I like to bake. Some people don't. They find the precision it requires stifling. I like it. Sure it lacks the improvisational gratification that other types of cooking offer (you can't just toss some stuff together and have it come out right), but nothing rivals baking for its alchemy. The raw ingredients of a typical cake -- flour, baking powder, etc. -- often seem inedible until you combine them and let them work their magic. Baking requires patience, attention to detail, and most of all, faith. More times than not, I'll suffer a crisis of confidence in the middle of a baking recipe. My would-be cake will resemble a pile of wet mush, or the batter of my cookies will seem too chunky, not "satiny-smooth" as the recipe states it should look. "What have I done wrong?" I'll say (or something a little more R-rated, if the recipe really isn't going well). Usually, things work out, and an hour or two later I'm eating some cake or brownies or whatever. It hasn't gotten so bad that I had to throw anything out. Yet.
On Thursday, I decided to make two recipes (because I like a challenge), neither of which I'd tried before. The first, a coffee cake, was from Brunch: 100 Recipes from Five Points Restaurant, an excellent cookbook for people who enjoy eating well morning, noon, and night. While straightforward in nature, this coffee cake does need to rise for at least an hour. Being the crafty guy I am, I figured "Why waste that hour? Why not make some double deluxe chocolate cookies from another recent cookbook, Tartine?" Why not, indeed.
The day started out fine. I had made the dough for the coffee cake, which is a typical flour-eggs-salt-milk-sugar concoction, plus some active dry yeast. I set the bowl full of cake dough on top of the stove (the surface of our stove never drops below two hundred degrees, which is great for making dough rise. Not so great for cleaning it. You basically have to wear an asbestos suit to clean our stove), and started to make the cookies. Of course, I hadn't bought enough butter (The totally uninteresting back story, which I'll tell you now, is that I had bought way, way too much butter the last time I went on a baking jag, and I think I felt like that stock of butter would never run out. I was wrong). OK, minor setback. I went to the corner store, bought the butter I needed to proceed, and got back to work. They weren't kidding when they called these "double chocolate." Basically, melt three good dark chocolate bars (85% cacao, baby!) and dump about half a cup of cocoa powder into the batter, and you'll get a sense of how chocolaty these are. (Side Note: At this point, I had been baking for at least an hour. Have I mentioned how great it is to have a good mixer? Now I have.) I dropped them onto the baking sheets and put them in the oven.
And then the crisis of faith hit. The recipe says to cook them for seven minutes, until they are just firm to the touch. But at seven minutes, I didn't think they were firm at all. So I let them go another two minutes. When I pulled them out, they looked fine, but closer examination revealed that those on the bottom baking sheet were a little burned on the bottom. After tasting the cookies, I think they were all too dry. They definitely require a big glass of milk as accompaniment.Dry, out of focus cookies.
Coffee cake as gooey mess.
Because the cookies ended up eh, there was an undue amount of pressure on the coffee cake. Luckily, the hard part of the caking process was over -- the dough had risen. This coffee cake has no gooey filling, as some do, but it features a topping of cinnamon, brown sugar, and granulated sugar. After applying the topping and letting the cake rise another half hour in the pan, I threw it in the oven. What emerged forty minutes later was perfect. The cake was light, with a fluffy airiness that wasn't the least bit dry. I ate a big piece of it the next morning with coffee. I wish you could all have some. The lesson, as always -- keep the faith. You shall be rewarded with coffee cake.
Coffee cake. Finally.