Monday, November 19, 2007

The Imperfect Cook

I'm not what you would call a precise cook. I'm sort of a haphazard, imprecise cook who starts out with the best intentions to faithfully follow a recipe. But somehow, somewhere along the way I go astray. It could be something as simple as needing to substitute an ingredient because I don't have on hand the exact item the recipe requires. Or I get interrupted.

Interruptions happen a lot in the Nord Kitchen. Despite a house full of comfortable chairs and plenty of desks, there is always someone sitting at the kitchen table. They are either reading the newspaper, working on a project, doing homework, surfing the net with a wireless laptop or just talking.

Most of the time these interruptions tend to just slow down the cooking process with minimal impact on the final result. Only a delayed result. Generally, adjustments can be made fairly easily.

As I continue to work my way through Heidi Swanson's cookbook, Super Natural Cooking, I'm beginning to realize that her recipes need to be followed precisely with little room for substitutions. Its not that her cooking techniques require special attention but due to the uniqueness of her ingredients, special care is required on the combinations. My latest attempt was with her recipe for Raspberry Curd Swirl Cake. I didn't have raspberry curd, I had lemon curd. Since raspberries are out of season and she recommends using citrus curd in winter I thought I'd give it a try. I was out of pastry flour, so I used regular flour. Perhaps because it still is technically autumn and not yet winter or perhaps I wasn't precise enough in my measuring I'm not sure...but the first attempt was a disaster.

So far I have enjoyed her book and have learned new things about different types of flours, grains, natural sweeteners, spices and seasonings. The Chocolate Chip cookies using mesquite flour are unique and very good. She is a talented food photographer and graphic designer as evidenced by her wonderful pictures...both in the cookbook and on her website, 101Cookbooks.

Something about her recipes challenge me. Every recipe has required a couple of tries to get right. For my first try with the Swirl Cake, I wish I could blame the poor outcome on interruptions...but for once, no one was around. So, I blamed it on imprecision and tried again. The first attempt just fell apart and collapsed. The top edges burned and the center was uncooked. Those sections that were baked were too sweet. On my second attempt I adjusted the sugar, precisely measured the whole-wheat pastry flour and baking powder, used butter at precisely room temperature and used less curd. Result was much more favorable.

Although not as good looking as the one photographed in her book!!!!

Lemon Curd Swirl Cake

1 1/2 cups whole-wheat pastry flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon fine-grain sea salt
3/4 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/4 cups natural cane sugar
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup lemon curd

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Generously butter an 8 x 4 inch loaf pan.

Combine the flour, baking powder and salt in a small bowl and whisk to combine.

In a large bowl, beat the butter until smooth and creamy. Add the sugar and beat again. Scrape down the sides of the mixing bowl once or twice during the process so you end up with a nice, even creamy blend. Beat in the eggs one at a time. Stir in vanilla until evenly incorporated. Add the dry ingredients and gently fold in by hand just until barely blended; don't overmix.

Scoop half of the cake batter into the prepared pan. It will be pretty thick so you will need to spread around with the back of a spoon. Now spread about half of the curd over the batter, staying clear of the sides of the pan. Add the rest of the batter and smooth the top until level, then plop big spoonfuls of the remaining curd on top of the cake (again staying clear of the sides of the pan). Drag a butter knife through the curd to create a marbled effect.

Bake for 50 - 60 minutes, or until the cake bounces back a bit when lightly touched. Let cool in the pan. Slice and serve at room temperature.

Adapted from recipe found in Super Natural Cooking by Heidi Swanson (2007)


Lydia said...

I think we've been conditioned to believe that anything published in a cookbook is right, and we are wrong. There was a famous case of a cookbook with so many errors in the recipes that it very quickly went into remainder bins everywhere -- a book by Julee Rosso, the less talented cook of the Silver Palate team. Whether the recipes were ill-conceived or just badly tested and edited, I don't know. But ever since then, I don't automatically assume that all cookbook recipes work well.

T.W. Barritt said...

I think it's not only the recipe but conditions - temperature of the kitchen, calibration of the stove, equipment. There are so many factors that can actually impact the outcome of a recipe.

Diane said...

Lydia...interesting insight. Heard rumors about similar errors in early Martha Stewart cookbooks. Marketing hype gets carried away sometimes.

t.w. - in the end I chalked it up to bad karma in the kitchen...a week when nothing went right!!!