Basics #20: Man Over Machine

Don’t get me wrong — I love my KitchenAid stand mixer. It makes short work out of doughs and meringues, creams butter and sugar beautifully, and makes the fluffiest frostings.


But there’s just something much more satisfying about mixing up a cake with just a bowl, a spoon and some elbow grease.

I’ve been finding myself making a lot of small-ish cakes, little 5-inch or 6-inch numbers. With ingredient quantities so small, it seems ridiculous to haul out the heavy machinery.

And I’ve not really missed using a stand mixer. All my ingredients go into a large mixing bowl (in the right order, of course) and I beat it all with a silicone spatula.

Mixing by hand is great because you really get a ‘feel’ for the ingredients, especially towards the end as the batter comes together before baking. Many recipes will warn you against over-mixing the batter because it creates a tough cake. When mixing by hand, you’ll almost never over-mix because you’ll be able to see and feel exactly when all the ingredients have been incorporated.

Even buttercream icing is easily made by hand-mixing. It’s just butter and icing sugar mixed together until smooth, which shouldn’t take very long at all. Although your icing won’t be as fluffy and aerated as when made in a stand mixer, it’ll still be the smoothest icing you’ll ever make because you’re able to suss out and smoosh down any sugar lumps that form.

The only downside with hand-mixing is really creaming butter and sugar at the start of cake-making. With a stand mixer, you just turn it on high and leave it for 5 minutes.

By hand, you may have to beat butter and sugar for a good 10 minutes. I once read somewhere that in the days before electric mixers, baking recipes will instruct you to cream by hand for up to 30 minutes or more!

But actually, I wouldn’t be terribly worried even if you don’t get the sugar to dissolve and the butter to lighten and become fluffy. You see, in the old days, creaming was an essential step for incorporating air into a cake. If you don’t cream properly, you get a flat, dense sponge.

But these days, we have chemical leaveners, ala baking powder and baking soda, and these react with the ingredients and the heat of the oven to produce bubbles as the cake bakes, helping it to rise. So, even if you don’t cream your butter and sugar perfectly, it’s not the end of the world.

So what exactly is the whole point of me telling you about hand-mixing? Well, it’s that not having a stand mixer, or any other electric mixer, is not a good excuse to not bake from scratch! (Whoa, so many negatives in that sentence.) All you really need is a bowl, a spoon, and the willingness to spend a little more time and energy on baking.

Chocolate Cake

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