I have just had a colossally bad day in the kitchen, the sort that makes me wonder if I can cook at all, or if I have merely been really lucky up until now.
I was going to make a cake. I was going to make a cake for my Squeeze’s birthday, the first of his birthdays that I will spend with him. I felt I had a precedent to establish, and that the bar would need to be set high. Stick with me, my confection would boast on my behalf, and you will be given a wild sugar high with every passing year. Or something. When I began two days ago I felt as nervous as I had before the first dinner I cooked for him. During our courtship, I advertised myself as a cook and baker and when it came time to walk that talk, it felt important to prove that I was the real thing. The dinner was an unqualified success. This cake, I assumed, would be one also.
I was. so. wrong.
- Here’s what I imagined:
- • Chocolate buttermilk sheet cake: dense and intensely cocoa-flavored, sticky and moist.
- • Coffee buttercream filling: sweet, fluffy buttercream with a light but obvious coffee flavor.
- • Shiny chocolate ganache glaze: nothing more than cream and chocolate melted together and slowly poured over the whole lot, creating a smooth case around the whole cake.
I have tested recipes for each component. I have made this combination before. I would, I imagined, take something I already knew to be good, execute each piece flawlessly, and make a really, really great birthday cake. When I set down with my a.m. coffee in my favorite mug, I felt unstoppable. I was about to use my baking to put my baking to shame. This cake would be Love in sugar form.
I couldn’t find the cocoa buttermilk cake recipe. I looked in all of my files, called my mother, rifled through my cookbook library. When the recipe could not be conjured, I considered panic but then instead thought, fantastic! This is the hiccup! I’ll get over this small speedbump and then proceed unencumbered towards greatness! I have always admired optimism in the face of doom.
I searched around the trusty Internet and found a similar recipe to audition, expecting to make at least two batches (one to test and one to adjust) before generating a satisfactory result. I was disappointed that my recipe could not be found, but decided to cheerily press on and make the best of it. A lot of what happens in the kitchen is making the best of it.
I put the cake together and into the oven in nothing flat, spreading the batter out in a half-sized jelly roll pan so that I could punch circles out for each layer instead of having to slice a cylinder crosswise, which isn’t nearly as easy to do as it looks . Even as a raw batter, I recognized the cake as unacceptably flawed. It would be too spongy and not sufficiently chocolatey, but easily amended in the second batch. Once I’d scribbled some notes over the recipe, I got to work on the coffee buttercream. I figured I was home-free. This buttercream and I go way back, six years or more, and though I’ve read that buttercreams are finicky, I’d always had great results with minimal effort. I’d always had great results with minimal effort.
A buttercream frosting is a creme anglaise sauce – milk and eggs cooked like a custard but not nearly as thick – with whole butter whipped into it. At it’s best it is silky and rich and not-too-sweet. It is nothing like the stuff that is sold in cardboard canisters at the grocery store, and even less like the “white icing” that comes slathered on sheet cakes, just before the spray-on neon “Happy Birthday” is applied and the bright pink roses are globbered into the corners. Buttercreams are a little bit difficult to make because all of the ingredients must be the same temperature and because the cook must be patient. The Coffee Buttercream I tried to make calls for one cup of milk, eight egg yolks, and one and one half cups of sugar for the creme anglaise and a whole pound of unsalted butter. That’s a lot of butter. That’s a lot of butter that needs to be soft, but not too soft, as it gets slowly, gradually paddled into the anglaise, bit by bit, just like brioche. It takes forever and for the first three quarters of the procedure there is no visually-appreciaable progress with which to entertain oneself.
I knew all of this. I made my anglaise sauce, whipped it cool and full of air in my four-quart Kitchen Aid, changed to the paddle attachment, and began very gradually tossing in the pound of butter, bit by tiny nickel-sized bit.
And nothing happened.
And nothing happened.
And nothing happened.
And then it broke.
When a food item – usually a sauce or a batter – “breaks,” the fat that ought to be emulsified separates. It happens all at once: your sauce is smooth and then it is lumpy and greasy. Sometimes you can fix it and sometimes you can’t. Sometimes it doesn’t matter; sometimes the mistake is fatal. A broken buttercream is, as far as I know, fatal. And totally gross to look at. To be fair, I am prepared to admit that the butter might have been just a tiny bit cool and, OK, I might have been a bit over-eager in mixing. So I broke the stuff and there’s a first time for everything and it’s all right to make mistakes because how else do you learn? All right?
The buttercream washed down the garbage disposal, the flavorless cake wrapped in plastic to protect it from the cats (or the cats from it), I ran away to meet a friend for lunch at The Goose Hollow Inn. The Goose Hollow Inn is not, in fact, an Inn, but a completely adorable neighborhood pub locally famous for their Rueben sandwiches and mayoral proprietor. I had a cup of pumpkin soup, which cheered and bolstered me sufficiently to march back home and begin my cake project with spirit renewed.
I won’t draw this out. My second try for buttercream – when I followed the instructions letter perfect, when the butter and the anglaise were both the correct temperature, when I mixed in the butter so slowly I wondered if I might not be done by his next birthday – was also a failure. Smashed to smithereens, you might want to say. And you’d be right. I don’t know what happened.
For the sake of preserving my sanity and sense of self-worth, I shelved the filling and measured out the two ingredients for my ganache, chocolate and cream. I had been saving six ounces of Dagoba’s New Moon. It is so delicious. And, because it quite dark, it would have served as a nice counterweight to the so-so cocoa buttermilk cake. I chopped the chocolate and scalded the cream with some coffee beans and let it steep. I poured the strained hot cream over aforementioned chopped chocolate. I waited, then stirred.
And here is the place in my story, dear Readers, where yours truly basically comes apart. I won’t tell you what happened; I can’t. You know what happened. The story could not be otherwise. Ganache is the simplest thing in the world to make. Two ingredients, three steps. I haven’t the first glimmer of a notion about what when wrong how or where – all I knew then was that between the two broken buttercreams, one batch of passable cake and the inexplicably faulty ganache, it wasn’t looking like such a good day for birthday cakes.
When the Squeeze came home from work some hours later, I wrangled myself into a hug and faked sobbing into his chest. “I’m a failure,” I cried, “I can’t bake anymore! It was a fluke all these years and now” – sob, sob, sob – “the jig is up!” More sobbing, possibly real, and a hiccup. “We’ll have to get you a cake from Fred Meyer with a race car airbrushed on it!”
We decided to go out for some air instead, hoping to push some hidden Restart Button in my head or my hands that would get me back on track when I returned to the kitchen. I harped on and on about what a miserable baker I am, and how I had wanted so badly to make this flawless cake to commemorate his special-freaking-day. “I’ve never had my own birthday cake before,” he told me when I took a breath from my self-depreciating rant. He explained that his father’s birthday is a few days ahead of his, and that his family celebrated both birthdays together on the day in between. He didn’t tell me to make me feel worse; he was just thinking aloud. My only thought was to rush home and make thirty cakes, one for every year missed plus extras. I then remembered that I couldn’t even make one.
Of course, I did finish a cake. I took the perfectly decent sheet of cocoa buttermilk cake, by now the star of the show, cut out three rounds and layered them with vanilla ice cream. I spattered some warm ganache into the ice cream when softening it, creating little flaky specks of mocha-y chocolate. I poured a thin covering of slightly greasy ganache over the third layer and froze it, figuring that whatever happened to it in the freezer I could hide with a glaze, or not, when the time came. For icing, I whipped heavy cream and mascarpone cheese together with some confectioner’s sugar and coffee liqueur. I finished the cake with chocolate shavings and rosettes and shoved it back in the freezer to set, frustrated.
I feel like a kid who has had a very bad day on the playground. Maybe two broken buttercreams, a mediocre sponge cake and failed ganache doesn’t seem so awful to you. Maybe you have real problems, like an overdue mortgage payment or a blood clot silently making its way towards your brain. Maybe I am making a big deal out of trifles.
I have changed my mind about how I will end this post half a dozen times. I wanted to avoid cliché, or some sunshiny moral about how “the true measure of one’s skill in the kitchen may be gauged by how one moves forward after a mistake,” and that this is actually a testament to my ability in the kitchen, having created in a pinch a passable product. Last night I tried to make a soup out of a some leftover tilapia and the contents of my fridge and, while it was hot and edible, I wouldn’t say that it was good. I threw away the corn muffins I made to go with it; they weren’t even worth putting honey on.
If I weren’t already having an off-week in the kitchen, after having yammered on about it I surely will. Last night I seriously considered the possibility that I’ve used it all up, whatever it is that’s in me that knows how to cook. I’d just read a piece in Best Food Writing 2005 about a young woman who moved to France right after college to learn how to cook. She secured a job as a personal chef for a pair of aristocrats and spent the summer botching up dishes and learning French from the good-humored butler and maid. Towards the end of the essay, she wrote about the development of her skills: from having to write out and plan a menu beforehand, making notes about how long each dish would take to prepare and how she would know that the roast is done, to being able to sense things with her hands and her eyes. The passage was so familiar to me I almost teared up a bit. When I am in the Zone, that’s how I cook. I cook with my body, with the intuition and knowledge and rhythm that’s somehow tied up in my hands, my nose, my skin.
Then I realized: I haven’t been cooking like that lately. And I miss it.