Sunday, April 8, 2012

Easter Fail: 8 Ways to Fail-proof a Recipe

Dogwood Blossoms
Easter Promise of Regeneration

He is Risen, but Cake has not…

Happy Easter, everyone! During both attempts to make this Easter cake yesterday, I pondered: will I post a new apple cake, or will I post a Fail? My husband said that either way, I would be able to perfect my cake making method. At this point the methodology contains more “do nots” than “dos.”

Uncooked Dough with Dried out Surface
Sin of Omission: Recipe Didn't Say
"Cover While Rising or it Will Dry Out"
Baking with yeast has gone out of style in recent years. Time and patience are getting scarcer these days, and candida (yeast) in the body is a concern for many. According to local stores though, Easter is still a popular time to buy yeast.  Like many, I enjoy the ritual of making Easter breads and cinnamon rolls. I should have stuck with what I know, but instead I experimented.

Regular readers know that I’ve been trying to recreate my Gram’s apple cake for years. I know that she made a quick cake, and not a yeast cake, so what tempted me to use the yeast? An old recipe in The Caprilands Kitchen Book for Apple Coffee Cake inspired me. Old recipes can be hard to follow because they don’t list ingredients first and method second. It’s kind of like reading one long run-on sentence. Remember the reason that writers avoid run-on sentences: readers lose the point and the details.

Apple Cake Ready for Cinnamon Topping
Sin of Commission: Too Much Yeast
Looks Fine, but Isn't
Don’t get me wrong, I love old recipe books, even with the extra effort needed to avoid Fail. Also, if we allow ourselves complete creativity in the kitchen, sometimes we will fail. We’ll also learn something about what not to do, and proceed to tweak our recipe. Or we’ll decide to create something completely different.

Eight Ways to Fail-Proof an Old Recipe

1. Rewrite the recipe, separating ingredients and method. Write down every step. I know this is a pain, and I resist doing it, which caused part of yesterday’s Fail. It’s the best way to tell if something is missing or just odd. In this recipe, “stir in the rest of the flour” had no discernable quantity. Because of the run-on sentence structure, I overlooked that till I was already immersed in baking trial #1. Do yourself a favor and write an easy-to-follow blueprint, so you don’t miss something that’s hidden in the text, like the ½ cup of sugar that I accidentally left out in trial #1 as well.

2. If you’re making the recipe for a special occasion, allow yourself time for at least two trials before the event. You might need more than two trials. You might decide to make something else based upon these trials. Give yourself enough time to experiment.

3. OK, maybe you’re too impulsive to follow Tip #2, as I am…more than once I’ve called the potluck host to say, “the cake is still in the oven, I’ll be there at dessert time.” That’s what happens when one doesn’t allow enough time to experiment. It’s stressful…so, Tip #3 is to have a backup plan. This can be a favorite easy-to-prepare recipe, a nearby bakery or deli where you can get something that will substitute for your homemade creation, or even a package of brownie mix or similar to make quickly without thinking too much at the last minute.

4. Don’t mess with the method on the first trial. It’s true that some old recipes combine ingredients in ways that are odd to us. Sometimes these methods work well, and expand our culinary horizons. Other times modern methods work better and we’ll need to alter the method in the second trial. In my apple cake recipe, if I’d layered the apples on top like the recipe said, rather than sticking them into the batter like my grandmother did, I might have avoided a Fail, at least on trial #2. (I didn't get as far as the apple part before Fail on trial #1.) 

5. Do mess with the method on the second trial. Now you know what doesn’t work. My recipe called for beating milk and flour together. Bakers know this can result in lumpy glop. I used an electric mixer in the second trial, making short work of lump eradication. I also combined the melted butter, sugar, eggs, and lemon rind before adding them to the dough on the second trial. This resulted in a lighter batter that required less mixing (in the first trial, overmixing developed too much gluten).

6. If something in the recipe sounds wrong, it probably is. Incomplete old recipes are more rule than exception. Many were personal notes by cooks who “filled in the blanks” automatically while cooking. Quantities are either not recorded, or recorded wrong. Check your memory banks, cookbooks, and the internet for similar recipes. Adjust ingredient quantities accordingly, and again give yourself time and space to experiment.

7. Make note that modern day yeast is much more powerful than yeast in the old days, especially the new super-powered varieties. If you check similar modern recipes (Tip #4), you’ll detect any yeast quantity discrepancies. My recipe called for two yeast cakes, so I used two packages of yeast. This was way too much. Too much yeast doesn’t mean the cake will rise more in a good way. Instead, large bubbles in the texture and slight lingering yeasty odor can make the cake less than pleasing. Less than edible, in some cases.

8. Give yourself permission to fail. This seems like an oxymoron for avoiding failure, but without this freedom, you cannot experience your full creative potential. Your ability to understand and work out the kinks is restricted. As Thomas Edison said about his failures, “I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.” Indeed, sometimes knowing what not to do is an important step in learning how to get where you want to go. This is true in many areas of life.

On that lofty note, I wish you and yours a happy and peaceful Easter. Perhaps you’ll see the new Apple Cake post next Easter.

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