Monday, January 28, 2008

Jam Crumb Cake: First Attempt

My initial intention was to publish the full story about this in one entry. However, it's spinning out rather longer than I anticipated, so I'm going to "serialize" it to avoid having a painfully long post.

I tried to make a recipe from a magazine, and it failed utterly. As in vastly undercooked, woefully overtopped, horribly overleavened failed. It was really heartbreaking. This recipe looked so tempting, so alluring. The batter tasted amazing—perfectly balanced, clearly it was destined to be an outstanding finished product. In my experience if the raw batter tastes good, you’re golden.

And yet, there was something that nagged at me as a made the topping. When I scattered it on, it filled up half the pan. That didn’t look right. In the picture the topping didn’t completely obliterate what was underneath it—the underneath peeped out coyly, giving a glimpse of the glorious within. But I decided that this was a magazine of long standing, with top notch recipe developers, so I would forage ahead and assume that they knew best.

As the oven door shut, I nearly clapped my little hands with joy and anticipation. In a mere 25 minutes, I would be reveling in my concoction. I could hardly wait.

And then I started to smell The Smell. That acrid, black-brown smell that can only mean one thing. I opened the oven door and sure enough, the batter was oozing out of the pan, over the sides, and down onto the cookie sheet that was (thank God) on the bottom rack of the oven. The outer edge was foaming and frothing like a rabid raccoon, while the center looked to be serenely untouched by the surrounding heat.

I shut the oven door and said a little prayer, hoping that a miracle would occur in the next 12 minutes, and perhaps it would work out after all. Or maybe the face of the Blessed Virgin would be visible when the timer went off, and I’d be able to auction it on eBay.

To make a long story short (too late), I was bitterly disappointed. Not only was the resulting goo undercooked in the middle and overflowing its banks around the edge, but there wasn’t even a suggestion of the Blessed Virgin. Not even an apostle! The thing was a complete and utter failure. I tasted part of the outside cooked part, and it had potential; it wasn’t a complete throw away (well, that one was, but the recipe itself wasn’t).

And so, like a heartbroken girl at the end of a bad relationship, I went over in my mind everything I’d done, torturing myself with what I could have done differently, how I could have saved it. The two things that sprung to mind were the baking powder and the topping—next time I’m halving the topping, end of discussion. The baking powder, however, is a discussion in itself.

Many years ago I read Edna Lewis’s A Taste of Country Cooking, in which she proclaimed (correctly) that commercial double acting baking powders leave behind a metallic and often overly-salty unpleasant taste in baked goods. Having noticed this myself, I took to heart her recommendation that homemade single-acting baking powder was a cheap luxury, and one worth having.

It was some years before I went ahead and made my own according to her recipe of 1 part baking soda to 2 parts cream of tartar. I had one interestingly similar experience to the present one with some blueberry muffins just about the time I made the first batch. Since then, however, I have made many, many baked things with my homemade baking powder (including a lemon cake that took two days to make) and never had a problem.

And then I ran out of baking powder. And then I made another batch. And then this overflowing thing happened again.

About the only thing I can think of is that maybe I didn’t mix the two ingredients well enough, and there was too much baking soda in what I used. According to my research this could have caused the Mount Vesuvius result I achieved, except that there were no acidic ingredients in the batter. From what I’ve read, it’s an acidic component (such as buttermilk or yogurt), combined with the heat of the oven, that causes the chemical reaction that produces the carbon dioxide bubbles to form.

So I’m a bit stumped. But I am determined! This recipe is too good to let get away. I will reduce the amount of topping. I will remix my baking powder. I will tinker with the amount of baking powder. I will prevail! I will not be beaten down by a Jam Crumb Cake!

1 comment:

Bailey said...

Hello -
I am a filmmaker in Atlanta. I read your latest blog with the mention of Edna Lewis and her recipes.

I just wanted to let you know I produced a 21 minute documentary about Miss Edna Lewis and its viewable in its entirety on Internet at a Gourmet Magazine website:

and at a Georgia Public Broadcasting website:

My documentary is called Fried Chicken and Sweet Potato Pie.

My website, has more information about the film and the story of Miss Lewis.

Bailey Barash