Thursday, February 18, 2010

BAKING: 1st Cake from Scratch!

Yesterday's Creative Output:
1 Chocolate Buttermilk Cake with Mocha Whipped Cream Frosting
2 8-inch round layers

Life can be home schooling for grown-ups.

That's how I see it. I've turned off the TV, where I'd just be watching other people do things, and I've tuned in to learning and doing things myself instead, using my unscheduled time to following my curiosity.

It has been a goal of mine for a long time to bake a cake from scratch. Why? I'm not entirely sure. Sense of accomplishment? Potentially delicious results? Happy husband?

It's one of those urges you don't question. You just go with it. But where to start?

For my first scratch-baked cake, I meticulously went through all my cookbooks and compared all the chocolate cake recipes (no exaggeration). If I was going to put in the effort to bake a cake this way, I wanted to understand what I was doing and what the options were. I wanted to maximize the chances of success. Nothing is more discouraging to a novice baker that an unpalatable result the first time out.

At the risk of revealing the level my enjoyment of detail and depth, and looking a little crazy in the process, here is a picture of the table I created and filled in with ingredient quantities from 18 different chocolate cake recipes (not including the flourless or chiffon varieties).
Earlier this week, when the number of choices and amount of information was feeling overwhelming, I put this chart together so I could look for patterns. I enjoyed imagining each one as I looked over the recipes.

That's probably why I have so many recipes collected and organized into binders on a shelf in our kitchen. I read recipes the way some people read trashy novels.
Though the cake in the picture above wasn't from the recipe I ultimately used, the photo supplied inspiration for the finished result.

Some recipes used powdered unsweetened cocoa, some solid, some Dutch-process, some non-Dutch-process (wasn't even sure what this meant when I started). Some specified butter or shortening or vegetable oil, or milk or water or buttermilk or yoghurt or sour cream, white sugar or light brown sugar, baking powder and/or baking powder and/or salt. And so on. A lot to understand.

Got a wide variety of reactions when I told people I was planning to bake my first cake from scratch this week--everything from "Why would you want to do that?" to "You've got to try this great frosting recipe!"

Ultimately, I took a friend's advice and chose a recipe with buttermilk for my first attempt. She said it would be more moist. For the frosting, I decided on a flavored whipped cream for simplicity's sake--I already knew how to whip cream and add things to it. Other frostings required unfamiliar steps. One can only take on so many unfamiliar steps at one time.

Mixing the cake ended up not being a big deal. Creaming butter and sugar together on a stand mixer? I knew how to do that. Easy! Measuring and sifting together dry ingredients? I could do that. Again, easy! Breaking eggs? Mixing it all together? Putting the batter into the greased and floured pans? All easy!

Why had it seemed to overwhelming to begin with? Too many choices. Multiple steps examined as a whole. The print began to swim on the page. Until I took it all a little at a time.

Choose and do! That's it.

This is an approach that applies to any other undertakings. Face down the feelings of being overwhelmed by choices and the worry about making the best one. Take the time you need to understand what you're about to do, as much as you can without having done it, then choose and do! Or just jump in and try stuff, see what works and what doesn't. Either approach works.

Many kinds of knowledge only come from the doing.

Three years ago I decided I wanted to learn to bake my own bread. Now I'm very comfortable with the process and enjoying experimenting with methods, inventing my own recipes. I would love to get to this point with other areas of cooking.

Cooking is just another thing to know, useful knowledge with edible results. It's a way of relating to the things that us bring sustenance. It's the raw material for an enjoyable experience, sitting down with others to converse.

So many of the other creative things I'm involved in are what I would call "long cycle" activities.

From concept and clay to finished piece to gallery or market is a relatively long cycle, on the scale of weeks or months, sometimes years. From concept to song to performance to recording to distribution is another long cycle of months or years.

Baking is a creative activity with a "short cycle" from beginning to end, just a matter of minutes or hours. The recipe I chose said "2 1/2 Hours Total, including cooling, 25 minutes active." A small investment when I know we will enjoy this cake all week.

Besides, what else was I going to do? Watch TV?

[I have chosen not to include the recipes I used, leaving the fun for you to choose your own. Both cake and frosting recipes came from "A Piece of Cake", by Susan C. Purdy, which has 380 recipes for all varieties of cakes and frostings--purchased used for $3 at last spring's library book sale.]


  1. Anonymous7:34 PM

    Hi kay

    so... have you been using mixes all this time?

    Cake making is like everyday magic and without all those additives I think the home made from scratch thing is much healthier too...


  2. Yes, mixes. Mostly chocolate cake mixes. You're right, it did seem like magic to make it this way. Tasted magic, too. And I can pronounce the names of all the ingredients. Made from flour, eggs, and buttermilk--it must be healthy. :-)