Sunday, March 29, 2009

Cake trouble

Ever since I read about Moskin v. Severson in Wednesday's Times, I've been thinking about gingerbread. I'm on a constant quest for the perfect recipe. I like gingerbreads that are dark and molassesy but not bitter, with the perfect blend of sweetness and spice. And, of course, they must be distinctly gingery, so in general I've come to the conclusion that I prefer recipes that include fresh ginger root. This also helps the cake taste brighter; sometimes cakes like these which rely so fully on pantry staples and dried spices can taste dusty and muted.

In years past the main recipe I've turned to was from a family cookbook, which contained loads of fresh ginger. It's very good, but sometimes the stringiness of the ginger root bugged me a bit, and I can't forget that one time I served it to a guest who seemed to find it distasteful. I suspect that some sloppily-grated ginger reminded him of clumps of hair, which is what it sort of reminded me of, when I really thought about it.

Since this past Thanksgiving I've been making a gingerbread pear cake from Gourmet, which has turned out successfully a number of times. I don't use as much fresh ginger as it calls for, in part due to a fear of my terrifyingly sharp box grater which has drawn blood on more than one occasion. But also, the consensus of my test audience (mother, sister, husband) was that it was in fact too gingery. This recipe also felt a bit weighed down by the fruit, and ultimately I decided that I don't like stuff in gingerbread, or cakes in general, for that matter. I find I'm always trying to eat around the debris to get to the cake.

So I thought I would try this one, which contained no fresh ginger and no fruit. I felt optimistic that it might be the quick, simple, deeply-flavored gingery cake I've been searching for.

Unfortunately, this recipe was a complete dud. I'm not an expert, but I'm a good baker, and this recipe just fell flat. For one, it called for no sugar. As I was assembling the cake, I knew this could turn out to be its fatal flaw, but I like to do recipes by the book, at least the first time around. The second and very significant problem with this cake is that as I was whisking the water and melted butter into the dry ingredients, the butter completely seized up and the batter turned rapidly into an unruly, thick paste. At various points I had to push the dough through the whisk, as it was started to form a giant ball inside the wire strands. Nevertheless, being the rule follower I am, I persevered, whisking in the beaten eggs and molasses (yes, this seemed wrong to me that the eggs would be incorporated so late in the game), trying my best to whisk until the batter was smooth and lumpless, while worrying increasingly that my poor cake would turn out tough from overmixing.

Finally I scraped the hideous brown batter into a pan, stuck it in the oven, and hoped for the best.

Sadly, the cake was everything I hoped it wouldn't be, except for tough. It actually turned out with an odd, soft, and almost spongey consistency (which Kim Severson did allude to, so this is no fault of the recipe), with pale, unappetizing, pea-sized clumps of flour and butter running neatly through it. The cake was also very bitter--I should have trusted my instinct and added some brown sugar. And, perhaps worst of all, it didn't really taste like gingerbread. The miniscule amount of ground ginger --even good Penzey's ginger--failed to fight beyond the oppressiveness of the molasses.

Like most desserts, this one was partially remedied by Hagen Daz vanilla bean ice cream, and it was certainly to my advantage that we were consuming the cake while watching the next-to-last episode of "Dexter"--conversation of any topic was completely halted. Also, the lighting was dim. So, the poor quality of the cake was thankfully muffled a bit by external circumstances. Anyhow, I'm back to square one on the recipe front. But next time, I've got some ideas for my own recipe--it's about time I got braver on the baking front.

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