I am, by nature, a fairly positive and hopeful person. I don’t like negativity, especially on social media: it is too easy to moan, complain, bitch or shame. I am all about supporting one another and championing folk who are doing a great job. I think it’s really important to encourage people who are just learning. I think people should be given credit and recognition when its due. I hope that comes across on my Facebook page and my Instagram and Twitter accounts.
But this morning I am in danger of coming across as a complainer. I have one thing that bugs me tremendously when it come to cooking and baking. Well, I have two things (but I am not going to bang on about pretentious, head up their arse foodie types here). What really bugs me are badly written recipes. More specifically, poorly written instructions and advice on recipes. I had one such experience this weekend.
I am, of course, referring to the finished cake above. And it looks nice enough now in the finished picture, but I was not feeling the love at 7am yesterday morning as I was trying to put it together before my son’s birthday lunch on the same day.
Let’s start at the very beginning.
My second son had only expressed a desire for some Rocky Road for his birthday sleep over with two of his friends. I happily obliged. But I also wanted to surprise him with a cake for his birthday lunch with the rest of the family the following day (my mum always takes us all out when it is one of the grandkids’ birthdays). He loves chocolate and caramel (who doesn’t?) and I had seen the melting bar of chocolate cake by http://mycupcakeaddiction.com/blogs and thought it would be fun to make one using Caramac. I then remembered a recipe for a chocolate and caramel cake from http://www.bbcgoodfood.com that I had wanted to try for a while: it seemed like the perfect base cake for his birthday.
I baked the four layers of the cake on Friday. They were easy to make, using an all-in-one technique, though I felt that the darkest layer (the chocolate only one) was a little dry and tight and should probably have had a teaspoon of milk added to loosed it up a little. Once cool, I wrapped and stored them ready for morning construction. And this is when it all went a bit wrong.
The recipe instructs you to simply spread equal amounts of caramel between the four layers. Now, I am sure you know as well as I do that caramel has a slippery, soft consistency, and I worried about it oozing out from between the cakes, especially with the weight of all four. I would normally dam the cake layers with a piped rim of something firm, like ganache or buttercream, to ensure that the more soft or liquid filling stays inside, where it should be. But I didn’t listen to that instinct. I figured the folk at BBC Good Food Magazine knew what they were doing, after all they “triple test” every recipe, and I slapped on the caramel and stacked the cakes high. Immediately, it was apparent that this was a mistake and the caramel started escaping. Furthermore, the whole stacked cake was unstable as the filling was too slippery. And to make matters even worse the individual four cakes had shrunk slightly on cooling and there were huge gaps that needed to be filled in order to get a straight side finish.I had to think quickly. There was no way the ganache that the recipe made would a) fill all the gaps and create a smooth side finish or b) hold this oozing, slippery stack of sponges in one place. I decided to whip up a quick batch of buttercream, that I flavoured with some extra caramel that I had. I used this to seal in the oozing caramel and formed a crumb coat, then got it in the fridge quickly. I then gave it another thin coat to ensure a good sharp and even finish, then fired it back into the fridge again to firm up completely.
Which leads me on to the ganache. Again, I should’ve know better. The recipe casually instructs you to make this while the sponges are cooling “and cool or chill until spreadable”. It fails to mention that with the half and half ratio, this ganache takes *ages* to firm up, and you could be waiting three hours for it to be of the correct consistency. Thankfully I had enough time and got the cake covered in its ganache and back in to the fridge for a brief few minutes to firm up (I didn’t want it to lose its glossy shine by chilling it for too long).
With everything going slightly wrong I decided to play it safe with the Caramac drizzle and simply melted it over simmering water and stirred in a smidge of golden syrup. In hindsight, I should’ve made a proper ganache so that it didn’t set as firmly on the top of the cake. Anyway, I drizzled it on the cake, coaxed it down the sides and gently pushed in the Caramac bars (I’ve included a link at the end to a tutorial showing you how to make these).
So, here is the thing, and the whole purpose of this post. This recipe failed its audience, in my opinion. I should’ve trusted my instinct with the caramel filling. I knew it would ooze out but somehow trusted the recipe. If I was a less experienced baker, I would have felt like a total failure (and maybe not have know how to rescue the situation with a buttercream crumb coat to trap it all in). As it was, I could’ve kicked myself for not listening to the little voice in my head saying, “Don’t do it!”
So this is what bugs me most. Are recipes shared in magazines and online not designed to encourage folk to get baking? And when you bake something delicious and it looks good (and you didn’t have a nervous break-down in the process) then you feel great and it’s lovely to share with family and friends. But how many new bakers, who dip their toe into the icing to make something a wee bit more complex or fancy, see their plans disintegrate into a heap of crumbs on their kitchen floor because of inadequate instructions, poor advice or downright wrong recipes? Surely these recipes should be 100% correct in the first place, and provide help for when things don’t quite go according to plan? Surely the point is to encourage success and a sense of achievement and happiness?
I don’t want to sound so negative, but I feel really strongly about this. I would hate someone to give up or feel like a total failure because the recipe was wrong. Like me, many people assume it is them that has made the mistake. With so many “celebrity” chefs and bakers out there, and so many books available, it seems that due care, quality control sometimes and basic proof reading slips. I have picked up a baking book by a previous competition winner and found glaring typos. I have several books by another acclaimed baker, who charges up to £2000 for a wedding cake, but the recipe for the same base cake is drastically different in different books and one simply doesn’t work.
Please don’t think for a second that I am holding myself up as some kind of expert or perfect baker. I get it wrong often and am constantly learning and trying to improve my skills and increase my knowledge. But there are some things that I know I do OK. And this is only from doing it on my own since I was seven or eight years old, making messes, forgetting stages and ingredients, getting it wrong and generally cocking up time and time again. But I have learned from those occasions and when I *have* got it right, boy does it feel great! When I get it wrong I want to do it again until I get it right: when I get it right I want to do it again to share with others. It’s a never ending process and one that is my passion.
So, when you feel a nagging doubt that something isn’t the right way to do it, then listen to that instinct. I wish I had. Don’t always assume that it is you that is wrong. Keep practising and never give up!http://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/1161646/chocolate-and-caramel-layer-cake