Saturday, August 27, 2011

Rules and Ratios

I had tea yesterday with a very young friend who wants to bake. He asked if I would teach him one of my best basic ratios! This got me thinking.
I love the idea that cooking and baking has rules and ratios that define the perfect this or that (butter cake, crème anglaise, sponge cake, whatever). But many of the best and most interesting desserts defy the rules. The indescribably decadent flourless and nearly flourless chocolate cakes (upon which I built an entire career) are notoriously lawless (so flexible and forgiving and fun) and aren't they are some of the best desserts you will ever eat? And, wasn’t the recipe for brownies a mistake? You might argue that these recipes are not real cakes.
But the Bundt cakes and rich coffee cakes that we bake in tube pans are real cakes. These sweet rich moist crowd pleasers flaunt basic cake ratios too…they usually have too much fat or sugar to perform properly in any pan but a tube pan. It’s the tube that saves them from falling by giving them enough support to rise and stay risen. Just try baking some of these cakes in a regular round spring form pan, without a tube, and watch them sink in the center and become just another “cake failure”. The tube enables us to break the ratio rules. Small pans and cupcake pans do the same. And there are more tricks too.
My next book, Totally Easy Sinfully Delicious Melt-In-Your Mouth Desserts (Artisan 2012) is about to go to press and I just discovered that my gingerbread has a tendency to sink in the center. It seemed perfect when I tested half batches in half-size pans several months ago. But even so I made a note reminding me to retest the full recipe before publishing. From experience I know that even if a sample in a small pan works perfectly there is no guarantee that the full recipe in a full size pan will be equally successful. People think baking is all about the chemistry, but what about the physics? So here I am, at the eleventh hour, with delicious but sinking gingerbread. Clearly the recipe is unbalanced: too much sugar or liquid or not enough flour. But when I balance the ratios to prevent that sinking, the cake doesn’t taste as delicious. So I start thinking of ways to fix the problem without “fixing” the ratios. It occurs to me that extra beating (normally to be avoided because it causes extra gluten to develop) might be exactly what’s needed here. Maybe physics can trump chemistry. Maybe two wrongs can make a right.
I put all of the ingredients into the food processer and let it rip for a long 15 seconds. I’m rewarded with a cake that rises perfectly and does not sink. It is deliciously sweet and spicy and has a tender velvety texture. AND IT’S SIMPLER THAN EVER TO MAKE!
I’m just saying…. Ratios and rules don’t always get you where you want to go.
It would seem appropriate to publish the recipe here, but I can’t do that yet. Wait for it in Totally Easy Sinfully Delicious Melt-In-Your Mouth Desserts coming next spring. And forgive me.


  1. Amen. And a new book? That makes me very happy! Yay.

  2. Yay! Can't wait for your new book! Sounds right up my alley :)

  3. Well, my mouth is watering! And I love thinking about the physics and not just the chemistry - thanks for a fun new idea to ponder!

    ~Mamie (aka Amy, Ariel's old nanny!)

  4. Sinking in the middle...what would happen if instead of building up the gluten, you baked the gingerbread in a bunt pan?

  5. Mmmmm...anxious for cooler weather to get "in the mood" for gingerbread! I hope your new book comes with visits and classes at Central Market again -- really enjoyed that with the Chewy Gooey book!

  6. Congrats on your new book, can't wait to get my copy :D

  7. Maybe you can tell me why the butter always separates when I'm makin' toffee...I end up having to pour it off..

  8. I just heard about your new cookbook and am so excited to get my hands on a copy! LOVED your last book and this one sounds equally good. Can't wait :)

  9. I love gingerbread and will love trying your recipe. Appreciate all your testing and writing...My girls and I use your books and love each one. We are better bakers because of you. We look forward to your next book.

  10. Congratulations! and thank you for sharing the news!
    A long, well-worth wait...

    I know that's not what this blog is meant for, but hope you may be willing to help.
    After being treated to some, I was looking for a recipe for "Baci di Dama" cookies, hoping to make my own homemade version.
    Unfortunately, that's the one recipe "Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy..." doesn't feature...
    I have tried a few recipes, basically a mixture of nut flour (hazelnut/almond), sugar, wheat flour, butter - formed into small balls and baked at a low temperature oven.
    But no matter what recipe I use, and even though I chill the dough before and after shaping the balls, I still can't get them to maintain their dome shape. Not quite pancake flat, but they always go flat.
    Will you please help me save the next batch?
    Could you perhaps offer some advice?
    Thank you!