Cooking is like singing in the shower, you can go with the flow — butcher a classic melody, mix your own mash-ups, add a dash of whatever nonsense that pops into your head, and enjoy it immensely despite or because of the improvisational process. With a bit of experience, dishes can be tweaked to work out in the end no matter how they seem to go awry in the beginning. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again, but a broken mayonnaise can be mended, an under-seasoned stew can be salvaged, and as a last resort, there are few things that a good hot sauce can’t fix, or at least distract with its ungodly mix of pain and pleasure. I don’t actually endorse this particular solution, but I have experienced the spice-and-salt-them-to-oblivion maneuver in play at reputedly respectable establishments. The point is, in savory cuisine, the course of a recipe can often be adjusted midstream to avoid an imminent disaster or to accommodate a stroke of inspiration.
This luxury of flexibility has made the transition from cooking to pastry making particularly difficult for me, a tepid paragon of the commitment- and planning-averse. In the not too distant past, I have started mixing a batter only to find that there’s not a lick of butter or a drop of cream in the house. Even after the formula has been calculated and measured, there’s little room for mistakes or mind changing. There are no batter band-aids, an over-beaten cream, some untempered eggs, and that’s the end of that, better cake next time. As I accumulated tales of utter mishap, a basic grammar of baking began to take shape.
Pastries are constructed like words. Butter, eggs, and milk are sticky vowels that bind the gritty consonants of flour, cocoa, and sugar. All other traces of flavoring like vanilla, fruit, and spices are small but important accents that anchor the pastry to a time and place in our memories. The most crude of recipes (cake mix) boils down to combining the wet and the dry into the gooey, but if you’re trying to exert any sense and control over the process, it pays to break the word down to its syllables.
The simplest sponge cake is composed of three syllables. The first beat is the slow flow of yolk and sugar creamed together; the second is a puff of sifted flour; finally there is a lift from a cloud of egg white meringue. Egg, sugar, and flour are not just thrown together in a garbled mess, but carefully formed into separate morphemes before being assembled into the well-structured word, ready to be popped into the oven to arise golden. The sponge cake serves as the base of many patisserie classics — from the multi-layered opera cake to the glistening entremets — a part of the vocabulary of pastry chefs who not only form syllables into words, but then craft those words into poetry (granted not all poetry is good poetry; the spectrum ranges from painfully saccharine to subtly magical).
For a baker of humbler literary aspirations, a few grace notes and accents will do: citrus and a touch vanilla for traditionalists; miso and a hint of cedar smoke for modernists; caraway and a sprinkling of rose water for the medievalists. Even a simple word can be imbued with much character — it all depends on how you say it.
If you have any comments, suggestions, questions, or other tasty tidbits, contact DuanDuan at SnackBar.Kitchen@gmail.com.
Orange Blossom Seed Cake
for two 3-inch cakes
1 large egg yolk
45g sugar, plus some for dusting
pinch of salt
pinch of caraway seeds
½ tbsp poppy seeds
zest of 1 lime, two pinches aside for topping
dash of orange blossom water to taste
½ tbsp mead or any other sweet wine
35g flour (preferably cake, but all-purpose works), sifted
1 egg white
Preheat oven to 360°F. Line two 3-inch round forms with parchment paper and place on lined baking sheet. Alternatively, use mini cake pans or cupcake forms.
Whisk the yolk and sugar together till pale and smooth (not unlike thick mayonnaise). Mix in all remaining ingredients except flour and egg white.
Fold in flour in three additions. For a tender cake, do not over-mix. Beat egg white to stiff peak stage, then fold into batter gently in two additions.
Pour into lined forms and bake for 10–15 minutes, till the toothpick test inserted in the center comes out clean. Sprinkle sugar and zest on top for texture and fragrance. Let cool before serving.
The formula makes a mildly sweet cake that goes well with sweet wines like mead and Moscato, or more traditionally, with port and Madeira. For a sweeter cake that pairs better with bitter cups of tea and coffee, use up to 60g of sugar in the recipe.