Monday, November 12, 2007

Booze: good for cakes

As I previously mentioned, I was in NY this past weekend. My mom's birthday was on Friday, so I made her a cake that used the flavors of my mango kulfi cupcakes.

I used a recipe for a white cake from Cook's Illustrated, which is my favorite cooking magazine because they test recipes in a very scientific manner. Therefore, I figured that their white cake recipe would be the best one out there.

I followed the recipe exactly as written (or so I thought), but my cake turned out more dense and dry than I expected. Overall, my family loved the cake, but my brother did point out that it was dense. Now, there's nothing wrong with a dense cake, but I didn't want my cake to be dense. I was upset by this, because 1) I am a perfectionist, 2) I consider myself to be an advanced baker (I've been baking for nearly 20 years - wow, I'm old), and 3) I worked long and hard on making the cake look perfect (the cake itself didn't take long to make, but I made a wonderful Alphonso meringue buttercream frosting for the cake and I took a great deal of care to frost the cake perfectly with it).

On the drive back to Baltimore, I contemplated what went wrong with the cake. The answer hit me somewhere along the 50-cent-per-minute drive through Delaware: I didn't add enough alcohol. (BTW, it takes 14 minutes to drive through Delaware from NJ to MD and the toll is $7 - literally highway robbery.)

Alcohol in cakes? Yes, my friends, there is a decent amount of alcohol in a white cake, and I, in a moment of scientific ineptitude, forgot about this.

The Cooks Illustrated recipe calls for 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract and 1 teaspoon of almond extract. I didn't want to add those flavors to my cake (as I was adding cardamom powder and saffron), so I only added 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract. Here's my error: I didn't add any other liquid to make up the 2 3/4 teaspoons that I omitted. This may seem trivial, but any scientist/baker knows that even a slight change in a recipe will result in an altered cake. And I am 99% sure that this omission destroyed my cake. (1% of me thinks that the temperature of my parents' oven was off, but their oven is awesome, so I'm pretty sure the temperature wasn't the reason for my cake's density.)

Tonight, I decided to make the cake again and to stick to the exact recipe. But how could I do this if I was cutting down on the amount of extracts? Easy - substitute plain vodka for the omitted extracts.

This time around, instead of adding just 1/4 teaspoon of vanilla extract, I added 1/4 teaspoon of vanilla extract and 1 tablespoon of Absolut vodka. The vodka is 40% alcohol (as compared to vanilla/almond extract's 35%); the extra 1/4 teaspoon of alcohol is negligible because the increased percentage of alcohol of the vodka ultimately results in less water in the batter. (I hope that made sense.)

The result: the cake I wanted. It was light, fluffy, moist, and, quite frankly, the best cake I have ever eaten. It was a major improvement from the dense and slightly dry cake I had made a few days earlier.

The lesson (which I should have known by now from my many years of work in a molecular biology lab): when you remove one ingredient, you must substitute an equal or very similar ingredient. In this case, I had to replace the alcohol that the large volume of extracts added, and vodka was the perfect substitute because it is flavorless and almost the same proof as extracts.

Lesson learned: booze is good for your cakes.


kristen said...

sweetie, booze is good for everything!

K8teebug said...

I recently purchased The New Best American Recipes, and it is quickly becoming one of my favorite cookbooks. I heart Cook's Illustrated.

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