Saturday, February 13, 2010

Baking and the art of discipline

I am not, by nature, a baker. Reading recipes and following them to a T is not my strong suit in cooking. I'm more of the creative, improvisational cook - a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and voila! Sadly, that approach really does not work in baking. Memorable experiences proving this fact include the time I added 2 tablespoons of salt instead of sugar to a pancake mixture (I was like 8 years old, but still). Or the more recent attempt to make lemon cupcakes "healthy" by using whole wheat flour instead of white flour. I think we can all agree that was not a good choice.

So, I was pleasantly surprised when a recent attempt at baking actually turned out to be incredibly delicious! Last winter, I came across a recipe in the NYTimes food section, by Melissa Clark who writes a column called "A Good Appetite." I love her recipes, as they are usually creative and delicious but not too difficult. And, there is something appealing about hearing the recipe author's story about how and why they came up with that recipe - it adds a layer to the experience that is missing in a lot of traditional cookbooks, I think. Anyhow, this one article, "Secrets of the Cake Stand", had a recipe for Blood Orange Olive Oil cake. It immediately sounded like something up my alley, so I cut it out and filed it away.

Flash forward to last weekend. I had been yearning to make this recipe for months, and had even tried a few times to source out some blood oranges, to no avail. So when they appeared at Berkeley Bowl, I knew that my time had finally come.

I think that the key to my successful Blood Orange loaf was in fact discipline. As “creative type”, I am used to not following directions, preferring to make things up as I go, embellish with my own flair, experiment and create. But via my previous failed baking experiences, I came to realize that in order to be a successful baker, I needed to discipline myself to follow directions, to stay committed to the task at hand, and realize that the end result will likely be more delicious even if I don’t add my own personalized feature to it. As I am writing this, I am wondering if my lack of discipline in baking is somewhat representative of my lifelong struggles with being independent, not liking to be told “What to do” and greatly enjoying the sensation of being right and doing things on my own. Perhaps I’m reading too far into this, but it’s been a theme I have been thinking a lot about recently, and somehow I feel warmed by the thought that my successful cake has something to do with a deeper level of personal progress!

Anyhow – enough introspection, back to the cake. It was every bit as delicious as I had imagined! As I mixed it together, I thought it looked really liquidy, but it ended up being perfectly moist and flavorful. The blood oranges definitely added some depth of color, but I think it would have been just as delicious with regular oranges (I’d go for a smaller juicier variety, as opposed to something like a navel orange). I’ll certainly be experimenting with the recipe using regular oranges, because it was too good to hold out until blood oranges are around again. One thing to note – I baked it in a pyrex loaf pan, and it took a bit longer than the recipe said – maybe an additional 10-15 minutes, I can’t exactly remember. I just checked it every 5 minutes or so after the first 50, and when the cake tested was clean I took it out. For serving, I made the blood orange honey compote that the author mentions, and it was extra delicious.

So – whether you are looking for an exercise in discipline, or just a delicious treat (or both!), I highly recommend trying this!