People seem to think that a food writer, or really anyone operating in the food world in a semi-professional capacity, has a perfect culinary record. This is not so.
Sure, practice makes perfect, and my success rate is strong having cooked thousands upon thousands of recipes, but every now and then the culinary gods remind me that I am indeed mortal.
I received one such reminder last week when I was making a surprise birthday dinner to deliver to a friend. I was coordinating with her daughter, who advised me that N’s favorite cake was a vanilla raspberry swirl.
I immediately thought of the blueberry cake recipe that I received from Roz Bratt, the renowned baker of Homemade Goodies by Roz jewishexponent.com/blog_post/blueberry-cake-perfectly-pareve/, and figured I could swap raspberries for blueberries. Ah, the best laid plans of mice and men …
I went to the grocery store to find that March raspberries require a mortgage to buy, and I needed 3 cups of them. Frozen raspberries seemed a slightly less ruinous option, so I headed to the freezer.
When I started the recipe, it occurred to me that putting frozen raspberries into cake batter might impact the temperature and the baking, so I had the bright idea to cook them down in a saucepan with a few tablespoons of raspberry jam. I figured this would add some sweetness and flavor, and I merrily proceeded with the recipe as the raspberries thawed and simmered.
When I went to assemble the cake — which meant layering the batter and berries in three sections in a Bundt pan — I over-dumped the first glug of batter. This left me with an insufficient amount to cover the raspberries, but at that point I was committed.
I put most of the raspberry jam mixture in next. Although it seemed like I followed the amounts suggested by Roz in her recipe, the mixture expanded and became quite juicy, so I saved about a cup for use as a dessert sauce later.
I then scraped the remaining batter into the pan — it barely covered the berries. The raspberry mixture was fairly liquid-y which, in retrospect, was predictable, since I cooked down the frozen berries and released their juice, and also cooked the jam, which melted into a thin syrup.
The cake was scheduled to cook for 60 minutes but at 45 it appeared to be done. Well, overdone. The edges were burning — a result of the fact that the raspberry syrup had oozed out of the batter and charred on the cake pan. Normally, it is advised to cool cakes, at least partially, in the pan, but it was clear to me that I needed to evacuate the cake urgently to prevent further burning.
At that point, I was still convinced I could do a little surgery and, with artful frosting, salvage the effort. When I went to dump the cake out, it didn’t budge. I then took a knife, and began to chisel the stuck edges away from the pan. I attempted another dump with a much more forceful push, and felt the cake land on the plate. Or so I thought.
The cake severed: The raspberry filling split the cake in two, leaving a cavernous shell in the pan and a naked interior on the plate.
I ended up scraping the cake out of the pan, discarding the burned bits and serving the scraps to my husband and me topped with vanilla ice cream for dessert over the next several days.
And I made N another cake, using this fail-safe recipe, topping it with the surplus jam-berry mixture, and whipping some cream for a garnish. She and her family enjoyed it and were none the wiser about the other disaster. jewishexponent.com/2020/06/01/philacatessen-i-cant-believe-its-vegan-cake/.
The moral of the story: Don’t fiddle with cake recipes.
Unlike much of cooking, where you can throw in a little of this and a little of that, baking cakes is a precision enterprise. Varying the chemistry, as I did with the cooked-down raspberry/jam fiasco instead of following the instructions to use fresh blueberries, can result in a cake-tastrophe!