Sunday, October 2, 2011




I hate failure. More particularly, I hate failure in the kitchen. My dread of a baking fiasco began so many years ago when, young girl barely in her teens, I attempted to recreate in our own kitchen the cranberry muffins I had fallen in love with during 7th-grade home economics class. Those cranberry muffins, warm and delicate vanilla-scented cake laden with plump, tangy ruby red fruit and memories, my first love, were my initiation into the joys of baking. But after a disastrous re-edition of these muffins for my family a year or so later when I mistakenly blended in 3 CUPS of solid shortening instead of the required 3 tablespoons, producing a muffin top afloat a pool of liquid fat, I pushed this newfound love to the back shelf like a rejected suitor, and didn’t dare make an attempt to produce a baked good until my college days. I was horrified at my error, felt it deeply and have been scarred ever since.

I am not one of those bloggers who grew up learning to cook from the best. No mother or grandmother whipping up those special dishes she was famous for, sharing kitchen secrets, taking me by the hand and showing me the ins and outs of how to be an amazing cook. Baked goods were mostly from a box, no matter how passionately prepared. I grew up in a Space Age kitchen where we reveled in every new-fangled food invention, from the powdered and freeze-dried, the boxed, canned and frozen. So, while my chic New York cousins were dabbling in gourmet fare and preparing dishes from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, I was living the American Culinary Dream of the 1960’s and 70’s: recipes learned at Girl Scout Camp, all the odd flavor and textural combinations I could make starting from a peanut butter sandwich and, well, boxed brownies.

And how many years did it take before I could turn out a decent loaf of yeast bread? How many loaves of sweet quick bread or cream tarts ended up in our well-fed trash bin for lack of experience and understanding, my rushing precipitately through a recipe in not enough time or simply trying to substitute one thing for another in my mad desire to bake? We all make mistakes, but some of us use that fallen soufflé or leaden loaf of bread, curdled custard or green cake tasting of metal or reeking of oven cleaner as an inspiration, a learning experience, an incentive to work harder and try again. While those of us who doubt our own talents or who lack patience and self discipline drag our sorry body out of the kitchen and go and hide in the bedroom, nose buried in a novel, waiting for the baking gods to forget we exist or, better yet, to flog us silly for our inexcusable behavior!

My dirty little secret.

I approach new recipes and experiments tentatively, as I do most things in my life. Self-doubt is in constant battle with my sense of adventure and curiosity, each elbowing the other for just a little more room, trying to force their way forward like teens at a standing-room-only concert. Each dish that I serve, every cake or sweet treat that I pull out of the oven gets the once over, a poke and a prod, a taste and my brow furrows with apprehension, my fists clench with tension and my heart pounds in worry and anticipation of the worst. Too dry? Undercooked? Flavorless? Just plain didn’t work? And my men just sneer or slap their foreheads in disbelief, wondering why I just didn’t stick to the tried and true or angry because “There you go again, complaining, all flustered about nothing and not able to enjoy what you put so much time and energy into.” Call me crazy (and they do), but I just cannot help myself or my baffling, complex reaction.

But then sometimes an apparent flop turns out to be an unexpected success. I lovingly measure and stir with pleasure, feel the knife push through a fragrant mound of pecans with that gentle, satisfying give and snap, watch the smooth, creamy batter ribbon down thickly into the pan, the heady scent of chocolate tickling my nostrils and setting my tastebuds aquiver. Anticipation mounts as I peer into the oven, nose practically pressed against the burning window. And I wait. I pray. I watch as the cake rises and firms, hoping aloud that the edges don’t burn or turn crusty before the center is set. And I pull it out and place it on the rack with a clickety clack, allowing it to cool just as it demands. So what can go wrong? My instinct kicks in and….

I love The Weekend Baker! This fabulous book for bakers of every level is a wonderful collection of homey, comfy recipes both old fashioned cozy and contemporarily cool by my wonderful friend Abigail Johnson Dodge (Abby to her fans and friends). This is a book for a passionate home baker such as I to read, coddle, indulge in and dream over. I have made several of Abby’s recipes from The Weekend Baker, Bon Appetit Magazine and from Desserts 4 Today and they were each stunning and so delicious. So after much thought and consideration, I decided to make her Nutty Caramel-Chocolate Upside Downer, a cake I was sure would please everyone in my family. So I made the caramel – a snap – and chopped the pecans – pure pleasure – and whipped up the chocolate cake batter – simple and sumptuous! And the cake baked. I followed the instructions to a tee – although I knew that my caramel had turned out too watery; I ran and twittered Abby asap… but it was too late and neither one of us could figure out the snafoo. And so as I flipped the cake over onto my pristine white cake platter, well, the caramel did not so much ooze thickly down, velvety smooth, lusciously creamy as caramel should but rather it rushed out of the pan, ran down watery and thin and puddled onto the table. So of course, hysteria set in. I screamed, cursed and panicked! I succeeded in salvaging the cake – well I am being a bit overdramatic as the cake was in perfect shape, but, yes, I made my usual scene. So there was no caramel other than the lovely essence that had soaked into the top of the chocolate cake now studded with pecans. After allowing the cake to cool, we sliced. We tasted. And, lo and behold, we absolutely loved it!

So my flop was no flop at all. No gooey caramel dripping elegantly down the sides, but the cake was perfect, dense, moist with an incredible chocolate flavor heightened by the crunch and earthiness of the pecans. And my sons, the biggest test of all, two fine young men who refuse my baked goods more often than not for such reasons as “I don’t like the flavor of caramel.” “It isn’t the chocolate cake I asked for.” “Why don’t you just keep making the cake I like the best instead of always trying new recipes?” and my favorite “Stop all the baking already! Stop forcing food down our throats!” Well, they couldn’t eat this cake fast enough.

Abby’s Pecan Caramel Chocolate Upside Down Cake was a roaring success.

The Weekend Baker is a fabulous and perfect gift for anyone who loves to bake: beginner, the more advanced or you!

Disclaimer (as bloggers love to say!): I purchased this book on my own. It was a gift from no one and no one asked me to say wonderful things about this book. Yes, Abby is a great friend of mine, but I bake from this book because I love to bake and I absolutely love the recipes in this book.

From The Weekend Baker by Abigail Johnson Dodge

For the Nuts and Caramel:

¾ cup (6 oz/170 g) firmly packed dark brown sugar (I used packed light brown sugar)
5 Tbs (71 g) unsalted butter
2 – 3 Tbs water (I used 3 and it was obviously too much)
1 ¼ cups (6 oz/170 g) coarsely chopped nuts (I used pecans, Abby suggests adding slivered blanched almonds and walnuts as well), toasted

For the Cake:

1 1/3 cups 170 g) flour
½ cup (45 g) unsweetened cocoa powder (not Dutch process), sifted if lumpy
¾ tsp baking powder
¼ tsp baking soda
¼ tsp table salt
10 Tbs (145 g) unsalted butter softened to room temperature
1 cup (200 g) granulated sugar (Abby’s measure was 227 g)
1 tsp vanilla
3 large eggs, well beaten
½ cup (115 ml) buttermilk

Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C) and position the oven rack on the middle rung. Lightly grease the sides (not the bottom) of a 9 x 2-inch (23 x 5-cm) round cake pan.

Prepare the nuts and the caramel:

In a small saucepan, combine the brown sugar, butter and water. Set the pan over medium heat abd cook, stirring often, until the butter is melted and the mixture is smooth. Bring to a boil and pour into the prepared pan, swirling to coat the bottom evenly. Scatter the toasted nuts evenly over the caramel and gently press into the caramel.

Prepare the cake:

In a medium bowl, combine the flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda and salt and whisk until blended. In a large mixing bowl, beat the butter with an electric mixer on medium-high speed until smooth. Gradually add the sugar and continue beating until fluffy. Beat in the vanilla. Add the eggs one at a time, beating briefly after each addition. Sprinkle half the flour mixture over the butter/sugar and mix on low speed until the dry ingredients disappear. Add the buttermilk and beat until blended. Add the remaining dry ingredients and beat just until blended. Scoop the batter by spoonfuls into the pan evenly over the caramel and nuts. Very gently and carefully spread to even out the cake batter, trying not to disturb the nuts. Tap the pan a few times on the counter to settle the batter.

Bake in the preheated oven about 45 minutes until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove from the oven when done and immediately run a knife around the sides of the pan to loosen the cake. Using a thick, dry kitchen towel to protect your hands, invert a large serving or cake plate on top of the pan and, holding both the pan and the plate, invert them together. Leave the pan over the cake for about 3 minutes to allow the caramel to drip onto the cake then lift off the pan. Using a small spatula or knife, scrape out any caramel that remained stuck to the pan and spread on top of the cake.

Serve the cake warm or at room temperature.

Just slightly undercooked, but just the way we love it.


Rosa's Yummy Yums said...

I totally understand how you feel about flops. I hate them too and get easily depressed when something turns out bad!

That cake looks amazing! what a divine flavor combination.



WiseMóna said...

You see, this is why I married a chef. Whatever about cooking, it is baking I cannot deal with. The amount of doubting that goes on in my head is sure to screw up whatever it is I try to make.

It is safer for me to stick to the dishes. I excel at this job. I love love love those housewife images from the fifties Jamie. I can still hear your voice from that shocking writing exercise you gave us ...... brilliant.

Baker Street said...

The cake looks divine Jamie! I love caramel and chocolate!

I can't wait to get my hands on Abby's book and try out some of these delicious recipes.

thelittleloaf said...

Your cake looks absolutely delicious! I can't believe you worry about things in the kitchen as everything you produce looks so gorgeous, but completely understand that feeling of panic...I can't tell you the number of times I've popped something in the oven then realised that I've forgotten the flour, or butter or another vital ingredient :-)

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

This is why we adore you Jamie, you're so real! :D My mother didn't share her recipes with me for the longest time and I learned by myself too.

Vibey @ Yumbo McGillicutty said...

Ahhh and so great minds think alike: my own latest post is about chocolate cake with caramel (albeit the Argentine version: dulce de leche). The combination of chocolate and caramel is like a bomb going off for me, and this sounds beautiful. Anyway. I'm not the world's most confident baker, but my fam is usually just too jazzed about me baking to criticise when it's not 100% "right". Or maybe it's just the fact that I dish it up with a straight face and they merely think that's way it's meant to be.

Sally - My Custard Pie said...

Love your honesty in this post. Can't believe that tentative is a word in your armoury but as it often applies to me too, take comfort from it. Glad the boys loved it.

Priya said...

Omg, super irresistible cake, fantastic..

Sunchowder said...

I love your vulnerability. Beautiful post Jamie.

Aimée @ Food: Je t'Aimée said...

I actually LOVE it when people post about their flops! (Remember my carbonara? Ha!). Thank you for sharing this. It's honest and real and it IS how we all learn, regardless of level or proficiency in the kitchen. As pretty as your cake looks, I'm not gonna lie, I'm having some major hosuewares envy over that gorgeous purple plate and that intricately designed fork! Lovely!

Jamie said...

@Aimée: LOL funny cause I took this plate from my mom's cupboard and my husband hates it! The fork I also took from my mom and I absolutely love it! Gorgeous, right?

@Vibey: AH, yes, your are right (you had me chuckling!), make them think it is exactly as it should be.

tasteofbeirut said...

I was smiling reading the final sentences about your boys..reminds me of my kids. Anyway, I like Abigail's recipes too, they are usually easy and delicious; this cake sounds and looks like a sure crowd-pleaser, especially a crowd as finicky as one's own men!

Cake Duchess said...

Love your disclaimer!Abby is fabulous and so is your version of her cake. Is it a flop b/c the caramel drips off the side are missing?You're so silly. I'll take all of your "flops" to sample any day:)xo

Barbara | Creative Culinary said...

As much as I beg and plead for you to come to see me in Denver and I would, of course, love for that to happen I realize the begging has to stop. I do NOT want to be responsible for your emotional breakdown as I am sure we would bake and well, perfection at's sort of like winning the lottery. You never expect it, seldom get it and when you do? Celebrate, celebrate, dance to the music.

So, no more pleading unless you attend 'preparation for altitude' classes. Yes, cakes with big sink holes, muffins that deflate and spill over the edge of the pan, cookies that fall so flat that they become a bas relief of chip and nuts.

But maybe it could all be salvaged by getting Abby to come along. Don't you just love her. More accomplished than any author I know out there and yet sweet and genuine as can be. think that one day we actually could matter the locale.

Love you both!!

Cherine said...

This cake looks wonderful. A great combination

Rambling Tart said...

Hooray for roaring successes! :-) Mmm, I've been eating caramel like mad this week, mostly as a sauce over the silkiest panna cotta I've ever had. Mmm. :-) But this cake looks divine with so many of my favorite things all in one recipe.

El said...

The cake looks delicious. You've clearly overcome your childhood kitchen limitations. I have to laugh though - we actually had that hideous turquoise wall oven in our house. I'm guessing it was chic at some point in kitchen decor? Oh, well, at least it wasn't avocado ;) Fun post!

Sanjeeta kk said...

'Self-doubt'...what a great asset you wonder you could convert any failure of yours into a delightful treat such as this cake!

Manu said...

Ohhhh that surely does not look like failure to me!!! It looks gorgeous and it sounds so delicious! I have a full bag of pecans to use up... this recipe goes on my to bake list! :-)

Elle said...

You had me at "the caramel is a snap!" I have so much trouble with caramel, it's ridiculous. I'll have to give this one a try. Abby is a wonderful, dear, sweet woman, isn't she? I feel lucky to be able to chat with her on Twitter.

And you know, all those things that Abby is, you are, as well. :)

Sylvie @ Gourmande in the Kitchen said...

Felt like looking in the mirror reading this! Especially the part when your family says you're "not able to enjoy what you put so much time and energy into." I can't tell you how many times I've heard the very same thing from my husband! Ah well, at least our perseverance and determination pays off!

Barbara Bakes said...

Funny, I assume everything will always turn out great then I'm disappointed if it doesn't. I'm sure this cake would be a hit at our house too, with or without the caramel dripping down.

Nicole said...

Love it when a flop turns out to be fantastic after all. You have some "exigeant" men in your life!! I'm sure they more than appreciate you!!

Ivy said...

Flops happen all the time even to the most experienced chefs.
Jamie, the cake sounds amazing and love pecans and caramel so I know I would devour it in no time but unfortunately I am still on a diet.

Jeanne said...

LOL - I am glad to know I am not the only one who bakes things that look NOTHING like they are supposed to! But as I always say when I do sweet baking: even if the worst comes to the worst, with these ingredients it can never be inedible :) Seems like yours was VERY edible!

Jamie said...

@Jeanne: HA HA HA I never thought of it that way before, really! You are right, with this combo of ingredients it has got to be delicious and edible no matter how it turns out!

Maria said...

This looks great! I have had so many flops in my kitchen too. I try to think of them as part of the cycle... :-)

Meaghan Luby said...

That is completely NOT a flop! In no way. However, I do relate to that feeling of "oops!" and being far too critical on myself.

This, however, looks divine.

Sorry I haven't commented in so long! I have kind of fallen off the blogosphere this summer but, I still have been following and still love your recipes and will be a more devoted follower starting now!

Thanks for always posting such awesome pieces :)

Jayasri Ravi said...

I got hooked at this cake, I love pecans and daughter loves chocolate and caramel, I must try this out so book marked, reading through, I felt as if you are speaking aloud my thoughts, flops (because of trying to bake eggless), sometimes my flops turn out to be success, I don't know why my kids like what :)!?, but in the end very rarely I throw out I have a dustbin (my hubby as he provides all the ingredients, he hates anything thrown in the bin :)), love reading your posts..


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...