How To Fail And Cover It Up

Sometimes the solution can be worse than the problem. I was asked to make dessert for a friend’s engagement party – a simple enough request and a task that I know the organizer felt I was more than capable of executing. Except that I’m not a baker. I don’t have the temperament for it.  I have an aversion to precision, preferring to improvise or riff off established recipes adding my own spin. Baking, though, does not reward this trait.   In the same way that Santa divides the world into naughty and nice, I divide the world into baker personalities and non-baker personalities.  I am, without question, a non-baker personality.

The cake that I decided would be worthy of this occasion was a lemon cake, but rather than finding a recipe for “Lemon Cake” I decided to adapt an old family lemon tea bread that I’d made many times with great success.  Let’s just say that adaptations of anything are rarely as good as the original.

The problem arose, not because I chose to make a minor tweak, but because I decided to overhaul the whole thing – flour was decreased, baking soda added, a third egg slipped in, yogurt introduced.  The batter was outstanding!  It went into the oven with pride. Sadly though, there is little correlation between successful batter and edible cake.

Forty five minutes later when pulled from the oven, I knew there was trouble.  It was depressed in the middle and barely higher than its pre-cooked state. I cut a sliver (I would just squeeze the cake together later) to test my suspicions.  Worse than suspected.  It was tart but at the same time not lemony enough and dry.

But dinner was starting in an hour and options were limited.  And so I did what any non-baker would do, I added ingredients after the cake was cooked.  I heated sugar and lemon and water and drizzled it – dumped it – over the cake. It was absorbed rapidly, growing heavy and wet.  I took another sliver to test and concluded that the solution was far worse than the problem.  It was bloated and soggy – a state with no chance at reversal.

When a dessert fails, the only chance for salvation is whip cream. So I picked it up in large quantities on the way to dinner, whipped it on site, dumped it onto each plate, encouraged second helpings (of the whipped cream, not the cake), and knew I had good friends when they left not a crumb.

I share this simply as a cautionary tale, at a time of the year when bakers and non-bakers, are often called forth to bake.  The learning?

  1. There is such thing as too much creativity in the kitchen
  2. You can not make a cake moist by adding moisture later
  3. Yogurt is heavy – use it sparingly (if it all) when baking
  4. Baking soda is more tart than baking powder, use it only when the recipe asks you to (don’t question this as I did)
  5. Whip cream is the duct tape of baking – keep a pint on hand

Here is the recipe, in its unadulterated state, of the original lemon bread (also pictured above). It would make an excellent Christmas Day sweet, and though it’s called “bread” that’s really only because it’s cooked in a loaf pan – honestly, it’s cake and nothing needs to be done to it to make it any more cakey.

Care to share any cooking failures and successful cover-ups?

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  • Carrie

    I once made a pumpkin cheesecake that cracked down the middle as it cooled. I thought I would just ice it with whipped cream and it would be fine. Problem solved. But I was in a hurry and covered the cheesecake and refrigerated it before it had cooled fully. Big mistake. By the time I pulled the cheesecake out, moisture had pooled in the cake’s cracked surface creating a nice little river down the middle of my cheesecake. Foolishly, I thought I could tip the cheesecake ever so slightly to drain the moisture and salvage the cake. Needless to say, the entire thing collapsed on itself in the process. So I scooped the entire mess out and put it in a glass serving bowl and called it Pumpkin Cheesecake Pudding. It tasted fabulous, even if the presentation was less than what I had planned.

  • Olivia

    Thanks, Michelle for your personal anecdote! I appreciate that I am not the only person who has had some botched forays in baking. On a related note to your past posts, I was always that person that tried to replace “unhealthy” ingredients with “healthy” ones, i.e. apple sauce instead of butter or eggs, or soy milk instead of cow’s milk. While I think that some people do vegan baked goods quite well, I was not one of them — and found that vegan, gluten-free baked goods take much of the joy out. I’ve since learned that sometimes it is OK to use cows’ milk and eggs. I’ve really begun to appreciate that baking is a matter of chemistry, i.e. butter is a solid fat, and oils are not, honey browns more quickly than sugar, which is way you have to be quite knowledgeable and precise about your ingredients to get them to react the way you want them to!

  • wildwildwest

    This reminds me of a somewhat similar situation I had when I first moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico back in 1999.

    Yes, I knew that Albuquerque is the “other” mile-high city. No, I didn’t think that being at this altitude would influence my very-famous made-from-scratch carrot cake. And no, I didn’t think baking a cake in an old, untested oven would make any difference either.

    When a couple of friends came out to visit, one asked would I make one of my carrot cakes for her birthday. No problem, and got to work. Grated the carrots, cracked and chopped the pecans, grated the coconut, peeled and chopped the fresh pineapple.

    When it came time for the cake to come out of the oven, I was horrified. It sank so much in the middle, it looked like a donut! I’ve since learned, that baking over 5,000 feet up requires adjustment from recipes fired at sea level. Increase structure! Decrease leavening!

    Yes, we ate it anyway.

  • Agent Scully

    For baking disasters I always turn to the toaster and add jam. Or spread butter on a slice and broil in the oven.

    For cooking disasters I will typically turn to a skillet and make an “inspired” stir fry.

  • Gabrielle

    For Thanksgiving, I (foolishly) decided to make the exact tiramisu torte that I made in school. In fact, I made two of them, separately; one for a friend and one for my family. It turned out to be one of the most stressful desserts to put together…I’ll never attempt that again unless I make the ladyfingers and chiffon wayy ahead a time! So anyway, I made a lot of little mistakes, but was luckily able to fix every one of them. The biggest mistake was when I was making the chocolate chiffon cake for the second tiramisu (I only had 2 eight inch pans and I needed 4 cakes all together). I was a dummy and fell asleep too early the night before Thanksgiving when I was supposed to be making the chiffon. So I ended up getting up at about 7am to bake them; and it’s always a mistake for me to try baking that early. So I got everything scaled out, yolks and sugar in one bowl, flour and other dry ingredients in another, and egg whites whipping in the mixer. When the egg whites were done, I gently as I could folded them into the yolk mixture. I put the batter in the two pans and put them right in the oven. I was so so relieved that I was able to finish making these delicate cakes early enough in the day. Then I happened to look at the stove and saw THE BOWL OF DRY INGREDIENTS that I failed to mix into the batter!!! I was so horrified because it was Thanksgiving day and I don’t think I had enough ingredients to make more cake. The cakes had only been in the oven for about 3 or 4 minutes, so I took them out, poured the batter back into a bowl and folded in the dry ingredients. I was so sure this wouldn’t turn out well since chiffons are so tricky sometimes. To my surprise, though, they came out perfect?! Everything came together and I was able to bring a delicious tiramisu to my family gathering and everyone loved it!

    • Michelle

      It reminds me of when I was making yogurt this summer – 6 hours into the milk “fermenting” – it was not fermenting. I had forgotten to add the culture! I took the milk that had been sitting and warming for 6 hours, added the culture, waited 6 MORE hours and had the most delicious yogurt i’ve ever tasted.

      • Gabrielle

        Haha, all of this yogurt talk really has me wanting to try and make it! I stopped eating dairy about a year ago just because of some lactose intolerance and I guess sometimes just don’t like the idea of consuming animal milk…I never really thought about how good yogurt can be for you, I just liked the taste of the plain stuff with honey and fruit. I started eating soy yogurt, but you’re right about there being too much sugar! I also saw that yogurt doesn’t have much lactose left in it, so I think I’ll add it back into my diet.. How exciting!

      • Debbie

        Yup, my best apple pie happened when after I coated the cut up apples with flour, cinnamon and sugar, I put the covered bowl out on my garage shelf. I ended up baking it the next day with rave reviews so I now incorporate this “step” whenever I make it! :)

  • Cherie H.

    I just had a recent similar situation. Snack for my preschooler’s class right before the holidays. I thought gingerbread was the perfect thing to whip up and serve. Well, the recipe I use calls for Guiness stout (which I figured was not appropriate considering they are preschoolers) so I made a sub there. The main disaster was I doubled the recipe and basically forgot to double the sugar… yuck. My duct tape was a quick icing for the cake and a lot of powdered sugar “snow” covering the top. Good thing the class did not seem to care. Anything with ICING will pass their lips! As for the rest of the cake I had at home I made a quick cream cheese frosting (yes, it turned out just fine!) and it was edible….

    • Michelle

      Icing is unquestionably the “other” duct tape! I mean, even Poptarts has decided THEY need it !!

  • Elina (Healthy and Sane)

    Ick, at least whipped cream saved the day 😉 I used baking soda instead of baking powder once and the result tasted like… baking soda. So disgusting. I rarely throw away food but this one went straight to trash. Have also been playing recently with baking with protein powder – without much luck. Most baked goods came out rubbery. Bleh.
    On an unrelated note – I’m hosting a giveaway for sustainable seafood. Check it out if you’re interested! :)

  • Laura

    You’re totally right about bakers vs. non-bakers–I LOVE to bake, but it’s taking me a very, very long time to be comfortable with cooking an actual meal 😉

    A note on baking soda vs. baking powder–baking soda is only used in recipes that have an acidic element, because it needs that acid to activate it. Baking powder does not need that acid, because it has an acidic element already mixed in. So I’m always careful not to exchange the two when baking :)

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  • Aelia

    I definitely have a “baker” personality, though it’s also about knowing what you can and cannot modify in a recipe. I never feel shy about adding extra vanilla– it’s my favorite– or making spice-related modifications. If it calls for an herb I don’t particularly like, I’ll substitute it for one I do, or if it’s supposed to be a savory bread or something, I’ll liberally add things like garlic, onion, and parsley, because they are delicious and improve anything.

    However, messing with the substance of a cake without thinking seriously about what each item adds, and changes about the flavor and general composition (moisture, binders, risers, etc.) is what has led to some of my worst disasters– carrot cake which didn’t bind because I used too much oil and not enough egg. It *tasted* great but had a powdery texture.

    Also, wouldn’t adding whipped cream to a lemon-sauced cake cause curdling?

    • Michelle

      You’re totally right about knowing when you can bend the rules in baking and when not. My greatest frustration with baking is not being 100% sure of the outcome, until its too late to do much about it!! I am by nature a tinkerer and rule bender … With the whipped cream, I just added it as a dollop on the side of each persons cake slice … no risk of curdling.

  • Sonya Michelle

    I am very pleased to say that I am beginning to bridge the gap between baker and that other kind of non-baker chef no one seems to have an accurate term for. I began as a baker for the safety, the assurance that if followed perfectly, in a couple hours time I would be rewarded with sweetness on my tongue and a rush of endorphins to my brain.

    As time progressed, the sugar was still sweet but the satisfaction was quickly fading. Without the skill set to “modify” baked recipes with confidence, I turned to non-baking. With a sense of control over my destiny, or just my ingredients, I proudly serve just-something-I-whipped-up. 95% of the time it’s delicious, and 90% of the other 5% I can fix the bland or the blah with more lemon juice, or a dash of salt, or a quick honey apple vinegar glaze.

    It’s refreshing. And the recipes are all mine. Granted, not all of the time. A baker at heart must allow herself to follow a new recipe every once in a while.

    Watch for my baker’s novel on first love, fading affection, renewal, reunion, and ultimate triumph. Out in 15 to 20 years. :)

  • Mollie Pei

    Did you use an 8×4 or 9×5 loaf pan for the recipe? Thank you