Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Cake Saga

"What's the occasion?" asked Jason. "There is no occasion; that's the beauty of it," I replied. Baking for an occasion is the biggest mistake an innocent cook can make. You know that the world is divided into cooks and bakers, don't you? That's right. According to my theory of Kitchen Neurotic Styles (KNS), there are compulsive measurers and compulsive improvisers, and if you don't have either one of those compulsions, you probably don't like spending time in the kitchen.

For people like me, baking a cake for an occasion is a recipe for disaster because there is pressure to actually finish the cake by someone's birthday or holiday. For some reason, presenting someone with a cake 2 months after their birthday doesn't work. What usually happens when I bake for an occasion is that the resourcefulness that makes me a good cook turns against me. Either I don't have the right pan, or the right flour, or the right mixer, or the scale, or some other thing that would make absolutely no difference in cooking, and seams to make all the difference in baking. Occasions also tend to inspire me, and bad thoughts like "wouldn't it be cool if this had a black current filling" start popping into my head. That's bad. Very bad. Making substitutions, no matter now trivial they might seem spells DISASTER to an inexperienced baker.

But this time it was going to be different. First, I spent 3 months preparing for the cake baking day. Jason was even joking that this cake I'd been talking about since fall was never going to happen. But let me tell you something. Baking a cake is like going into battle. You can never be prepared enough.

First I needed a right sort of book. Something that had enough detail for a person with baking disability. T.W., a friend of mine who is a phenomenal baker, suggested the Joy of Cooking. Somehow it never occurred to me to buy that Bible of American Cooking. I have Julia Child for French, Marcella Hazan for Italian, and what else does one need for perfect happiness? Well, I was wrong. The Joy overcame all my expectations. It's very thorough, detailed, and well-tested. The best part is that instead of pretty pictures of cakes and romantic food prose, it has incredible wealth of information on how to cream the butter, whip egg whites, measure flour, and all the other things most books take for granted. I read the chapter on cakes cover to cover. Here is what I learned:
  • All ingredients must be between 68-70F. One can never be anal enough about this. Now I leave my eggs and butter on the counter for 2 hours before baking and measure the temperature of liquids with an instant read thermometer.
  • Baking pans are not interchangeable and pyrex dishes don't count as cake pans. If a recipe calls for a 9 inch round cake pan, thou shall use a 9 inch round cake pan.
  • You have to measure flour correctly and cups don't work. Well, I already knew that and was all ready to weigh my flour. Too bad the recipes in Joy list the flour measurement in cups. But digging through the intro part of the cake chapter revealed that 1 cup of sifted flour = 4 oz and 1 cup of unsifted flour = 5 oz. The later is actually controversial since many books consider 1 cup of flour to be 4.5 oz. So there you have it. Bakers in US can't even agree on what a cup is.
  • Whipping egg whites does not just mean dumping them into a bowl of a mixer and turning it on. The bowl needs to be spotless. Even a spec of fat will not let them whip properly. You have to start slowly and then increase the speed. Oh, and you can over-mix which will result in clumpy, dry whites.
  • Creaming butter and sugar is a tricky procedure too. I didn't have to deal with it yet since the cake I baked required oil, not butter, but when I do, I'll have to proceed with caution.
  • Over-mixing the batter can develop gluten and result in a tough cake. As soon as the flour steaks are gone, stop mixing!
  • Folding is not mixing. It's a very different technique that has to be done correctly or the egg white will deflate.
Mess one of those subtle little things up and you have to start over. In other words, baking a cake for someone's birthday is not unlike having a celebratory chem lab.

The cake I finally settled on was an Earl Gray Chiffon cake. Before you go looking for it in the Joy of Cooking, let me first warn you that they don't have this recipe. They have a regular chiffon cake and the Earl Gray was a variation I thought I'll try since it's my favorite cake from one of the local French Japanese bakeries. I know, I know. You are probably thinking, "Has she been improvising again? That girl will never learn!" But wait. This was different. Really. Let me explain. The fact that this cake exists, and I've tasted it, made it at least doable in principle. The recipe for Chiffon cake in Joy of Cooking actually suggested that 3/4 cups water that the recipe calls for can be replace by other liquids like orange juice or coffee to give the cake a different flavor. Addition of the tea leaves left from brewing the tea to the batter was the most risky thing I did, but since the cake I was trying to duplicate had tea leaves in the batter, I thought this could work. For the icing, I used the recipe for stabilized whipped cream, substituting 3 Tbsp of tea for 1 Tbsp of water that is combined with the gelatin and 2 Tbsp of flavoring liquor suggested as a variation. I know. This one sounds a bit far fetched, but it was really just replacing 3 Tbsp of one liquid for another.

I had the book. I had the plan. But wait -- I didn't have the pan. Apparently, chiffon cakes can only be baked in tube pans (a.k.a. angel cake pans). Last weekend, I bought one. Finally nothing stood between me and the delicate, barely sweet, feather light cake, whose bergamot perfume had been haunting me for 5 years.

Did it work?

(Think "When Harry Met Sally.")

It was simply orgasmic.

And don't you dare laugh at how ugly it looks. I don't have an icing spatula yet, ok? Even if I did, I don't think I'd know what to do with it. The icing went on all crooked, and way too thin. But to me, it was the most beautiful cake on earth. In desperation for a decent picture, I cut it up and put it in a glass layered with icing like a trifle. He, he! That looked pretty cool and could pass for a $10 dessert from an upscale restaurant. But I doubt I'd ever serve it that way since too much cake is wasted when it's cut into circle to fit into glasses. This cake is too good for that.

Recipe coming soon.


Anonymous said...

Sounds good, can't wait for the recipe!

adele said...

That is a delicious-looking cake.

I have to agree with the KNS. Beware when the two types clash.

I am a compulsive improviser, and I don't stop at baking. I haven't experienced any serious disasters yet, but that might just be because I give chiffon cakes and the like a wide berth. Baked goods whose main virtue is butter tend to be much more forgiving. :)

Anonymous said...

After an intro. like that and then to not include the recipe -- that's mean!

O.K. I know you have a new(ly) born and relevant obligations..

Look forward to reading your recipe and reading my print of Joy of Cooking.

Anonymous said...

I'm a kitchen schizophrenic --- compulsive improviser when cooking (and sometimes when baking bread), obsessive-compulsive measurer for all sweet baked things (puddings, custards, ice cream, and sorbet are all much more like cooking --- and thus much more forgiving). My partner is the real dessert maven in the family, and he's been known to improvise, much to my dismay. How dare he get away with such madness!? Anyway. All this is to say: I have been reading and enjoying Beyond Salmon for several months now, but faced with the prospect of a recipe for delicious tea cake, I could not resist finally posting a comment!

Helen said...

Hi Tracy,

Thanks for commenting :) It's always so much fun to "meet" Beyond Salmon readers. I am with you on custards etc. Much more forgiving on us cooks. It's the pastry department that usually give me trouble and people who can improvise that stuff simply amaze me, but I doubt they mess with the basic doughs. It's probably icings and fillings that they mess with.


Madam Chow said...

Oh, that looks so good! I love Earl Gray tea, and drink it almost every day.

Terry at Blue Kitchen said...

Regarding not baking for an occasion, I similarly never give flowers as an apology. I tend not to give them for the typical flower-giving holidays and occasions either. Instead, I mostly give them for no occasion at all, which almost never fails to bring the most pleasure.

Helen said...

Hi Terry,

That's exactly what my husband does! I thought he was the only guy who did that :) For example, yesterday he brought me flowers just because. I love when he does that. This way nothing bad has to happen for me to get flowers and I don't have to wait for some once a year holiday either. You guys should teach "super husband" seminars ;)


Anonymous said...

Congratulations on your cake! And thank you for assembling all those good tips in one place. Very nice post indeed, and I think the picture of the cake is motivational-- i.e., I would SO eat that!

suzanneelizabeths.com said...

I'm definately not a baker, but I loved your comment about weighing ingredients instead of measuring, I think this is much more sensible.

As for my baking skills...I love baking cakes, but they tend to be box mixes with an improvised twist added in impromptu. For some reason, they actually turn out well!?


Shig said...

It's so funny that you mention the compulsive improvisor and the compulsive measurer. I'm the first and my husband is the latter. I guess that's why the only baking I do is bread.

I have my Grandma's Joy of Cooking from 1953 and that book tells you how to cook everything. My favorite recipe is for turtle soup-including how to kill and dress you very own turtle. Eeks, indeed.