“Can we just make something up?”
My son and I were standing in the kitchen chatting before our guests arrived.
“Well yeah, but you probably wouldn’t want to just throw a bunch of stuff in a dish and bake it –”
He cut me off: “Oh I know — you would want to know what the different ingredients do first.”
This little conversation got me thinking about our recipe-less baking lesson for the day. We really wouldn’t be winging it — it would be more structured than that. It would be more like one of those “Choose Your Own Adventure” books that my kids enjoy: “If you choose scenario A, then turn to page X…”
“You guys have baked a lot of things so far. And even though you’ve used the same ingredients over and over, the products have been very different.”
Together, they identified the familiar ingredients on the table: “flour, sugar, butter, eggs, baking powder, baking soda, salt…and vanilla!”
“So what makes the end result so different if the ingredients are mostly the same?”
“How much of an ingredient you put in? Like maybe something more in a cake. Or something?”
“Yeah. Remember when we made ganache and talked about ratios? A ratio tells how much there is of one thing in comparison to something else. So if we wanted to make truffles with a ratio of 2 parts chocolate to 1 part cream, how much cream would we need if we had 1 pound of chocolate?”
“One-half of a pound?”
“Right. And say we wanted to make a ginormous batch of truffles and we had one hundred pounds of chocolate. How much cream would we need?”
We looked at a chart I had drawn up that morning that showed some time tested ratios for batters and doughs.
“Pie dough is known as 3-2-1 dough because it is made from about three parts flour to two parts fat and one part liquid. Now compare that to the ratios for a biscuit or scone, which are made the same way — by cutting the butter into the flour; those ratios are about three parts flour to one part fat and two parts liquid.”
“Oh, I see! Like the pancakes, they have the same amount of flour and eggs as a muffin, but there is just more liquid. Oh, and a little less fat.”
I explained that the ratios I had listed were very general, and that specific recipes are built from those ratios.
“Recipes are just ratios that somebody has adjusted to their own liking. There’s no reason you couldn’t change a recipe to your own liking, provided you didn’t mess with the ratios too much — you’d still want a cake to look like a cake and not a soupy pudding. If you know what the function of the ingredients are, there’s no reason you couldn’t just make up your own recipe.”
Which is what we would be doing. It would be a simple cake. But I suggested that we have a plan to work towards.
“These are the fruits that are in season right now.”
There was immediate talk about lemon. Then tangerine. Somebody pointed out the blood oranges and I mentioned that my son and I had talked earlier of an upside-down blood orange cake. A couple of the kids really seized on that idea. There was also a suggestion of a blood orange layer cake with frosting, “maybe pink?”, that we had to reject because of time constraints. After some additional chatter about icings, we returned to the upside-down cake idea.
We looked at our chart again. The ratio for a cake was 1:1:1:1, flour to fat to sugar to egg.
“This ratio would produce a pound cake.”
Now pound cakes are delicious, but we wanted something a bit less dense. We would definitely need to tinker.
“Flour and egg whites are the protein ingredients. They provide the structure for the cake, while sugar and fat weaken the structure. In order to create a cake that will hold itself up yet still be moist and tender we have to have a balanced recipe. What do you think would happen if we had a lot of flour and not much fat?”
“Would the cake be dry?”
“Yeah, it would be dry and crumbly. And if we had way too much fat or sugar?”
This one was harder for them.
“It would be too sweet!”
“Yes, it would be way too sweet, but sugar doesn’t just make things sweet, it also contributes moisture, so the cake might be really wet and soggy inside. So to avoid that, one well-tested formula for this kind of cake would be to make sure the weight of the flour equals the weight of the sugar.”
I suggested we just measure out one and one-half cups of flour, (good for a cake that would serve eight people), and weigh it.
“Seven and one-quarter ounces!”
They used a separate bowl to weigh an equal amount of sugar.
“Now, the weight of the eggs should be about the same weight as the fat.”
We had already decided that we didn’t want a pound cake, so we reduced the amount of butter to a reasonable four ounces, or one stick. Also, convenient.
They cracked two eggs into a bowl on the scale.
“Three and one-half ounces! But that’s not the same as the butter.”
I explained that eggs have two parts: the whites provide structure, but also make baked goods dry, and yolks, which are mostly fat and therefore add moisture and help create a velvety texture.
“So we could add just one yolk. It would bring up the total weight of the eggs to equal that of the butter — actually it would be slightly over, but we don’t need it to be exactly the same.”
“Next, we need the weight of the eggs plus the liquid to be about the same as the sugar.”
I suggested buttermilk just because I like the tanginess of it, but they voted unanimously against that and opted for milk.
“How much did the eggs weigh again?”
“Just under three and a quarter, ” I reminded them.
“So we need about four ounces of milk.”
“We still have to think about leavening.”
We reviewed the differences between baking soda and baking powder. I even poured a little vinegar over some baking soda to remind them how the soda reacted with an acid to create carbon dioxide, which in turn would create bubbles in the cake batter. Those bubbles would grow larger in the the heat of the oven, thereby leavening the cake.
But we had not chosen to use buttermilk, so we would use baking powder instead — one teaspoon per one cup of flour.
“Now sometimes recipes will have both baking powder and baking soda because the amount of soda necessary to react with the acidic ingredient, (one-quarter teaspoon soda per one-half cup of an acid), is not enough to leaven the total amount of batter.”
Finally, we added the flavor enhancers: vanilla, orange zest, and most importantly, salt.
“Baked goods aren’t very tasty without salt. I left it out of some muffins once and how were they?”
My daughter wrinkled up her nose. “Blah.”
We prepared our pan by buttering it, dusting it with flour, then sprinkling some granulated sugar over a round of parchment set in the bottom of the pan.
Then we got to review some knife skills.
The kids each took a turn removing the peel from an orange.
Then we sliced the blood oranges into rounds.
They arranged the brilliant red wheels on top of the sugar in the pan.
Finally it was time to mix the cake.
We creamed the butter with the sugar, salt, and orange zest until it was fluffy, then added the eggs a little at a time.
We had a very conscientious baker on hand who scraped the bowl after every addition.
Milk was added next.
The flour and baking powder came last. We mixed those on the mixer just until there were a few streaks of flour, then we finished mixing it by hand.
They each got to dip just one finger to taste the batter.
We could see lovely red and orange specks of zest in the fluffy batter.
The top of the baked cake was nice and golden, but we were all more interested in seeing the bottom.
It did not disappoint.
“Oooh, so pretty!”
And they all agreed that the cake was delicious and beautiful. And theirs.
Blood Orange Upside-Down Cake
7 oz all purpose flour, (about 1 1/2 c)
1 1/2 t aluminum-free baking powder
4 oz (1 stick) unsalted butter at room temperature
7 oz granulated sugar, plus more for the pan
1/2 t fine sea salt
2 large eggs plus one yolk at room temperature
4 oz whole milk
1 t vanilla extract
zest of one blood orange
several blood oranges to slice
Heat the oven to 350 degrees and butter and flour a 10″ cake pan, preferably springform or one with a removable bottom. Place a round of parchment in the bottom of the pan. Sprinkle about a tablespoon or so of sugar over the parchment and arrange the blood orange slices on top of that.
Whisk the flour and baking powder together and set aside.
With the paddle attachment, cream the butter, sugar, salt, and orange zest together until fluffy. Add the eggs, about one at a time, mixing well then scraping the sides of the bowl with a spatula after each addition. Add the vanilla to the milk and then mix that into the butter and egg mixture. It will look curdled but will smooth out once you add the flour. Add the flour and mix on low until most of the flour is incorporated. Finish mixing by hand until no streaks of flour remain.
Gently spread the batter over the blood orange slices and level it as much as you can.
Bake the cake in the middle of the oven for about 35 – 40 minutes or until the cake is golden brown and springs back when pressed in the center. A toothpick inserted in the middle of the cake will come out with moist crumbs attached.
Cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then remove the sides of the pan, invert the cake, and remove the parchment.
Formulas for cake creations:
Butter = Sugar
Eggs = Fat
Eggs + Liquid = Sugar
1 t baking powder per cup of flour
1/4 t baking soda per cup of flour and 1/2 cup of acidic ingredient