Cake Crust & Crumb

A good Dobos Torte question came in via email a few minutes ago from reader Nora, asking why I can’t just skip all the repetitive baking and simply slice two normal cake layers horizontally into, say, three pieces each. This of course is how a great many multi-layer cakes are made.

The answer is simply because it wouldn’t taste the same. American-stlye cake layers are leavened with baking powder, for one (you need that to achieve the height). Dobos layers, by comparison, are leavened with egg foam.

But more than that, slicing up two American-style cake layers would yield a cake with a much lower crust-to-crumb ratio. You mean cake layers have crusts? Of course they do — soft, golden, sweet and delicious things they are too, full of deep caramel flavor. When you’re dealing with two-inch thick cake layers you don’t notice the flavor as much. However when you start stacking very thin, individually baked layers six, eight, ten layers high, you realize how much flavor they bring to the party.

8 thoughts on “Cake Crust & Crumb”

  1. Hi,

    Simply inquiring as to the nature of cake browning. When analyzing the process responsible for the formation of complex sugar decomposition and consequent darkening of surface gluten networks in this context, is a simple sucrose/starch reduction to more basic forms (mono/disaccharides) the primary caramelization movement, or is a more complicated concept, such as the Maillard reaction, involved? In addition, as futherance to the Maillard query, can a process of that nature execute itself upon a substance containing relatively latent enzymatic action (such as Dobos) to the same extent as it is observed in European breads? Thanks for any insight and sincere compliments concerning the recent modifications concerning site design. For years, I have viewed your insight into the confluence of scientific matters and culinary expertise as a valuable source of knowledge and anecdotal information. Being an established follower, it is pleasing to recieve newfound features and confirmation that you intend to persist in this capability. I appreciate your efforts!

    1. Scott, above all things I fear people who know what they’re talking about. You seem to be one of those people, so forgive me if I sweat while I write. It’s my understanding that while caramelization is the browning reaction associated with simple sugars, the Maillard reaction is the browning reaction primarily associated with proteins. Since cakes contain both — high amounts of surcose as well as some protein (flour gluten) — both types of browning are likely in operation. In the case of Dobos torte, I would think the vast majority of the browning is due to caramelization since there’s so little flour relative to sugar (4 ounces to a pound). Layer cakes, having more flour (they need it for their structure) would probably exhibit a little more Maillard browning on their surfaces.

      But it’s a very interesting question you raise about enzymes. Breads doughs, being very short on the simple sugars that lead to caramelization and browning, need enzymes to create them (by breaking down long starch molecules into their component parts). Cake batters, being very high in sugar to begin with, don’t need them in the same way. But active enzymes are surely present in cake batter (they’re in flour and are activated by the addition of water). My thinking, however, is that they have precious little time to start their work before the batter is baked. Bread dough, by comparison, can ferment for days in order to produce the maximum amount of simple sugar. But I’d never really considered that before, Scott. Thank you for a very thought-provoking question. I’ll be thinking about it over the course of the day.

      Also, Scott, I deeply appreciate all the very nice things you have to say about the site. Indeed I do intend to stick around and continue abusing my readers with my half-baked ideas. Cheers!

      – Joe

  2. It certainly is an intriguing subject! Upon publishing my initial request, I was confident that your reply would lend substantial insight into this matter. Certainly my perception was accurate–your response was informative and academically supported. I truly appreciate your willingness to accommodate reader’s queries.

    As continuance of the discussion, considering the inherent properties and general attributes of each process, is it accurate to presume that the initial darkening of a baguette upon heat exposure can be directly attributed to the simultaneous actions of both enzyme-derived monosaccharide decomposition and, albeit to a lesser extent, the effects of Maillard upon protease-reduced peptide chains (originating from the glutenin and gliadin strands)? In addition, due to the innate presence of both alpha-amylase and protein digesting enzymes in standard flour, extended fermentation periods must cultivate both deconstructive activities, resulting in bilateral browning increase. Finally, would the darkening stimulated by the application of a albumen or yolk egg wash be directly correlated to the movements of Maillard, due to their protein-rich nature?

    Again, an expression of gratitude for any possible information, and I will endeavour to restrict my chemistry-relevant queries so as not to inhibit your other, more significant, obligations.


    1. His again, Scott! Yes, you’re right on both counts, I think. While caramelization and Maillard browning are two distinct phenomena, it’s really quite rare to find one without the other. Obviously, if you’re making caramel with a pan full of granulated sugar, you’re not going to have any Maillard browning. However in just about every other instance, from bread crust to sautéed vegetables to gilled steaks, you’ll have a combination to one degree or another.

      But to your point about bread, there’s no question that there’s Maillard browning involved in bread crust for the reasons you mentioned. However as anyone whose even under-proofed — and then baked — a loaf of bread knows, Maillard browning has its limits. You can bake and bake a loaf of under-proofed bread and it won’t get much browner (until you just give up and burn it, of course, then you get plenty!). The reason the loaf fails to reach the proper deep tan is because starch-reducing enzymes haven’t have enough time to work and create the simple sugars necessary for added caramelization.

      Though here I should point out that there are ways to increase Maillard browning in breads — you can change the pH. Mailard reactions increase as the pH goes up, which is why bagel and pretzel makers dip their products in diluted lye prior to baking. A long-fermented bagel dipped in dilute lye gives you the best of both worlds — lots of caramelized sugar AND plenty of Maillard browning.

      But to your egg question the answer, I believe, is yes. Since eggs are so rich in protein, the browning you get from an application of egg wash is almost entirely due to Maillard reactions.

      Thanks for all the terrific questions, Scott!

  3. Would the egg proteins undergo a Maillard browning reaction? Or just the gluten? Because a sponge cake has a lot of eggs, and sometimes no flour at all. Plus, there are all those breads with toasty brown egg glaze.

    Scott, that’s quite a command of high-falutin language 🙂

    1. Good catch, Julie! You’re absolutely correct about egg proteins. There’s not shortage of them in cake batter and they’re very likely candidates for browning!

  4. But, Nora has a point. You could still get the same crust to crumb ratio if you baked just two thin 12″x18″ sheets and cut them into strips (eight strips 4″x12″). Okay, you get a rectangular cake, but same taste, less work.

    1. That’s a perfectly valid way to go, though I’d argue that the result isn’t a “torte”, tortes are round, but rather a strip. The round layer method also favors the baker who wants to achieve more layers still, and hence increase the crust ratio while creating an even more elegant presentation. I’m not saying that’s me, necessarily…I’m just sayin’.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *