Post by Matt, Information Services staff
Welcome to 12 Cookbooks! In this series, I read, cook from, and lightly review twelve cookbooks from Kitchener Public Library’s extensive collection. Every month I pick a book, make some food, and share my experiences. Let’s get cooking!
After last month’s successful foray into Chinese-American cooking, I was excited to try something new. But what could possibly live up to those amazing dumplings? The only solution was to do something completely different, something so removed from the same palate that it satisfied a whole different set of cravings and taste buds. It had to be dessert.
When I started coming up with the structure of 12 Cookbooks, I knew that I wanted to practice my baking. Even before 2020 I loved to bake bread, cookies, pies, and other desserts, but I’ve never really messed around with cake. Why would I? Global pandemic aside, I don’t have kids, my family isn’t big on celebrations, and my partner grew up eating giant cookies on their birthday. But now with February all up in our business? I refuse to compromise. It’s cold and miserable outside, stressful and confining inside, and all I want to do is learn to bake some cake. So that’s what I’m going to do. That’s why, this month, I decided to read and review Christina Tosi’s All About Cake.
All About Cake | Christina Tosi | Clarkson Potter/Publishers | 287 pages | 2018
Tosi is an American pastry chef and the founder of Milk Bar, a world-famous chain of bakeries and dessert-focused restaurants that sell cakes and other desserts with her unique visual aesthetic and flavour sensibilities. All About Cake is her newest cookbook. Beyond my need to learn all about cake, I chose it because it has widely varied recipes, detailed instructions and attractive photos. Flipping through, I quickly decided that I wanted to make (and eat) all of these cakes!
But I had to start somewhere. I settled on making “Burnt Miso Pound Cake” because it sounded interesting, risky, and I had just bought a tub of miso for last month’s cooking that was begging to be used up. For anyone like me who is new to this Asian cooking staple, miso is a strong-smelling paste made of fermented soybeans that is often used to add a salty richness or umami flavour to all sorts of soups, gravies and sauces. Burned and tossed into a cake though? I was doubtful. Despite my reservations, I moved forward and started weighing ingredients, baking the miso until it hardened and turned black, and blending or mixing the wet and dry elements together until I had a thick, slightly orange batter.
As a side note, I made two choices that diverged from the recipe as written: I used all-purpose flour instead of cake flour and strained the wet ingredients to remove the largest remaining flecks of burnt miso before baking. With hindsight, I know I made the right decision. The all-purpose flour didn’t hinder my cake’s rise or consistency to any noticeable degree and the extra straining made up for the inability of my blender to completely grind down the tough burnt miso, which I think saved the texture of the end result.
After baking and resting the cake for over an hour and a half, it was complete and surprisingly tasty! The miso added a rich, dense body to the sweetness of the pound cake that was very similar to corn bread, but with a softer texture. Accompanied by a scoop of ice cream and lemon sauce, it was amazingly delicious.
Next, I was ready to tackle a bigger challenge. All About Cake features sections about three larger styles of cake: bundt cakes, sheet cakes and layer cakes. Bundt cakes require a special doughnut-shaped bundt pan to make, and layer cakes are impressive and tall, but incredibly complicated, multi-day affairs that require cake collars and acetate sheets, as well as other specialized equipment that I don’t have. As I read further, I also discovered that layer cakes are just sheet cakes cut into circles and stacked on top of each other! After processing this shameful secret, I decided to make an “Inside-Out Chocolate-Yellow Sheet Cake” instead.
I don’t quite understand why it’s ‘inside out,’ but it looked tasty and I like chocolate cake so I started baking. Even with the relatively simpler sheet cakes, there are a lot of elements to create. I spent some time on a Sunday making yellow cake mix frosting, fudge sauce and yellow cake mix crumbs to sprinkle on top. Now the crumbs and fudge sauce went as expected, but the frosting was nearly a disaster…
Firstly, I don’t own a stand mixer. Nearly every recipe in this book relies on the mechanical power of a mixer to vigorously beat ingredients together over pretty long spans of time. Instead, I had to use a wooden spoon and beat already softened butter and sugar together for over twenty minutes until I had a functional frosting. It was a total arm workout and the result was still not as creamy and smooth as a mechanically mixed batch. Secondly, the frosting called for a stream of whole milk to be added slowly until it emulsified (see January’s post for a definition). I still don’t know exactly what happened, but as I went to start pouring my milk, I decided to double check my measurements: my kitchen scale said 85 grams, but when I checked by volume, it was nearly double what was called for! Perhaps my scale was faulty, the measurement in the book was off, or maybe I accidentally bought magical super-light milk from the grocery store, but something went horribly wrong. Thankfully I caught my mistake and didn’t have to redo the frosting entirely.
The next day I baked and assembled the cake itself. Remember how I mentioned needing a stand mixer? I definitely needed a stand mixer. In fact, I gave myself a blister and a sore wrist trying to mix things together by hand and still couldn’t work out all of the tiny pockets of flour and cocoa powder. As I started to assemble the baked cakes, another type of challenge presented itself: my decorating skills are severely lacking.
From bottom to top, the finished dessert started with a layer of cake, then fudge sauce, crumbs, icing, another cake, more icing and the remaining crumbs. As you can see, my problems started at the first layer of icing. I’ve never been a particularly dextrous or delicate person, and I’m quickly learning that spreading things across a surface is my baking Achilles’ heel. However, I carried on and finished the assembly before letting the cake sit in the freezer overnight to set. Once the rough edges were chopped off the next morning, it actually looked pretty good!
And it tasted excellent. The cake was fluffy and bursting with chocolate-flavour, the fudge was syrupy and soaking into the bottom layer of cake, the crumbs were buttery, crunchy and sprinkled throughout every bite, and the frosting, well, the frosting was alright. It was a little thick and it had a bit too much salt, but these were flaws only I could see; my partner thoroughly enjoyed it and was surprised when I explained that it didn’t turn out perfectly. In the end, it was a good cake. I divided it into thirds and had plenty to eat, to give away and to freeze for later.
As for All About Cake, I have mixed feelings. The recipes are varied, interesting and taste great. Tosi provides a blend of easier, entry-level pound, bundt and even slow-cooker cakes alongside more difficult or complex cake bites, sheet cakes and layer cakes. However, it’s important to note that this blend is weighted heavily towards some categories over others; if you love cake bites, this book is for you, but any bundt fanatics will feel a bit scorned. Also, this book loves to do what I call nested recipes, which has you turning to page 79 to make a sauce and then to page 130 to make some frosting and back again, etc. As an organizational tool, I’m sure it works great, but it can hide the true time and effort that’s required for a recipe. So beware!
Finally, the most important drawback to this book is that it’s written based on assumptions.
All About Cake assumes we have a stand mixer, cake collars and other specialized equipment. It assumes we have fridge or freezer space to fit a monitor-sized cake. It assumes we have money to buy the ingredients (Butter is expensive, y’all…) and the time to bake a cake over 2-3 days. It never provides alternatives to these assumptions. Maybe that’s asking too much of a cookbook, but I think it’s important to mention for anyone interested in learning ‘all about cake’ like I was. These are the hidden costs.
As much as it claims to be, I don’t believe this book is for beginners. So if you’ve dabbled in cake before and feel confident in your skills or kitchen equipment – check this one out. But if you’re a newly lapsed pie-person looking to learn about the mysteries of the sugar bread they call cake, please, save your wrists and avoid the blisters, maybe take a look at some of these books instead:
- The Perfect Cake | The Editors at America’s Test Kitchen
- Simple Cake | Odette Williams
- The Big Book of Amazing Cakes | Paul Hollywood, Prue Leith and more
- Step-by-Step Cakes | Caroline Bretherton
Join us next month when I make sandwiches and call it ‘cooking’ with The Banh Mi Handbook by Andrea Quynhgiao Nguyen!