Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Cake Conundrum

I decided to make a cake for a certain significant birthday in our household and when the call came for a German chocolate cake, I admit, I did utter a tiny inner groan.  But I quickly rallied and told myself, "You are up to this challenge."  After all, how bad could it be?  My mother had set the bar for another birthday last year by making a German chocolate cake from scratch and I thought I would take up the gauntlet.  (How's them mixed metaphors?  I thought it appropriate for a cooking oriented entry....)

I pulled out my new-to-me Betty Crocker cookbook and set to the task.  List of ingredients compiled.  Trip to store.  Equipment and hardware assembled.  I was ready to go.

Now when I say "new-to-me" I mean that this Betty Crocker cookbook (8th edition*) was purchased used at Powell's bookstore in Portland, Oregon.  Don't get me wrong, I love Powell's, but this time I got a lemon.  Not that the recipe itself was faulty, it's more that the book is missing many key pages, which I will come back to.

I do try, when attempting a new recipe, to actually follow the directions.  As a result, I often do an awesome job on my first attempt and then flub it on later tries because I am not as diligent.  This cake making process, mostly because I was being diligent, seemed to be going well....until I realized that I was getting a little mesmerized by the action of the mixer in the batter.  Shaking off my reverie I started pouring the batter into pans.  I only had two pans and as I poured the batter, half my brain wondered if the pans should be as full as they were.  The other half of my brain was merrily whistling as I put the pans in the oven to bake.

Once the pans were in the oven and the timer set, I turned my attention to making the frosting.  Not technically difficult, again just a need to pay attention to the order in which things should happen.  A phone call came, actually at a good time and so I took it.  Back to frosting.  Sniff?  Hmmm.  Cake baking smell ... and then in rapid fire sequence...burning smell and dark grey smoke puffing out of the oven and the smoke alarm went off.

Some small part of my brain was alert enough to switch off the burner under the frosting as I scrambled for a stool to reach the smoke alarm and open the back door.  I did take a moment to marvel at the billows of smoke wafting out the back door before I turned to find out what was happening in the oven.  I switched on the light to peer in at the chaos and found cake batter erupting over the sides of the pans and burning on the bottom of the oven.  I grabbed some cookie trays and shoved them under the cake pans to catch the drips and scraped some  of the char off the oven floor.

Five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes...the eruption continued. I swapped cookie trays to keep the drippings from charring and belching more smoke.

Thirty minutes...the eruption continued...and I called my mother (sniff).

Forty-five minutes later the eruption finally stopped.  I let what was left in the pans finish baking and wondered if anything would be salvageable for a decent cake.  When I tentatively pulled the pans out to cool I was amazed to see full cake pans.  Even when they cooled, they only fell a little bit.  Nibbling at the edges proved that the taste wasn't tainted by smoke.  Pretty good, in fact.

After frosting and all, the cake was relatively presentable, even if slightly lopsided, and was pronounced a success at said birthday celebration.  I don't know if it was just me, having been steeped in smoke for most of the day, but I kept getting whiffs of burning cake all evening.  

Later, I wondered if altitude played a factor in the eruption.  I live at about 3,500 feet which is on the cusp of what constitutes high altitude for baking purposes.  I turned to my Betty Crocker cookbook and found that the entire section, which includes a discussion of high altitude baking was missing. Once again I used some choice words about my lemon purchase.

Someone must have been listening because Valentine's Day dawned and no flowers, no candies...just a brand new Betty Crocker cookbook (tenth edition)**.   And there on page 25, "Cooking at Higher Altitudes - with Success!"  And what do I find amongst the suggestions?  "Use a larger pan."

In the words of Homer Simpson.  D'oh!

*  Betty Crockers New Cookbook 8TH Edition
** Betty Crocker Cookbook: Everything You Need to Know to Cook Today, New Tenth Edition

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