Frantically fanning a cake with a sheet pan to cool it down it is a staple of ‘Bake-Off’ lore. But what happens when you try it at home?
In the long and frankly relentless history of humankind as we know it, there are a few things that are certain: we all die, there is no escaping the tax man, and at some point in a season of The Great British Bake-Off, a rushed contestant will wave a baking sheet over a cake in order to get it to cool it faster. No matter the season, no matter the baker’s skill level, no matter the style of cake, there will inevitably be a delirious scramble to cool a cake through the velocity of a baking sheet and the sheer power of elbow grease.
At home, away from the stress of Noel Fielding’s hilarious and Matt Lucas’s obnoxious time calls, there is rarely a need to lower a cake’s temperature in under 20 minutes. But on Bake-Off, where time is as precious as a handshake from a hater, the bakers would have you believe that waving a cookie sheet over a dessert is a powerful and enigmatic form of witchcraft. The baking sheet waving trick has become such a staple of Bake-Off lore that on the first episode of Season 10 (objectively one of the best of all the seasons), when Michael Chakraverty sees Dan Chambers flapping a sheet over his fruitcake, he responds in awe, “He’s doing the thing! He’s doing the thing! Does it work?”
“No,” Chambers says, sounding hopeless. And yet, he persists.
Like any person who is hopelessly devoted to Bake-Off, certain things about the show plague me — Why on earth do they not just let them change clothes between day one and day two? When will Matt Lucas be put out to pasture? Why is Paul so Paul? When will the reign of black forest gâteau end? — but at some point, I could not let go of the fact that the sheet-pan waving thing was everywhere. Everyone does it so you’d have to assume it works — but does everyone do it because they’ve seen everyone else do it in previous seasons?
The only way to find out was through a highly unscientific trial.
First, a control. It wouldn’t be an episode of Bake-Off without a genoise sponge and Italian meringue buttercream, so for my first batch, I made both as normal. When the sponge had fully baked through, I removed it from the oven, let it cool in the tin for six or seven minutes, popped it from the springform onto a cooling rack, and stuck a ThermoWorks probe thermometer with a temperature alarm directly into the center. I watched patiently as it cooled, aiming for it to settle somewhere between 70 and 75 degrees within the hour. I kept watching. And kept hoping. And kept watching some more.
I was gobsmacked to learn that, without any intervention, it took my genoise sponge nearly two full hours to cool. Imagine a Bake-Off contestant waiting that long in a steaming hot tent in the dead of humid British summer for a cake to cool before stacking it high with various kinds of buttercream, tuile, meringue kisses, and tempered chocolate. There was no way that would be possible given the time constraints. But would the cookie sheet trick save me even an extra 20, even 10 minutes of time? I was skeptical.
For the experiment, I baked the exact same genoise sponge, at the exact same oven temperature, even pulling up a short stool to the window of my oven to watch its progress, before overheating and getting bored and deciding this was one move that Bake-Off contestants are motivated to do out of crazed, irrational desperation. (No offense, guys, but staring at your bake is a waste of already precious time.) When the timer went off, I stood the hot cake straight on top of a can, stripped it of its springform collar, flipped it onto a cooling rack, jabbed the thermometer probe in its center, and immediately began fanning it with a baking sheet like a berserk person.
And what do you know, something amazing happened. Within seconds, the temperature on the thermometer began to rapidly decrease while I furiously waved the baking sheet from a foot away. The cake temperature had started at 205 degrees, and while I huffed and puffed and waved, it dropped rapidly to an incredible 139 degrees thanks to the sheer force of my commitment. That’s a decrease of 66 degrees in 10 minutes! Compared to my first cake’s drop of 132 degrees over two excruciating long hours, that felt like nothing short of a miracle.
Sweating and exhausted, I decided that was enough — and far more than Bake-Off’s contestants would have time to do anyway — and switched to another common trick employed by the baking show’s competitors. I slid the cake into my freezer, dangling the thermometer probe — still suck in the center — out the door. Thirty minutes later, my cake had reached the exact same temperature as my control cake. My second genoise sponge was cooled in the third of the time it took for my first cake, and ready to be iced with what I admit was fairly shitty Italian buttercream. All those Bake-Off contestants waving baking sheets over their cakes weren’t just wildly hopeful, they were geniuses.
On a preview clip for the final episode of Bake-Off Season 12 — with the legendary lad Chigs, infectiously bubbly Crystelle, and headband-wearing Giuseppe — Chigs is seen employing the sheet-waving trick over a cake. I can’t guarantee that this means he’ll win that prized crystal cake plate at the end, but at least now we know it’ll absolutely give him a leg up.