Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Cake Love

As part of my recent immersion in all things cakely, I have been devouring a number of cake cookbooks from the library. At the moment, I am particularly enamored of CakeLove: How to Bake Cakes from Scratch. The author, Warren Brown, was a successful lawyer who had an early-life crisis and became a pastry chef. His aesthetic conforms to most of the articles of the cake manifesto. The book lives up to these promising starts.

I'm a sucker for surprising flavor combinations, and this book has some appealing ones, like mango/orange/cayenne, orange/lemon/grapefruit/cardamom, chocolate/lime, stout/pecan, and polenta/cacao nib/honey/cinnamon/cayenne/almond (whew!). The crunchy feet are a nice shtick, too. (Want to know? Read the book.)

The photos are gorgeous and, more to the point, they make you want to eat the food. Very much want to eat the food. The presentation is almost ostentatiously rustic. The emphasis is on appearing lavish and delicious rather than artful and polished. I'm all for that (cf Article 3).

Brown has clearly experimented a lot and thought through the chemistry. He is sometimes too flip in dismissing received pastry wisdom, but generally he seems to make thoughtful choices that reflect his values. For example, he doesn't care for cake flour, so uses all purpose flour plus potato starch instead. After trying it, I'm with him on that one. And he's a staunch advocate of measuring by weight, to which I say amen with all the fervor of the recent convert. I'm less certain about how much sugar he puts in pound cakes - the texture is divine, but the cake is almost too sweet.

There are a number of nice touches that make this a particularly useful cookbook.
  • All of the recipes include alcohol-free alternatives. Although I'm fine with alcohol, I appreciate the substitutions, because we don't have room in our cabinets (or our pocketbook) to stock all of the liqueurs included in the recipes - some recipes have 3 or 4 different kinds of booze in them!
  • All of the recipes include high altitude instructions. Not much use in Seattle, but surely helpful elsewhere.
  • Brown breaks out the ingredients by the phases of the process (e.g. dry, wet, creaming) and urges that you set everything out before beginning. I'm rarely patient enough to do this, but it really does make life easier. Besides, think of all the prep bowls. I have a major soft spot for prep bowls.
  • The book also has many clear, explanatory photos of the baking process. It's very helpful to see what things are supposed to look like at each step. And it's nice to see so many pictures showing dark male hands making cake. Not a common image in this country.
After writing such a positive review, I thought I'd better try a couple of recipes to make sure they were any good. I needn't have worried.

The Sassy pound cake combines mango and orange with just a hint of cayenne for warmth. It is especially fabulous the day it's made, but keeps reasonably well. My version wasn't very strongly flavored because, unfortunately, I didn't have any orange liqueur or orange oil. Don't worry about the cayenne. It just adds a little lingering warmth that you might not even peg as pepper if you didn't know what it was.

To make 12 cupcakes I multiplied all the ingredients by 1/3. In retrospect, I would only have cut the cayenne and baking soda in half. Cupcake papers are pretty much essential, since the cake is so delicate - the cakes would be very hard to get out of the pan otherwise. A spring-loaded ice cream scoop is good for dispensing the batter.

The Chiapas pound cake is the one with the laundry list of ingredients (sorry, I mean "dizzying melange"). Very good cake, but not dizzying. Each of the ingredients is just too microscopic in quantity to pack much punch. The flavor does mature after a few days and the cacao nib taste becomes more pronounced, which is nice. (What's that, you don't have cacao nibs in your pantry? Chopped almonds might be a good substitute). The cake is especially tasty with the addition of a honey meringue frosting sprinkled with more cacao nibs. A 1/3 recipe made about 10 cupcakes. Fill the empty cups with water for even cooking.

The Mojito pound cake was the first recipe I tried that had less than crystal clear instructions. It calls for 1/3 cup of freshly dried mint without specifying how much fresh mint you need to start with . I found the oven-drying process that he recommended tedious enough that I didn't choose to make more after I discovered that I had not guessed right about how much fresh mint to use. (If I had planned ahead, I would have used the food dehydrator.) So, the mint was exceedingly faint on day one, but the lime was just right and the cake was as tasty as all the others. A friend reported that it was quite nice with a direct application of rum. It was also good with meringue. After several days, the flavors had melded beautifully and the mint was finally noticeable. A 1/2 recipe made about 16 cupcakes.

I made the Mojito cake on a very hot day, which inspired me to imagine a polar bear cake as an antidote to the heat. I came up with a pretty good design, but didn't have time to execute it. Look for it in these pages someday soon...

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