When I was a kid I liked to read cookbooks. My mother had a full shelf and the ones that particularly appealed to me had to do with baking. One day I was looking at a two-page spread of pound cake recipes. I noticed that none of them had the same proportion of dry to wet ingredients. If the cookbook authors couldn’t make up their minds about which proportion was best, what was the point of a recipe?
As an adult I tried baking bread but making it from scratch isn’t easy. Flours have different moisture content. Altitude affects rising. When I tried to use a bread recipe I was stymied by the differing amounts of flour, sometimes 4-6 cups. How could such a spread be possible? The resulting breads were occasionally okay, but often they were mushy or crumbly. Breadmaking was a crap shoot. I never knew how the bread would turn out.
There was another problem. Even when I really tried to follow a recipe my internal imp played mischief. I’d forget an ingredient; I’d put in too much of something; my oven didn’t bake it as quickly or slowly as the recipe indicated.
One day, I met a chef who said the reason he baked such reliably excellent bread was that he didn’t follow a recipe. He used his eyes to determine texture and thickness, his mouth to taste, his nose to smell . . . Experience taught him what was needed. I paid attention to what he said as I ate his scrumptious bread. When I went home I started making bread using what he told me. My failures disappeared. Every loaf tasted good, albeit slightly different each time. I stopped worrying about following recipes.
A few months ago, I had apples that needed to be used so I made an apple cake, but when I tasted a slice, it was dry and didn’t have much flavor. I’m not a person who throws out food so I let it cool, put it in the freezer, and forgot about it.
Some time later I had apples that had been in the refrigerator too long and were not particularly edible. I decided to make an apple cake. I diced up the soft apples, marinated them in lemon juice, cinnamon, and coconut sugar and then remembered the cake in the freezer. I took it out and heated a slice in the toaster oven to see if it was as bad as I remembered. It was. I decided to use it to make another cake. This is not the first time I’ve done this, but it’s times like this that following my senses rather than a recipe comes in handy.
I mushed the apple cake into the mixer, added the marinated apples, eggs, oil, vanilla, and rum and beat the mixture until it was more liquid than solid. I put a bit of baking powder, baking soda, and salt into some flour, mixed them up, then added the dry ingredients to the wet and beat them together. I carefully added a bit more flour, a little at a time, until the mixture seemed to be the right texture and thickness. I tasted it, added more cinnamon and some cardamon, put it into two pans, slid them into my toaster oven, set the timer for 40 minutes, and waited.
When the timer rang, I took out the cakes. They’d risen nicely. Smelled good. I took them out of the pan and cut myself a slice. Much to my pleasure, the new cake tasted great. Good texture. Nicely moist. Lots of flavor.
How have you salvaged something that’s initially a failure?
Life tales from a woman different living in The City Different.