How to Improvise a Cake

I really like baking (and also eating baked goods), and often my desire for cake outmatches the ingredients I have on hand. Consequently, I have developed a loose system for baking cakes out of whatever you got. And, after years of being lazy and broke, I’ve gotten pretty good at it. Today I made rosemary-mint-chocolate cupcakes, and so I thought I’d share my cake template.

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Listen, I know photos can’t communicate taste, but trust me, they turned out delicious.

First, a disclaimer. This method is going to make people who take a butterknife to smooth the tops of their precise cups of flour angry. It’s sloppy, variable, and could easily produce bricks instead of food. It’s based on understanding the principles of baking rather than following them scientifically and accurately, because it’s engineered to work with limited materials and quantities. Nothing is measured, ratios are approximate. That said, it’s really only failed me once or twice, and I’ve successfully adapted it to make waffles, pancakes, muffins and a dragon. It makes pretty lame scones, though.

that's another story for another time, but unfortunately, all the pictures are this bad or worse.

that’s another story for another time, but unfortunately, all the pictures are this bad or worse.

Ok, so, this cake mix works on a three tier system: goop, fluid and dust. In this particular iteration, the fluid comes first, because it has to cool before it mixes with the goop (otherwise it would cook the eggs. It’ll all make sense in a minute).

This is where the main flavour of the cake comes from. Today, we have a variety of leftover Christmas chocolates, plus something out of the freezer that turned out to have melted smarties in it. Your guess is as good as mine. I’ve also used Easter eggs, chocolate chips, chocolate bars from a vending machine, and nutella.

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almond creme? who wants that?

almond creme? who wants that?

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A job for a giant knife

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Chop ’em up, and add water (which helps dissolve the chocolate completely. just don’t add more water than chocolate), and milk (or cream, or Baileys, creamer, soy milk, almond milk, etc. I have a theory that powdered non-dairy mixed with a little more water would also probably work). Add some form of oil. If the flavour of your cake is strong enough, olive oil will be fine and disappear into the mix. I’m using, uh, coconut grease, I think that’s what it’s called. Microwave for like 30 seconds and mix. If’n you’re making chocolate stout cake, don’t add the milk, but also don’t nuke the beer. Leave your mix to cool.

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I like to imagine that Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs are something like this.

there! that's how you make gross hot chocolate.

there! that’s how you make gross hot chocolate.

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Flavours come in two, uh, flavours: water and fat soluble. Dissolving your flavour into the fluid allows it to be evenly dispersed into the batter, and also makes them taste better when they’re done cooking. The water and oil also help make the cake moist (I know that word makes people cringe, but I’d rather have moist cake than damp cake).

Up next, goop. Start with butter or margarine, although coconut grease would probably work, and in an emergency I did this with straight canola oil. I’m using salted margarine, and if it was unsalted I would add about a teaspoon-ish of salt. Then, mix in your sugar. I like to use brown sugar, but white sugar, granulated sugar, and crushed jaggery or panela also work. I don’t know about icing sugar, or corn syrup, but I bet you could use them to crank out something cake-like. Remember that Christmas chocolates are sweeter than baking chocolate, so you might not need as much as you expect. If you’re making pancakes or waffles, you only need about a tablespoon, but for cakes and muffins it’s a little under a cup.

Breakfast of champions

Breakfast of champions

Don't that look delicious?

Don’t that look delicious?

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The next step is gonna depend on how many eggs you have, and whether or not you eat eggs, but two is usually enough. Here’s a guide to egg substitutes, of which I have only ever used ground flaxseed and soymilk-and-lemon-juice curds. I also add a bunch of cocoa powder because it’s hydrophobic, but mixes just fine into the margarine.

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That doesn’t look dark enough

that's better

that’s better

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This mixture is all about dissolving the sugar in fat, and then the eggs are gonna bind the flour and help capture CO2 bubbles, making the cake fluffy. But more on that in a minute. Now, mix your gross hot chocolate into the goo. Make sure it’s cooled.

Remember how I was talking about fat-soluble flavour? Well, I kind of forgot about adding the spices to the goo. I’m using finely crushed rosemary and mint leaves, sieved to get the twigs out, and then I added a splash of oil and just mixed them on the surface. I usually use mint extract, but today all I had was dried mint leaves. Not a bad trade, though.

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The mortar and pestle look real nice, but are actually just barely functional.

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Those who like justice and those who like cake should see neither being made

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Okay, now, there are 6009 types of wheat flour, and an estimated 340,983 types of culinary flour total*. I like a mix of all-pupose flour and brown flour, although I’ll use more grainy flour or flours in muffins or pancakes. In deserts, I wouldn’t use more than 45% brown flour. Add your flour in stages so that you can get the right viscosity, which should be sort of a pudding-from-a-pudding-cup texture. You can sift it, if you want. I never do, and it seems to work okay. When you’re adding the last of your flour, add some baking soda and baking powder. In a two-egg chocolate cake, that’s about 1 and 1/2 teaspoons of baking soda and less than 1/2 a teaspoon of baking powder. Mix well, but don’t go nuts; if you beat it smooth it will be more dense because the air escapes from the mix. I usually taste this to make sure the flavours are balanced. This is your last chance to add sugar, oil, water or flour.

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As you can see by the empty jar, that is literally all of my white flour.

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This was too runny, and the sweetness wasn’t grounded by starch. Time to add some brown flour.

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That actually looked like too much at the time, but it worked out.

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Much better

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This is where everything comes together. The bubbles that make the cake fluffy come from the baking powder, which contains chemicals that become both an acid and a base when mixed with water, which then react. Baking soda, or sodium bicarbonate, is  a base that will react with the slightly acidic batter. Both these reactions create salt and CO2, which is then trapped in a protein matrix of gluten from the wheat flour and eggs. This is why gluten-free and vegan baking have a reputation for being dense. It’s not deserved, and if you don’t think so, try some of the recipes over at the post-punk kitchen before your totally wrong opinion embarrasses you. You can also check out some flour options here.

Bake at 350 degrees for around 15-20 minutes. The heat will denature the proteins, fixing them into a solid position, which is another part of why protein is essential to baking.

Turns out it makes 18 cupcakes! and they’re great. They rose nicely, and the rosemary and mint are present but not overpowering.

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All my baking inspires a moment of panic before I know if my strategies have paid off.

I feel like I should add another disclaimer that I’ve been baking since I was three, and these things take practice. You get a feel for viscosity, ratios and flavour balance, and that usually comes from following recipes and substituting one ingredient at a time, like independent variable in an experiment that must be tested independently. Still, I feel like the idea of freehanding a recipe needs more support, because lots of recipes don’t exist yet.

If you liked this you should also check out Kenji Alt-Lopez’s Food Lab (his piece on baking soda and baking powder changed my life), and also you might like the show Good Eats, which is piratable at all major internet outlets.

*I made this up, but I’m pretty sure it’s true.

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About Jesse Conlang

Jesse Conlang lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he has trained squirrels to operate pens and pencils at his whim. You can probably tell that by the quality of the work.
This entry was posted in Cooking and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to How to Improvise a Cake

  1. Pingback: How Not To Improvise A Cake: a meditation on failure | Blindfish Industries

  2. Pingback: Taking a Step Back | Blindfish Industries

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