SOMETIMES A FLOP IS NO FLOP!
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.
PECAN CARAMEL CHOCOLATE UPSIDE DOWN CAKE
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.