Rant, rave, rant

Skip this post if you don’t want to read a grumbly rant….or just check the pictures and move on…..

Too hot for Zeb

One of the biggest challenges for home bakers in this ‘connected age’  is trying to figure out whether the recipe they read on a website on the other side of the world will actually work out translated to their own kitchen. I know some of you out there are brilliant at adapting recipes, but it is not my strong point I will freely admit.

Translating technique and methods are relatively easy, but types of flour, sugars, flavourings, not to mention cuts of rye grain, salts, butters and other fats, vary so much that it gives rise to a lot of discussion. All the forums are full of posts on this subject.  Hunting around on the internet for someone who supplies einkorn is a harmless way to spend an evening and I suppose it is educational to try and work out  just what is the difference between farro and spelt and pondering the mysteries of OO flour.  Is it soft, is it hard, are there different sorts. I suspect there are….

And then a lovely visit to one of these restored mills where you buy a bag of their flour, get it home and realise there is no info at all on the bag to give you a clue about its composition, does this strike a familiar chord?

So I salute  home bakers everywhere, who struggle to overcome these obstacles and I offer my heart felt encouragement to those who are just starting out. It does get easier, and most people manage to make a damn good loaf by their second or third go.  Keep the faith. Like learning to dance, everyone gets better with practice, and bread is no different.

In breadmaking it seems as if each country has not only different names for their flours, but also different ways of describing them, ash content in Germany, protein levels in England, W and P in Italy (no idea at all what that refers to) and for the most part, the aspiring home baker has to make their best guess, scour the internet for advice, and then close their eyes and just jump in.

Bread though is relatively forgiving; unlike cake. This brings me to my rant:

I’ve just been testing some cake recipes for an American baking book, and realise that I am far from being a professional tester and that I don’t really like doing it. Hmmm.

I have managed to produce, with one exception, rather horrible looking, oversweet and dense cakes,  some of which I have turned into crumbs;  the rest sliced up and shoved in the freezer, vaguely thinking that I can use them for trifle or something, one day in the future.   I could blame the recipe writer but that’s a bit too easy.

One reason for my failure is I don’t have cake flour, special American bleached low protein stuff.

And before you comment that it is possible to make cake flour in the microwave, or substitute cornflour for part of the flour, I have read all that too, and, Dear Reader, I don’t want to play.

I realise  what I really  want is recipes written for me, here where I live, using ingredients that are easily available and preferably already in my cupboard.   I might go across town to get some seasonal mangoes, or to a specialist butcher for marsh-raised lamb, but I am not spending hours with flour exploding in my oven, nor do I want to feel deflated when cakes emerge from the oven and look as if an invisible imp has sat on them ten minutes later.  There, got that off my chest!

I also have to learn to look at a recipe more critically before I even start and say, 130% sugar to flour – no way is that going to make me happy. My teeth are furring up just at the memory of that particular cake.

Roll on Dan Lepard’s British Baking book, I hope it’s full of wonderful,  overlooked and neglected British breads, cakes and buns. And Mick Hartley‘s first book too! I can’t wait to read the recipes for his awesome flatbreads and other extraordinary creations.  Breads with a hint of spice,  redolent with fruits, studded with chocolate, a twisted shape here, a glistening crust there, a splodge of jam, savoury, oats, barley, and rye,   full of beer, I don’t care  – bring them on – I’m waiting!

In the meantime here, with many thanks to Suelle and all the other kind people who made suggestions,  is my alternative Battenburg.  The chocolate part sank a little and the pistachio part is a bit crumbly and I guess the recipe needs some fine tuning way beyond my capabilities, as I am not going to make the same cake over and over.

I could have souped up the green colour but this is how it came out!

But I have tried and now I am going back to bread, where I belong.  See you in the sourdough corner soon!

23 thoughts on “Rant, rave, rant

  1. Suelle

    First – that Battenburg looks gorgeous! Just about green enough, in contrast to the chocolate.
    Secondly – I’m with you on wanting Dan Lepard’s new book to appear!
    Thirdly – I agree with you to some extent about just not wanting the hassle of recipe which aren’t written for British kitchens and ingredients, but some American cooks (and not just professionals) in particular seem far more inventive with cake recipes than what is being churned out by British cooks – just adding a new flavour to a Victoria Sandwich does not make it something different! I generally do a rough conversion from cups to metric weights and haven’t yet produced anything inedible. Any shortcomings through not having cake flour, corn syrup, or turbinado sugar (for example) would only be shown up by someone turning up on my doorstep with a sample of how the cake should be – and that is most unlikely to happen! LOL! I have to say that I’m a lot happier tackling unfamiliar recipes since starting to investigate blogs, and finding many good cooks around the world.
    PS – I’d love to be a recipe tester, but it’s not feasible with a fussy eater in the house.

    1. Joanna @ Zeb Bakes Post author

      Thanks Suelle! I was very parsimonious with the green colouring in the end. I don’t think I have read enough cake recipes to know when someone is being inventive or when someone is being a bit stupid. And I agree I’d rather go with a well blogged recipe that several people you respect have tried than some unknown cookbook or website :)

  2. sallybr

    Since I am cake-challenged by nature, I understand how you feel – not sure if you are testing the same book I am, but I’ve been struggling a lot with the cookie section, and this week will begin the breads (looking forward to that).

    in a month there will be cakes. I might have to give up then…

  3. cityhippyfarmgirl

    Joanna that Battenburg looks gorgeous. Ever since you posted about the cake I have been thinking at night “can I do it? what flavours?…can I do it?!”, enough…if I don’t give it a crack, its going to bug me for a long time! I can give it a go and then (like you) happily go back to my new pet, sourdough in the corner- it’s so forgiving!

  4. Celia @ Fig Jam and Lime Cordial

    Hmm. I agree with you that we all need to look at recipes critically before we take them on. For example, I almost always reduce the salt in an American recipe, and I’ve come to realise that “kosher salt” is half the saltiness of regular sea salt.

    I think though if we limit ourselves simply to recipes within our scope of current knowledge, we never get to experience some of the great joys the world has to offer. I don’t travel much, so often trying out the recipes from another country are my way of experiencing a little of that culture.

    Celia xx

    1. Choclette

      Ah Celia, thank you for the info on kosher salt. I keep asking what this is, but haven’t had an answer from anyone. Why not just use ordinary sea salt but half as much I wonder?

  5. Joanna @ Zeb Bakes Post author

    I don’t think I was talking about limiting myself as a general principle, Celia, just about giving up on baking American cakes! I manage with American bread recipes and most of the recipes of yours and other bloggers I read from all over the world, ditto cookbooks.

    Though it could be very exciting to limit oneself solely to national produce and see what could happen. Look at Noma in Copenhagen and the success they have had…..

      1. Joanna @ Zeb Bakes Post author

        Kind offer, but not legal here, so we’d def get done ;-) and yes, that was a fabulous recipe and inspiring blog post of yours, the Paris-Brest! Link to post here if you want to see some fabulous choux pastry of Celia’s. And of course an American interpretation of a french classic :) Not saying that Americans can’t bake, oooh no missus! Rants and grumbles are often a bit incoherent and rambly, I think I’ll write a post about trees next! xx

  6. burntloafer

    I am going to agree with Celia, above, from Fig Jam and Lime Cordial. This stuff, even the frustrating things, are so new to me that it is still really fun. I have learned a lot from you, Joanna!

    My only true frustration is not having the spare time and energy to cook.

    Um, gosh, though, as an American I am always being a little generous with the salt. Oh-oh!

    If I thought myself capable of making that Battenburg, I would be thrilled to get results like yours – that looks great to me! Now I have to investigate how in the world you did that!

    Admittedly, I am a beginner, but I am still getting a kick out of the mistakes. And I have found that my sourdough is really a good friend, as long as I follow it’s time line instead of my own.

    Joanna, I would like to tell you to keep your chin up, as you are an inspiration to a lot of us. On the other hand, sometimes a rant is good fun! Go for it! If you had to think of one thing that irritates you about cooking, what would it be? Sounds like a great blog post.

  7. Joanna @ Zeb Bakes Post author

    Hi Steve, thanks for the comments and the link to evening chef, really interesting – always good to hear from you. Aren’t you the man who was bulk baking bread in a pro oven the other evening? You won’t be able to call yourself a beginner much longer :)

  8. GillthePainter

    I think you’ve done extra-good on your battenburg. You’re too critical of yourself Joanna.

    I’ve got 3 American books, and have to have my laptop with me when I use them, partly for conversions, and partly for subs.
    Still, I’m happy to make do with what I can get here mostly.

    Tell me, how come you and Sally are getting into testing recipes? Sorry if you’ve said, and I’ve missed it.

    1. Joanna @ Zeb Bakes Post author

      The Fresh Loaf, someone there writing a book and they asked for volunteers to help test recipes. Must admit I thought it would be bread but there’s a lot of sweet baking too. I think that as I don’t bake that much sweet stuff over a month, that baking is taking more or less my ‘allocation’ for cakes. The Battenburg was demanded to make up for the strange test cakes. One came out fine. A babka wotsit. As I say I was just having a grumble and a rant. No one has to take it too seriously :)

  9. Choclette

    Now this Battenburg I really do want to eat, it looks striking and delicious. You didn’t actually say if you liked it or not?

    I guess it’s what we’re used to, I find bread far more scary than cake baking. I’m happy to substitute flours, sugars and quantities without worrying about it too much. But then I don’t very often turn out a perfect cake – they usually taste pretty good though. I find the Americans usually use a lot more sugar than we do over here, but I’m with Suelle and would love to be a cake tester.

    1. Joanna @ Zeb Bakes Post author

      Choclette, I haven’t been given much of a look in on that cake, there’s a small piece left after the guys stuffed it down this afternoon, maybe I will get a slice tomorrow with a cup of coffee :)

      It was fine, I think maybe one should add a tbsp or two of milk to the pistachio one and maybe reduce the flour a bit. And I am not sure why the chocolate one dipped, it might have been me being heavy handed folding in the melted chocolate but you can hide all that in the battenburg quite easily. On test baking cakes: I thought I would love it too, but I didn’t, but it taught me a few things about myself, so not a wasted experience :)

  10. Dan

    Jo, I have had that rant myself. I have had to pretty much abandon many of my favourite Aussie recipes now that we live in the U.S. as none of them ever turn out quite right. On the up side, I can actually make American recipe work now : ) I hadn’t even considered the differences between basic ingredients before moving abroad. It has been a real eye opener for me …. and explains many of my previous failures (hahaha).

      1. Dan

        I can! I used cake flour for the first time last year and was so impressed with the results. Some American cakes are very light and fluffy, but they are also very, very sweet (actually most food is sweeter than we are used to including bread). Another thing that is popular here is to take a cake mix and add extra ingredients to it. I have seen a few cook books that do that, and there is even a tv chef who does a whole series on it, called Semi-homemade. It’s something we would never do in Australia.

        1. Joanna @ Zeb Bakes Post author

          Clever you! It’s really so reassuring to hear how sweet their food is from someone who hasn’t grown up with it. I read Alice Meldrich’s chocolate book and she talks about what would be regular dark chocolate in Europe
          as if it is quite unusually unsweet in the US, so I did have an inkling about the sugar thing. But I have to laugh, I just tried to make a Swedish nutcake, it has no flour in it at all, so you would think it would be easy. Hah! I will sandwich it together with some cremefraiche and chocolate and no one will see what happened to it I hope.

          there is even a tv chef who does a whole series on it, called Semi-homemade. It’s something we would never do in Australia.

          I am sure it’s on all the cake mix manufacturers websites here too, though I have never seen this on tv either, or heard anyone saying they did this, but maybe they do?

          Celia and I were talking around this the other day. Different countries, different habits.

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