Cakes are demanding, and learning to make a good cake needs more than a recipe. So many little details are important. One of the essential details, at least for most British cakes, is beating the butter and sugar until truly pale and fluffy – creaming them together. If you’re making a Victoria sponge, a layer cake or a cupcake, you almost always start by creaming together the butter and sugar.
What is creaming?
For a long time I didn’t understand creaming at all. The recipe phrase is usually ‘cream the butter and sugar together, or ‘beat until light and fluffy’ or ‘beat until it turns a shade paler’. The big problem with these directions is that they don’t convey the change you need to see. You start off with a greasy paste of butter and sugar, but end up with something more like slightly yellowed whipped cream instead of butter.
I only really got creaming when watching a demonstration by Alice Medrich, an American baker and chocolatier. She was making her Tribute cake, a layer cake of featherlight chocolate sponge with whipped chocolate ganache filling and a smooth, shiny chocolate glaze. She left the mixer running for a good five minutes when creaming the butter and sugar – much longer than I had expected.
Think about it this way instead: most of the frosting that is now applied in towering heaps to American cupcakes is made of this same mixture. They tend to use icing sugar instead, so the texture is even smoother, but the volume and the fluffy texture are the things you’re aiming for.
Why is creaming important in making cakes?
The structure of a cupcake is a foam, a web of flour starch and egg proteins, with many tiny bubbles. The batter you end up with is quite delicate, with just enough connection between the ingredients to hold the all-important air in there. This is the biggest difference between a sponge and other types of cake.
Marrying butter and sugar is a task at once completely simple and immensely complicated. It is the foundation of cake bakery, the structure upon which everything else stands. Build it carelessly, and the rest of the structure may wobble and fall. Of course, you can insure yourself against these errors with other supporting structures, but when you want to move on to the virtuoso pieces that really depend on the foundation, that strip everything else back, you will find it hard.
What is happening when you cream together butter and sugar is that the sugar crystals are helping to create bubbles in the fat as they are beaten. Air is what creaming is all about. Beating faster and longer creates more and more bubbles, and creates a finer texture. Any time you introduce bubbles of one thing into something else, it will become more opaque and paler. This is true of vinaigrette, of hollandaise, of whisked egg whites and of creamed butter and sugar. All the little bubbles start to interfere with the light, bouncing it around more and making it look paler.
How do you cream butter and sugar for sponge cakes?
Hannah Glasse in 1774 described the final state as a ‘fine thick cream’. She suggested that using your hand, this should take an hour. Another 19th Century book suggests it is “the hardest part of cake making” and you should have your manservant do it.
In the absence of a man-servant, a handheld electric mixer or a stand mixer like a Kitchenaid makes this much, much easier. With a small quantity it can be done by hand, but expect a decent workout. You need the mixture to change colour – as the air is incorporated, the bubbles make the mixture look paler. The texture also becomes much fluffier.
When you’re creaming butter and sugar together, it’s more or less impossible to mix for too long. You at least need the mixture to become one shade lighter. By mixing it for long enough, it should be possible to make it turn almost white, as the sugar crystals introduce more and more air into the fat. All of this isn’t really conveyed by the simple words ‘cream the butter and sugar’.
In a follow up post, I’ll talk about the subsequent steps in making a sponge cake, which follow on from the creaming step.
Is it really almost impossible to mix for too long? If I have creamed the butter and sugar together for too long and then add the egg(s), the mixture goes funny, like curdling, and separates. The way to avoid this, I have found, is either to not cream for so long or to add some flour between each egg. Can you explain what is happening here?
Yes, the mixture will sometimes curdle, but not from mixing too long, I think. I need to do some more investigation first, but curdling is coming in the next post. In my experience it tends to be associated with having the eggs or mixture too cold, or adding the eggs too fast.
If the mixture does split, adding a tablespoon of the sifted flour to the sugar/butter mixture and folding it in usually solves the problem.