While we were away for Christmas, my oldest daughter turned 8. She asked for her favorite homemade white cake with buttercream frosting, and despite the fact that we had a less-than-fully stocked condo kitchen, I said yes. How hard could it be? I’ve been baking since I was her age.
Turns out, it was quite a challenge. No cake pans. A mix of granulated and superfine sugar. An oven that seemed to run hot. And the worst? No dry measuring cups.
The only measuring cup I could find was a 32-ounce liquid measuring cup. I’m a big believer in substitutions, like using thyme instead of sage because you like it better, or green beans instead of zucchini in a soup because that’s what you have on hand. But you just can’t substitute a liquid measuring cup for a dry one.
As I baked, the kids and their cousins kept asking about the cake. “It’s a science project,” I finally told them. In the end, the cake tasted normal. But it was oddly-shaped from the assortment of glass baking dishes I had to use, and didn’t rise much, no doubt from old baking powder.
Back home, I experimented to see just how off I’d probably been on the flour. Here’s what I discovered: 1 cup (dry cup) = 1 1/8 cup (liquid cup). While I was at it, I decided to test the different ways to fill a measuring cup, too. One method is to dip the measuring cup inside the bag of flour, fill it up and scrape it off. Another is to spoon flour into the measuring cup and level it off with a knife. Chefs do neither, preferring to use a scale. Do these different methods really matter? Here’s what I found:
- 1 cup of flour by “dip and scrape” = 5 ounces of organic all-purpose flour
- 1 cup of flour by “spoon and level” = 2 T less than 5 ounces
Now imagine if you were making bread calling for 4 cups of flour! This might be why a friend’s favorite recipe never tastes the same when you make it yourself. Some cookbooks tell you what method the authors used in their ingredient lists. In cooking school, I was taught the “spoon and level” method; Gourmet used to suggest this as well. When in doubt, that’s what I’d recommend.
Of course, none of this helps if you’re baking from scratch in a condo. If you find yourself in that position, just wing it. Then make sure you’ve got a great frosting.