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Baking really needs the baker's attention

November 17, 2009 |  9:36 am


Most bakers know that if they're about to tackle a complicated cake, it's a smart idea to turn to Rose Levy Beranbaum, whose patient directions and baking-science acumen can make even the toughest cake manageable. So for a story about her new cookbook, "Rose's Heavenly Cakes," I thought I'd try some of the simpler recipes to see what difference all of her research makes for those cakes that are almost second nature to many home cooks.

Just because it was an easier cake, however, didn't mean I could pay so little attention.

It was a weeknight. Our two teenagers needed help with (or nagging about, depending on your perspective) homework, and we had half a dozen friends coming to dinner so we could talk about how our kids might prepare for the SATs. So with half an eye and a wandering mind, I set out to make Beranbaum's English gingerbread cake.

The first glitch should have been a warning to slow down -- I destroyed two pages of the beautiful book by spilling corn syrup on them. But I soldiered on and put the baking pan in the oven and set the timer. Ten minutes later, I saw that the two eggs and the 2/3 cup of milk were still sitting on my counter.

After I screamed and then decided I had enough fruit for a fruit salad as an alternative dessert, I figured there was no harm in pulling the pan out of the oven and trying to fix the cake. I dumped the hot batter into a big bowl, whisked it hard to cool it and added the egg and milk. Back into the oven.

Though I'd certainly never feed it to Beranbaum, the result got eaten, the homework got done (mostly), and we decided on an SAT prep class. And I'll be making another gingerbread cake soon.

I called Beranbaum on Monday, and she thinks the reason I ended up with a cake at all was likely because it was the eggs I forgot. Had those been in the oven, they would have started to set and the cake would have been unredeemable.

And perhaps the gingerbread was more forgiving: "I don't know if you could get away with this with another cake."

"I love these mistakes," she very generously said, because they cause her to think about things from a new perspective. In fact, she said, her white chocolate buttercream recipe in the new book was the result of trying to make a dark chocolate cake with white chocolate; the lack of cocoa solids in the white chocolate meant the cake didn't set. "But I ended up with the most fantastic buttercream," Beranbaum said.

But generally, she said, multi-tasking and baking are poor partners.

What's your biggest kitchen mistake?

-- Mary MacVean

Photo: Ben Fink