It seems that American-style cakes -- the mile-high confections that won blue ribbons at the state fair and appeared at every family get-together for generations -- are making a comeback.
And they seem so familiar, so comfortable. It's been interesting living with the denser, richer European cakes, but good also to know that our fluffy, sweet American cakes will never be abandoned entirely.
Our American-style grandmothers made these state fair winners in any old cake pan they had around. Where modern Americans fiddle and fume over the accuracy of their oven thermostats and worry about which pan is Correct, our grandmothers flew by the seat of their bloomers.
As all our grandmothers knew, in the end it's the touch of the cook and not the cake pan that counts. But since manufacturers do present consumers with all these choices of pans -- aluminum, steel, dark, light, nonstick, glass -- and since there are slight differences in their performance, a little information couldn't hurt.
What we're talking about are round, 8- or 9-inch cake pans -- the kind you make layer cakes in. But the way the various materials react holds true for all cake pans -- bundt, loaf, tube and springform.
There are three materials I wouldn't go out and buy for use in making layer cakes, two because they are often tricky to use in conjunction with regular recipes, the third because it's ridiculously expensive.
Using dark steel -- or any very dark metal, for that matter -- will usually throw off baking times because the dark color absorbs heat more readily than a shiny or light surface. And this concentrated heat will likely over cook the outer layer of the cake so that a relatively heavy crust is formed. (Sometimes, as in pizza, some breads, and heavier batters that are to be unmolded, you want this crust -- but not in a tender layer cake.)
You probably won't be able to find a round glass cake pan (though square ones are plentiful) but if you do, remember that glass will also throw off the baking times of conventional recipes. Again you'll likely have a heavier, dryer crust and possibly a dryer crumb as well.
The third possibility I would eliminate is the very heavy anodized aluminum cake pans that cost two or three times what ordinary or even very good pans cost. In baking characteristics, these pans act like dark steel, although their color is more a medium gray. They produce a heavy crust, which may be desirable if you're making cheesecake -- the crust of which can easily become soggy -- but not if what you want is a fluffy tender cake.
These anodized pans are constructed from very heavy gauge aluminum -- a good thing if you're talking about a sauce pot or a saute' pan. But in cake pans it's too much of a good thing -- all that heaviness, for which you pay dearly, is wasted on your little cake. Better to save it for your saute's and your sauces.
That leaves aluminum, both nonstick-coated and plain, and tinned steel.
A nonstick pan (these come mostly in aluminum) is fine if you can find one that is well-constructed and made of a sturdy gauge of aluminum. The problem is that most nonstick pans -- the kind you see in many hardware stores and supermarkets -- are made flimsily of flimsy metal.
What difference does it make if you buy a light, flimsy pan? It's true that its molecules will remain in your kitchen for just as many years as those of a more substantial pan. But they'll be rearranged in ways that aren't good for cakes. A flimsy pan, susceptible to warping at extreme changes of temperature (when you put it in the oven, for example) will soon begin producing lopsided or bumpy cakes. And that you won't like at all.
And a flimsy nonstick pan is usually coated badly as well. So the nonstick coating wears off quickly and sometimes even flakes off into the cake. It's not uncommon to see nonstick pans scratched up before they even leave the store.
Wear-Ever makes some nice heavy aluminum cake pans coated with Silverstone that both perform and hold up very well. They cost only slightly more than flimsy aluminum and do not warp. It's also very difficult to dent these pans.
The advantage of a nonstick pan comes mainly at dishwashing time. The bottom of a very tender cake is just as likely to break apart when taking it out of a nonstick pan as when taking it out of a regular pan. The only absolute protection against this kind of disaster is to line the pan with waxed or parchment paper.
There isn't much difference in performance or durability between good quality aluminum pans and those made of tinned steel (steel with a thin wash of tin over it). Tinned steel pans are nearly always constructed well, presumably because they are the classic professional pan, and thus do not warp or dent. Both aluminum and tinned steel darken slightly with use -- and cooking performance may change very slightly as a result.
The one advantage tinned steel pans have is that they are frequently made in 1 1/2-inch depths -- somewhat deeper than conventional pans. Village Baker is the brand name of these pans, and they come in a number of sizes. I've seen them for sale recently for $8.50 -- a few dollars more than a good aluminum pan.