Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Cake Wrecks and Other Unsuccess Stories

Being a fearless baker for many years, I've had my share of kitchen disasters. The recent gingerbread debacle was the latest in a long line of near misses.

Regarding the failed gingerbread: I'm certain that my Eastern European Grandma Jean (who died a few years ago at 100) would have found some way to salvage it (gingerbread meatloaf anyone?) But I didn't and have the pictures to prove it. (If I did save it, I could have used it in Gingerbread Pudding, a 1919 recipe from When Mother Let Us Cook, which is basically gingerbread served with a vanilla sauce -- an early, simple version of creme anglaise.)

One thing I've learned about baking is that it's not one perfect cake after another. In truth, it's all about recovery, not initial success. Years ago, in a dessert class, the chef instructor put a pecan tart into the oven. When he checked on it, he discovered -- to his horror -- that the filling was leaking at a rapid rate from the crust. Before I could cry out, "It's ruined!" he opened the oven and, with the calmest possible demeanor, began to scoop the filling (with a spatula) back into the crust, a procedure he repeated every five minutes or so until the tart was done. When it emerged from the oven, it looked perfect. I don't remember anything else about that class, but the lesson from that one tart looms large.

Now I've probably baked and frosted dozens of chocolate cakes, but the one I most remember was for an event at my daughter's school. I made the cake and frosting the night before and left the frosting in a pastry bag on my high kitchen counter; I planned to frost the cake after work. When I returned home the next day, the pastry bag was on the kitchen floor! Somehow my tiny five-pound dog had managed to defy gravity, leaping so high as to set a new toy poodle pole-vaulting record. I momentarily panicked; I had only 20 minutes to show up (cake in hand) at the school. While Midnight, the dog, had gotten to some of the frosting, I could tell he hadn't touched a lot of it. After carefully transfering the "virgin" frosting to a new pastry bag, I began to pipe the frosting, but it was clear that I wouldn't have enough. A quick trip to the corner fruit store was my salvation. I simply placed some strawberries (and coconut) atop the cake and -- voila! -- a lovely presentation. (My dog was not nearly as thrilled.)

So here are some photos of some of my past "creations gone awry" and some divine salvations. Gingerbread overboard anyone? How about the angelfood cake that bedeviled me? (It simply fell out of the pan to the kitchen counter.) And the Christmas seven layer cookies (which look fine here, which is the point. You'd never know that I took the red cake layer out of the pan too soon and it fell apart. But a quick patching worked beautifully --one could never tell that they weren't perfect from the start -- the beauty of recovery.)

Happy baking -- the good news is, you can (almost) always eat your mistakes.


  1. oh, and i thought you were perfect, Susan! about those italian cookies, are they soft like cake or crunchy? is there a formal agreement among serious bakers on what defines a cookie vs. cake? these are the important things i ponder at 4 am!

  2. Too funny! I was up at 4 a.m. freaking out about work, myself. But everything looks better in the morning, right? Anyway, the Italian "cookies" -- which I guess are technically a three-layer cake -- are soft (though the chocolate top and bottom layer is a bit crunchy). After preparing the batter (which is made with marzipan plus the usual cake ingredients), it's separated into thirds, and tinted with food coloring. Each is baked in separate pans and later assembled -- the "frosting" between layers is raspberry jam. The top and bottom are then coated with some melted chocolate and the whole thing must be refrigerated (with weights on top of it) for several hours before it's cut into squares. It's a bit time-consuming, but maybe Mr. Wonderful is up for the challenge. If not, next time I see you, I'll make some as your belated birthday cake!

  3. sue, maybe it was that bottle of ?scotch that made the angle food cake tumble to the floor! Love reading the blog.

  4. @Debbie...funny! It's counterintuitive, but the way to cool angel cakes is to turn them upside down. (Of course, after that particular debacle, drinking the scotch in that bottle was quite helpful.)

  5. Susan,
    As soon as I saw the pic with the bottle of booze, I wondered if that booze-too much drink, perhaps?--was the reason for what looked like a baking disaster. Then I saw the pics of the rainbow cookies. Oooh, Lawrence would be all over them like white on rice. They are his favorite cookies. Looks like a fun adventure for you. Don't forget to bake something with Jello--there has to be some kind of throwback recipe that incorporates Jello. Good luck, Barb.

  6. Your photos make me lick my lips. And I know from experience your creations are as tasty as they look. I love your blog and I'm going to recommend it to all in my "kitchen cabinet."