Most home bakers are well accustomed to cakes that bulge in the middle as they bake, a tendency referred to as "crowning" or "doming." In fact, it's such a common flaw that many bakers don't recognize it as a flaw at all, just as a natural part of cake baking. Professional bakers are more diligent to avoiding crowning, which makes extra work and complicates decorating. You can follow the same techniques to improve your own cakes at home.
Why it Happens
Crowning takes place because the edges of the cake tend to bake more quickly than the middle. Heat is conducted into the batter from the metal pan's edges, where it makes the outer areas of the cake's batter solidify and take their final form before they've fully risen. In the middle of the cake, where heat arrives more slowly, the batter continues to rise. In some cases, this late rising might even cause the middle of the cake to crack into fissures. The resulting domed shape has little effect on the cake's taste and texture, but does complicate the task of decorating your cake. Over-mixing the cake makes things worse, by forming excessive gluten and helping the cake rise more.
Levelling and Decorating
If your cake is intended for nothing more than a casual treat, crowning isn't that big a deal. You can even turn the dome effect to your advantage, decorating the cake as a moon or a happy face. Ordinarily, though, you'd use a long knife or a special cake leveler to cut off the domed section and level the cake. Sweep away as many of the crumbs as you can manage, and then spread a thin layer of icing over the whole surface of the cake. After letting this "crumb coat" set for an hour or two in your refrigerator, you'll be able to layer or frost your cake without crumbs marring its finish.
An Ounce of Prevention
You can minimize crowning by taking a few simple steps. First, change pans. Dark pans conduct heat quickly, while light-colored pans do not. That's why professional bakers use light, matte-finish aluminum pans. Second, reduce your oven temperature by 10 to 15 degrees Fahrenheit. Many ovens bake hotter than they should, and this will help correct the problem. A third option is to insulate the edges of the pan with fabric strips, sold in many kitchenware shops for the purpose. They help minimize the edges' tendency to bake too quickly. You can also mix the cake more gently, or use cake flour instead of all-purpose flour, which minimizes gluten production.
Eating Your Mistakes
If you periodically have to trim a substantial crown from your cakes, don't discard the scraps. Centuries of thrifty bakers have found good uses for those trimmings. Break them up and combine them with custard and fruit to make trifle, for example, or mix them with leftover frosting to make cake pops. The European baking tradition includes a number of cakes and pastries that call for cake crumbs as an ingredient, and they make a fine crumb crust for cream pies or cheesecakes. You can even scatter them between layers of phyllo pastry to help keep them separated and crisp as they bake.
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