Monday, June 22, 2009

The Cake that Keeps on Giving

Even though I love cooking, I've never been crazy about baking. I find baking to be too regimented... my cooking style is more organic- it evolves naturally, without strict recipes or instructions. I'm more of a little-of-this, little-of-that, taste-as-I-go-then-adjust kind of gal, using recipes as basic guidelines for over-arching flavor and technique ideas, rather than as step-by-step directions. Baking will go terribly, terribly wrong if certain ingredients are omitted, or if too much of this, or too little of that is added... This I learned when I was about 10 years old and Amanda and I tried to make brownies following a recipe in a 'cookbook program' on our fancy new computer. She mixed ingredients in the kitchen while I'll called out measurements from where the computer was perched in the living room. Math was never my forte, and apparently I had not learned fractions yet, because for every 1 and 1/2 cup, I called out to Amanda to add 1/2 cup, for every 1 and 3/4 cup, I instructed her to add 1/4... and so on. Needless to say, the brownies were flavorless balls of dense dough, and the cookbook program on the computer was never used again, replaced with the Spider-Man Cartoon Maker program and the game "You Don't Know Jack."

While I've overcome my fraction-dyslexia, I never did regain the desire to be the next oven mitt wielding, goodie-baking-Betty Crocker. Because of the strict rules of baking, I'm more of an occasion baker, only baking when a special event calls, or when I'm feeling particularly patient (which isn't often). Recently, however, I decided to try to expand my baking horizons.

A few months ago, I put on my apron, pulled out my measuring cups, and I baked a cake. Following directions VERY closely, I made a lovely Orange Polenta Cake, from Gourmet Magazine. With ground almonds and polenta in the batter, the cake had a crumbly yet moist texture, and a buttery delicious flavor. With a dash of orange flower water and a handful of orange zest adding a special zing, and an upside-down style sliced orange caramelized topping, I knew this cake was a winner.

With my confidence renewed, I decided to try the cake again, but this time I would make it my own. For the first time ever (chocolate chip cookies aside), I would improvise on a baked good. Excited and scared, I went forth on my baking experiment, fully prepared for any outcome. I followed the basic instructions for the batter. You know... the flour, eggs, butter, polenta, baking soda... all of the essentials. Then, things got crazy. Instead of orange flower water, I added dark rum and Mexican vanilla. In place of orange zest, I added shredded coconut and lime zest. I replaced the original orange caramel topping with a pineapple-caramel-macadamia nut topping. I popped my creation in the oven, crossed my fingers, and hoped for the best.

I shared the finished product with some girl friends. I topped the beautiful cake with flaked coconut and a curl of lime zest. I nervously awaited the first bite... hoping it would taste as wonderful at is looked.

It must have... because five girls and less than five minutes later, the cake was demolished. Every last crumb. It was buttery and rummy, gooey on top, moist and crumbly in the middle.

Although delicious, the flavor was not as tropical as I had hoped, I think it needed more coconut, possibly even a splash of coconut milk. I have a feeling that I'll be making this cake again... and again and again. Maybe next time I'll add that extra coconut and throw in some ginger... or maybe I'll improvise with figs and brandy, or lemon and lavender? I learned that with this cake, the possibilities are endless, and that with a really good base recipe (and a little bit of patience), baking doesn't have to be tedious or disastrous.
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