Breaking the Baking Rules: Baking with the Senses

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For years, Jerrelle Guy baked without a scale, choosing instead to rely on her senses to know when batters and dough were just right. In this precise art, the fun is found by feeling your way through.

Rules and precision aren’t naturally my thing. I’m a hypersensitive baker, preferring to get lost in the smells and textures of food and the sizzling sounds they make while boiling in a saucepan or roasting under an oven’s coil. So in this way, I’m not the baker you might expect; I’ve never studied under some tough-as-nails patissier in France to survive and tell the tale, and I also have really hot hands, a curse when trying to work cold butter into flour before it turns to mush.

But my grandmother was a resilient baker—resourceful, intuitive and smart, and the thing that just recently dawned on me is that she never used a kitchen scale. Yet every Sunday her biscuits were spot-on, so tender and ready to be split to lie beneath a hard scramble of peppered eggs. May she rest in peace.

Learning How the Food Works

After realizing that, I started to appreciate how much of the baking process is learning the way the food and ingredients should behave—the proper thickness of a yellow cake batter when my spoon is lifted, the smell of fruit when it’s ripe enough to bake, the correct tackiness of dough for the bread or pastry I’m kneading—and how to set these things right if they’re not already. It’s something that just comes with years of practice—and failure.

Second-Guessing vs. Risking Ruin

I’d never even thought about getting a scale until I wanted to start baking for other people: my fluky cookie business post-graduation, and when I agreed to write a cookbook. I froze up, started second-guessing myself, wondering whether everything I made had a texture that would please the baking gods. But boy, I tell you, life before those times was heavenly, and I was happily munching away at whatever unmeasured, off-the-cuff pie I threw together, and friends and family close enough to steal a slice would rave.

While there definitely are tips I’ve lifted from books and YouTube videos that help me understand why a cake collapsed or made my mouth pucker (too much baking soda, perhaps?), part of me enjoys making a fool of myself on the first go-round while botching a batch of whatever recipe it is I’ve dared to change and ruin. It is a moment of masochism that has made room for big waves of happiness and pride to flood in when it does come out perfectly and I’ve invented something new.

Going Beyond the Recipe

For many desserts, a recipe can only do so much anyway. Flour, eggs, ovens—they can all be so persnickety, can’t they? I remember my first time trying to whip egg whites into lush meringue. It was a disaster. I spent weeks trying to get “silky stiff peaks”—whatever that meant. It wasn’t until I failed close to 10 times, and moved away from the balmy Texas air, that I understood what silky, stiff peaks actually were, what they felt like on my fingers and roughly how long my beater had to run until they got there.

I will offer you all the exact weight measurements I use, but I also encourage you to stop along the way to savor the sounds, colors, textures and smells that I noticed while writing them all down. For me, that’s all the fun.

How to Make My Chocolate, Chocolate Veneer Cake

Chocolateveneercake CopyCourtesy Jerrelle Guy

I don’t have a big taste for icings, especially sugar-saturated ones that are dense. For the most part, I like my cakes unembellished, served underneath a dollop of cold whipped cream. I’m sure I got this attitude from my mother, who wasn’t into decorated cakes either. She craved a simple devil’s food cake, baked from the box, warm, with a large scoop of nearly melted vanilla ice cream. I decided to keep this icing fluffy, cold, thin and just sweet enough.

For the cake:

  • 2 cups (240 grams) white whole wheat flour
  • 2⁄3 cup (160 grams) cocoa powder
  • 1-1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1-1/4 cups (250 grams) sugar
  • 1 cup (235 mL) buttermilk
  • 1/2 cup (120 mL) canola or vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon (15 mL) vanilla extract
  • 1 cup (235 mL) hot coffee

For the icing:

  • 1 cup (175 grams) dairy-free semisweet chocolate chips, melted
  • 3 tablespoons (42 grams) coconut oil
  • 1 can (15 ounces) coconut cream, chilled in the refrigerator overnight
  • Fresh berries, optional

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350° and have two 8- or 9-inch greased cake pans lined with parchment nearby. Place a metal mixing bowl in the freezer.
  2. Stir together flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a bowl.
  3. In a separate bowl, whisk sugar, buttermilk, oil and vanilla until smooth. Sift the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients, and fold them together gently to combine until almost completely blended, being careful not to overmix. Pour in coffee, whisking to combine.
  4. Divide batter between cake pans and bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, 25-30 minutes. Remove cakes from oven and allow to cool for 10 minutes. Remove from pans to wire racks to cool completely.
  5. In a small cup, mix melted chocolate and coconut oil together until silky. Let cool to room temperature. Remove coconut cream from refrigerator and, being careful not to shake it, flip it upside down and open can from bottom. Discard unsolidified liquid, keeping thick cream at the top. Scoop coconut cream into cold metal bowl. With a handheld mixer, beat coconut cream until fluffy, then slowly drizzle in melted chocolate, continuing to beat until cream gets stiff. Place bowl in refrigerator to chill for 20 minutes.
  6. When cakes are completely cool, place 1 upside down on a cake stand or large serving plate so top is completely flat. Spread one-quarter of icing over top, then add second layer on top of icing. Finish frosting the top and sides with remaining icing. Top with fresh berries if desired.

This essay is from Jerrelle Guy’s Black Girl Baking cookbook, published by Page Street Publishing Co. In it, she suggests vegan, as well as egg-, dairy- and gluten-free variations to many of her recipes, making it a good introduction to those baking techniques. You can read more on her blog, chocolateforbasil.com.

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