun part! This step really is all up to you and dependant on the style of cake you are making. For a quick, basic (but beautiful!) cake, add a generous dollop of buttercream or frosting to the top of the cake. Then use an offset spatula or even a teaspoon will work, spread the buttercream to the edges. Begin spreading the buttercream in a figure-eight motion to create swirls. Do the same to the sides of the cake but only add a few tablespoons of buttercream at a time as gravity will take over and it will likely slide down onto the serving plate.

Recap and General Tips to Improve Your Gluten Free Cake Baking Skills!

  • Unless otherwise specified in the recipe, always use room temperature ingredients. Room temperature ingredients reduce the chance of your cake batter separating (becoming curdled), whip up faster and with greater volume and result in an airier cake texture. 
  • Sift your dry ingredients together. Sifting helps to distribute the flour and leaveners while also remove any lumps. This is especially helpful when using cocoa powder which tends to clump easily. 
  • Keep your mixing bowl clean. Scraping down the sides of the mixing bowl with a rubber spatula during the mixing process helps ensure everything is incorporated and no clumps end up in your cake. Do this at least two or three times!
  • When adding liquids to your cake mixture do it slowly so the cake batter can better absorb all liquid. Too quickly and the batter might curdle.
  • Bake your cake AS SOON AS THE BATTER IS READY. Letting cake batter hang around after it’s been mixed will lead to a flat, sunken cake.
  • When baking multiple cake at the same time make sure the pans are not touching in the oven. If the air can’t circulate around each cake pan the cakes will not bake evenly. 
  • Placing cake pans on a large sheet pan in the oven will catch any spills or drips that might happen while baking. 
  • To avoid overbaking a cake, make sure to check for doneness about 5-7 minutes before your timer goes off. All ovens vary slightly and depending on the pan used or even the humidity, the cake may bake at a faster rate.
  • No peaking! It’s tempting to open the oven door to check on the progress of your cake but don’t do it. Opening the oven door and letting out the hot air and/or touching the cake will likely make it collapse. As a rule of thumb I never open the oven door until the cake has baked for approx. 75% of the total bake time. So, if a cake is baking for 30 minutes, I would check it around the 23-25 minute mark.
  • Before cutting or frosting a gluten free cake, make sure it is completely cooled. Gluten free cakes are very delicate when warm so if you try to cut it before its cooled completely it will break apart. Additionally, adding frosting or buttercream to a warm cake will leave you with a sloppy, melted mess. 
  • Gluten free cake is best served at room temperature. So, remember to take the cake out of the fridge a few hours before you plan on serving it. This step removes any ‘fridge-y’ essence from the cake and will improve the overall taste and texture when served.  

The cake recipes that I’ve included in this module have been a labour of love for over six years, so it seemed fitting to have it as the last module in the Kira Bakes Gluten Free Pastry School series. The below recipe will allow you to practice 5 different cake methods: 

Gluten Free Cake Recipes:

  1. Gluten Free Classic Chocolate Cake
  2. Gluten Free Vanilla Cake
  3. Glute Free Chocolate Swiss Roll Ice Cream Cake
  4. Gluten Free Lemon Loaf
  5. Gluten Free Chocolate Loaf Cake


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