I hope you are not reading this section because things have gone wrong! It’s really here to try to prevent that happening, or at least to reassure you.
Hit or miss
One of the primary reasons why cakes sometimes fail is the recipe itself. It might be wrong or simply too vague, like some of grandma’s hand-me-downs which never mention details like tin sizes or oven temperature. Be suspicious of any recipe that does not offer you all the information you need. But if it’s precise, then follow it precisely: if it calls for an 8 inch (20 cm) square tin and you’ve only got a 6 inch (15 cm) round tin, it does matter.
Regrettably ovens vary, so that cooking times given in recipes can only be approximate. In fact I have cooked the same cake in the same oven and on each occasion the cooking time varied slightly. If, however, you find there’s a great deal of difference in your oven from the cooking time given in any recipe, it might be worth having it checked. Also it’s most important that ovens with cakes in them should be left alone. I know it’s hard. You’ll feel cut off, want to know what’s happening – but my advice is to put a kitchen timer on and go away, because it’s that crafty peep that will send cold air rushing in, and the cake might sink. Why spend all that time and trouble and then spoil it in a matter of seconds? So never open the oven door until the cake is at least three-quarters cooked according to the time given. Also, remember that if you have a fan oven, you can reduce the cooking times of all cake recipes by up to one-third. And, in fan ovens, it doesn’t make any difference about shelf positions as the temperature is uniform throughout. Another tip is that fan ovens are hotter, so reduce the temperature by about 10 degrees.
It is always tempting to take a peep in the oven to see how your creation is getting on. As I mentioned before, impatient cooks are inviting disaster.
If you are using a creaming method, it can sometimes happen that the beaten eggs are added to the sugar-and-fat mixture too quickly, causing the whole mixture to separate. This ‘breaking up’ means that some of the air incorporated at the creaming stage will escape and the finished cake will be slightly heavier. For beginners the way to avoid this is to add the beaten eggs just a teaspoonful at a time, whisking preferably with an electric hand whisk. If it does curdle, don’t worry: the cake won’t be as light but it’s not a disaster.
This is usually a fault in the recipe. It means the mixture is too slack (too liquid) to hold the fruit. Fruit cakes need a larger proportion of flour in order to hold the fruit evenly. Glace cherries and other sugar-coated fruit should be rinsed and dried (and chopped if large) before adding to a cake mixture. Both the size of the fruit and sugar coating can cause sinking.
Sometimes the top of a cake becomes brown before the centre is cooked. To prevent this, check the cake three-quarters of the way through the cooking time and, if necessary, fit a protective circle of double greaseproof paper (with a hole about the size of a 50p piece in the centre) over the top of the cake.
But above all, don’t be daunted. Always remember the good things that go into a home-made cake, and even if the finished product does happen to have sunk a bit, it will still taste delicious.