Regular French household flour is made from soft wheat, while most American flour is made from hard wheat; in addition, French flour is usually unbleached. This makes a difference in cooking quality, especially when you are translating French recipes for yeast doughs and pastries. We have found that a reasonable approximation of French flour, if you need one, is 3 parts American all-purpose unbleached flour to 1 part plain bleached cake flour. Be accurate when you measure flour or you will run into cake and pastry problems. Although a scale is ideal, and essential when you are cooking in large quantities, cups and spoons are accurate enough for home cooking when you use the scoop-and-level system described here. For all flour measurements in this volume, scoop the dry-measure cup directly into your flour container and fill the cup to overflowing; do not shake the cup or pack down the flour. Sweep off excess so that flour is even with the lip of the cup, using a straight edge of some sort. Sift only after measuring.
Preparing a Cake Pan
To prepare a pan for cake batter, rub the entire inner surface with a thin film of softened butter. Then roll flour around in the pan to cover the sides and bottom; knock out excess flour by banging the pan, upside down, on a hard surface. A light dusting of flour should adhere all over the inner surface of the pan; this will make the cake easy to unmold (remove) after baking.
Numerous dessert and cake recipes direct that butter and sugar be creamed together; this may be accomplished either by machine or by hand.
Electric Beater: Use the pastry-blender attachment if you have one; you may use the regular beater, but the blades will become clogged. Cut the butter into 1/2-inch pieces. Warm the large mixing bowl in hot water. Dry it, add the butter and sugar, and beat at a moderate speed for several minutes. The mixture is ready to be used when it is light, fluffy, and a pale ivory color.
Hand Beating: If the butter has been left at room temperature for an hour to soften, simply beat the butter and sugar together in a bowl for several minutes until they form a light, fluffy mass. For cold, hard butter, use the following system: Cut the butter into 1/2-inch pieces and place it with the sugar in a mixing bowl set over barely simmering water. Beat with a wooden spoon for several seconds until the butter softens. Then set the bowl in a basin of cold water and beat for a minute or two until the mixture is light, fluffy, and a pale ivory color.
How to beat egg whites by hand -- for 2 to 8 egg whites
Provide yourself with a clean, dry balloon whip and a clean, dry round-bottomed bowl of unlined copper, stainless steel, or pristine plastic. The bowl should be 9 to 10 inches in diameter and 5 to 6 inches deep, and the whip 5 to 6 inches in diameter. To keep the bowl from jumping about, either place it on a wet pot holder or set it in a heavy pot or casserole.
Place the egg whites in the bowl, letting them sit for 15 to 20 minutes at room temperature if they have just come from the refrigerator. Start beating at a speed of 2 strokes per second with a vertical, circular motion for 20 to 30 seconds, until the egg whites have begun to foam. Then, for 4 egg whites, add a pinch of salt -- salt gives a slight flavor to the egg whites and is added even for sweet soufflés. If you are not using unlined copper, add also a scant 1/4 teaspoon of cream of tartar for the 4 egg whites.
Using your lower-arm and wrist muscles for beating -- shoulder muscles tire quickly -- gradually increase the beating speed to 4 strokes per second, beating as much air as possible into the mixture, and circulating the bowl so all the egg whites are entering into the action.
Start testing as soon as the whites seem to be stiff by gathering a dollop in the wires of the whip and holding it upright. If peaks are formed, you have achieved "stiffly beaten egg whites." If not, beat a few seconds more and test again. When you arrive at the right consistency, the egg whites should be folded almost immediately into the soufflé mixture.
How to beat egg whites by machine
For the successful beating of egg whites by machine, you must have the kind of equipment that will keep all of the egg whites in motion all of the time. This is best accomplished by the kind of whip mechanism that rotates about itself as well as circulating about the bowl, and that bowl must be of a rather narrow and rounded shape. If you have the old-fashioned mixer with a wide flat-bottomed bowl, substitute a narrower rounded bowl and you will be more successful. Otherwise use a rounded bowl and a hand-held electric beater that you circulate all around the bowl, pretending you are a heavy-duty mixer.
Always start at slow speed for a minute or more, until the egg whites are broken up and begin to foam; gradually increase your speed and when the whites are softly foaming
Egg whites with sugar added
When the egg whites are to be folded into a cake or sweet soufflé batter, you are usually directed to sprinkle in sugar after the whites have formed soft peaks, and you continue to the stiff shining-peak stage. Sugar stabilizes the egg whites and also makes for a stiffer texture.
Overbeaten egg whites
You can easily overbeat egg whites in an efficient machine -- they lose their velvety shine, turn dull, look grainy and slightly lumpy, and, worse, lose their puffing abilities. You can usually bring them back into shape by beating in another egg white, which will not disturb your recipe proportions.
Freezing egg whites
Raw egg whites freeze, thaw, and whip up perfectly. Two egg whites make 1/4 cup, which you can freeze in custard cups, unmold, and pack in plastic containers for later defrosting.
Folding in the egg whites
After the main ingredients of the soufflé have been blended together and seasoned, the beaten egg whites are incorporated gently and delicately so that they will retain as much of their volume as possible. This process is known as folding, and is accomplished as follows:
First stir a big spoonful of egg whites into the soufflé mixture to lighten it. Then with a rubber scraper, scoop the rest of the egg whites on top. Finally, still using your rubber scraper, cut down from the top center of the mixture to the bottom of the saucepan, then draw the scraper quickly toward you against the edge of the pan, and up to the left and out. You are thus bringing a bit of the mixture at the bottom of the pan up over the egg whites. Continue the movement while slowly rotating the saucepan, and cutting down, toward you, and out to the left, until the egg whites have been folded into the body of the soufflé. The whole process should not take more than a minute, and do not attempt to be too thorough. It is better to leave few unblended patches than to deflate the egg whites.