Cake is a form of food that is usually sweet and often baked. Cakes normally combine some kind of flour, a sweetening agent (commonly sugar), a binding agent (generally egg, though gluten or starch are often used by vegetarians and vegans), fats (usually butter, shortening, or margarine, although a fruit purée such as applesauce is sometimes substituted to avoid using fat), a liquid (milk, water or fruit juice), flavors and some form of leavening agent (such as yeast or baking powder), though many cakes lack these ingredients and instead rely on air bubbles in the dough to expand and cause the cake to rise. Cake is often frosted with buttercream or marzipan, and finished with piped borders and crystallized fruit.
Cake is often the dessert of choice for meals at ceremonial occasions, particularly weddings, anniversaries and birthdays. There are literally millions of cake recipes (some are bread-like and some rich and elaborate) and many are centuries old. Cake making is no longer a complicated procedure; while at one time considerable labor went into cake making (particularly the whisking of egg foams), baking equipment and directions have been simplified that even the most amateur cook may bake a cake.
Cakes are broadly divided into several categories, based primarily on ingredients and cooking techniques.
Beyond these classifications, cakes can be classified based on their appropriate accompaniment (such as coffee cake), contents (e.g. fruitcake or flourless chocolate cake), or occasion (wedding cake, birthday cake, or Passover plava, a type of Jewish sponge cake sometimes made with matzo meal).
Cakes may be small and intended for individual consumption (for example madeleines and cupcakes). Larger cakes may be made with the intention of being sliced and served as part of a meal or social function. The cutting of a wedding cake constitutes a social ceremony in some cultures. The Ancient Roman marriage ritual of confarreatio originated in the sharing of a cake.
Some varieties of cake are widely available in the form of cake mixes, wherein some of the ingredients (usually flour, sugar, flavoring, baking powder, and sometimes some form of fat) are premixed, and the cook needs add only a few extra ingredients, usually eggs, water, and sometimes vegetable oil or butter. Such mixes are available under a number of brand names, including Betty Crocker, Duncan Hines, and Pillsbury; while the diversity of represented styles is limited, cake mixes do provide an easy and readily available homemade option for cooks who are not accomplished bakers.
Special cake flour with a high starch:gluten ratio is made from fine-textured, soft, low-protein wheat. It is strongly bleached, and compared to all-purpose flour, cake flour tends to result in cakes with a lighter, less dense texture. Therefore, it is frequently specified or preferred in cakes meant to be soft, light, and or bright white, such as angel cake. However, cake flour is generally not considered mandatory for good results, and its effect on the cake's texture can readily be simulated by adding corn starch and/or baking soda to all-purpose flour Some recipes explicitly specify or permit all-purpose flour, notably where a firmer or denser cake texture is desired.
A finished cake is often enhanced by covering it with icing, or frosting, and toppings such as sprinkles, which are also known as "jimmies" in certain parts of the United States and "hundreds and thousands" in the United Kingdom. Frosting is usually made from powdered (icing) sugar, sometimes a fat of some sort, milk or cream, and often flavorings such as vanilla extract or cocoa powder. Some decorators use a rolled fondant icing. Commercial bakeries tend to use lard for the fat, and often whip the lard to introduce air bubbles. This makes the icing light and spreadable. Home bakers either use lard, butter, margarine or some combination thereof. Sprinkles are small firm pieces of sugar and oils that are colored with food coloring. In the late 20th century, new cake decorating products became available to the public. These include several specialized sprinkles and even methods to print pictures and transfer the image onto a cake.
Special tools are needed for more complex cake decorating, such as piping bags or syringes, and various piping tips. To use a piping bag or syringe, a piping tip is attached to the bag or syringe using a coupler. The bag or syringe is partially filled with icing which is sometimes colored. Using different piping tips and various techniques, a cake decorator can make many different designs. Basic decorating tips include open star, closed star, basketweave, round, drop flower, leaf, multi, petal, and specialty tips.
Royal icing, marzipan (or a less sweet version, known as almond paste), fondant icing (also known as sugarpaste) and buttercream are used as covering icings and to create decorations. Floral sugarcraft or wired sugar flowers are an important part of cake decoration. Cakes for special occasions, such as wedding cakes, are traditionally rich fruit cakes or occasionally Madeira cakes (also known as whisked or fatless sponge), that are covered with marzipan and either iced using royal icing or sugarpaste. They are finished with piped borders (made with royal icing) and adorned with a piped message, wired sugar flowers, hand-formed fondant flowers, marzipan fruit, piped flowers, or crystallized fruits or flowers such as grapes or violets.
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