I want danger. I prefer the threat of disaster to the slick smugness of a recipe. I ignore rules. Unfortunately, baking is all about rules.
My attempts to have my cake – and eat it – continue
Today I’m going to solve a cake. It’s my third run on this vexing mission and I’ve already decided the cake will be perfect, not because the third time’s a charm, but because I’ve already made every possible error. There’s no recipe to follow and therefore no recipe to ignore. The first and second trials were a miserable wash, like when you’re filling out a crossword puzzle and realise, two clues away from freedom, that you had hastily scribbled in wrong answers for 17 down and 44 across and those mistakes created a chain of reactions that cannot be undone, because you were overconfident and didn’t use a pencil. Baking is a lot like that.
The cake in question is a green tea roulade with a cream cheese filling that I tasted a year ago at a Taiwanese-style bakery in Arcadia, California. It was the ethereal texture of the thing that hooked me. At first I wasn’t sure what to think; it reminded me of floral wet foam, the weird green fluff used in flower arrangements. Then I realised the cake had been steamed and imagined it levitating in mid-air inside a commercial oven like the divine creation it was. It was a structurally dense but weightless melt-away that tasted like it had been made from clouds and steeped in the essence of green tea. I ate it reverently, almost ceremoniously, like it was the purest taste I would ever know.
Whoever was first to use the phrase “a piece of cake”, without irony, to denote simplicity – well, let’s just say that the image of punching down dough rises to mind.
In her wonderful book An Everlasting Meal, Tamar Adler describes the ease and elegance of a rosemary cake. “There are no layers or frosting; nothing to crack or leak.” As someone who generally bypasses sweets but enjoys hosting a thorough meal, the quiet luxury of a simple dessert should appeal to me. But never one to heed sound logic such as Adler’s, the success I’ve had with keeping things uncomplicated is more likely due to a lack of coordination than a lack of ambition. In my version of paradise, the phrase “soup to nuts” would mean that more of us could feel satisfied with a postprandial offering of pecans and cheese.
Given a situation where dessert is expected, such as a dinner party, it’s not unusual for me to greet guests with a pulse rate of 180bpm and eyebrows frosted in powdered sugar. For some of us, all baking is blind baking. Though it never fails to inspire me to aim high on the scale of bad ideas, the fact that baking can provide refuge for those who love it is as marginally conceivable for my personality as running a marathon.
If I have to follow rules, darn it, I want danger. Preferring the threat of disaster to the slick smugness of a recipe, I ignore rules – and baking is all about rules. No-knead recipes for the bread-dumb read like remedial English for the fluent. We get the rules; we just refuse to do the work. It doesn’t help that I live at 2,000 metres above sea level. At this altitude, things behave differently and many recipes require adjustments. But maybe – just maybe – in infeasibility lies the feast.
Nouf Al-Qasimi is an Emirati food analyst who cooks and writes in New Mexico