Crumbly Chocolate Christmas Cake

Pat asks: I thought I would try something different and make a chocolate Christmas Cake I found in a novel I was reading… Cakes taste  good, but after a few weeks of aging  in the fridge and some soaking with Kalua it still crumbles when cut. What did I do wrong? Did it cook too long? Or did I use too much flour?  would like to be able to make again if I can fix this problem. Thank you for your time, and Merry Christmas.

Baking S.O.S. says: Well, this is an interesting question…I’m curious what kind of recipe one finds in a novel vs. a cookbook? Is it an old-fashioned recipe, by any chance? (depending on the setting and time period of the novel)

I ask because it is not customary (in this current day and age) to leave cakes in the refrigerator for a “few weeks of aging,” as you said in your message. I suspect the reason your cake is crumbly is not because you baked it too long or used too much flour. Rather, I think it crumbled because it was simply too old and dried out. The maximum amount of time you should keep cake in the frige is probably around 4 days. If you want to store it longer than that, you should store it in the freezer to keep it fresh. Interestingly enough, we might assume that storing cake in the refrigerator would keep it fresher longer, but in fact, the opposite is true: storing cake in the refrigerator actually draws the moisture out of it and makes it dry out faster.

So it sounds like the real problem is that you simply left the cake in the refrigerator too long. Next time, store only the amount of cake that you can eat in 3-4 days in the frige, and put the rest in the freezer to enjoy later.

Hope that helps!

Trouble-shooting Holiday Cookies

Terry says: Hi! I wrote to you last year and asked you about baking cookies and you gave me allot of information.  I decided to try making cookies again and I succeed in making  Snow Balls, Twice Baked Cookies and Thumb Prints.  The recipe that I have for Thumb Prints was baking them for 6 minutes, then taking them out and press my thumb into each one and then put the jelly.  Then bake them for 15 minutes.   That was hard to do because you have to work fast.  Do you have any suggestions?  I also made Horns, a recipe that my sister gave me 55yrs ago and she pass away when she was thirty years old.  I made the Horns but they didn’t come out right.   The dough was very sticky and I had to use a lot of flour.  I don’t know what I did wrong, I need your help.

My husband does not want me to bake because he said it was too much work and I shouldn’t be baking at my age.  I’m 84 years old and I’m enjoying baking all these different type of cookies as long as they taste good. Thank you!

Baking S.O.S. says: Thanks so much for your note! I’m glad to hear you are busy baking holiday cookies again this year. You know that saying, “You’re only as old as you feel”? Well, don’t let anyone tell you that you are too old to bake: as long as you are enjoying it, keep it up!

In answer to your questions about the Thumbprint and Horn cookies, I have to admit that I’m not sure I have ever made either of these types of cookies, so I don’t think I can answer your questions from my own experience.

But I looked up a number of recipes on-line for Thumbprint and Horn cookies, and I have some ideas that I think  might help.

For the Thumbprint cookies, I found several recipes that do not require the 2-step process that you described, where you bake the cookies partially before filling them and baking a second time. The recipes I found say to make the thumbprint impressions and fill them with jam before putting the cookies in the oven–while the dough is completely raw. Then you bake the cookies already filled with jam all the way through. I would suggest that you try this process to make it a little easier. That way, you don’t have to work so fast to try to make the thumbprint impressions while the cookies are partially baked and hot.

For the Horn cookies, this is a little bit trickier because there are a number of different ways to make them, so I’m not sure which process you are following. But I do have a few suggestions to keep them from getting too sticky:

First, you should chill the dough in the refrigerator for several hours or overnight before you try to work with it. This will help cut down on the stickiness of the dough.

Second, when you roll out the dough. place it between 2 pieces of waxed paper with just a small amount of flour to keep the dough from sticking. I find that rolling out dough between pieces of waxed paper really helps so that you don’t have to add too much flour to the dough.

I hope those suggestions will help. Keep up the baking, and keep the questions coming!

Gluten-Free and Vegan Baking: My 2 Cents

As a Chef Instructor who teaches cooking classes to many different audiences, I try to stay abreast of current dietary trends and food preferences so I can accommodate the needs of my clients.

Over the past few years, I have noticed an ever-increasing trend towards gluten-free diets. In order to understand why this is happening, I read lots of articles about the issue. In my research, I have come across a number of different theories as to what could be causing an increased sensitivity to gluten, from GMO (genetically modified) wheat that contains more protein (gluten is one of the proteins found in wheat) so that we can attempt to meet the food needs of an ever-increasing global population, to modernized processing of wheat that makes it harder for our bodies to digest the grain. [I had the pleasure of hearing farmer Joel Salatin speak at a university lecture series, and his explanation made a lot of sense to me.]

It would seem that the research is still unclear as to why there is such an increased prevalence of gluten sensitivity lately, but regardless of the reason, as a Chef, it is my job to cater to my customers’ requests, so I do my best to accommodate those needs.

And herein lies my challenge: Throughout history, baked goods have been made with a few basic ingredients: flour, sugar, butter, eggs. Baking is a science…..all of the ingredients perform a very specific function in recipes. When you start substituting ingredients in recipes, it will have a noticeable difference in the finished product because the ingredients will react differently in the science of baking.

In my experience, I have found that you can make baked goods vegan–meaning they do not use any animal products (such as butter, milk, and eggs). You can also make baked goods gluten-free–without any wheat-based flour.

But to try to make baked goods both vegan and gluten-free is virtually impossible, in my opinion. Once you take away the flour, butter, and eggs and try to add in alternate substitutes, such as gluten-free flours, vegan margarine, flax seed in place of eggs, etc., the science of baking has changed so much that the finished product resembles nothing of the original recipe.

As an example, I attempted to make vegan and gluten-free brownies for a friend recently…..when I took the pan out of the oven, the mixture was actually boiling and bubbling like some kind of black volcanic sludge. It looked completely unappetizing, and it tasted as bad, too. If vegan, gluten-free baked goods don’t taste good, then why bother making them?

The only real solution I have is to simply make a recipe that is already by nature both vegan and gluten-free, such as sorbet, rather than trying to substitute alternative ingredients for the original ingredients in the recipe.

That’s my 2 cents on vegan and gluten-free baking. But if anyone out there has had any success with vegan, gluten-free baking, I would sure love to hear about it. I’m still trying to find something that actually works scientifically AND tastes good, too.

In the meantime, I’m going to stick with using good old-fashioned flour, sugar, butter and eggs in my baked goods. The first thing I learned in culinary school is that “fat tastes good.” And for me, nothing can replace the flavor and texture of butter in baked goods. Mmmmmmm!

Best Chocolate Cake Recipes

Lisa asks: I just don’t seem able to make a chocolate cake that rises and stays risen. I’ve tried buying new baking powder, using my non fan oven and buying an electric device for beating.

I made one yesterday and it seemed to have worked and risen. I put a spike in to test and it came out clean so I took it out of the oven. It then immediately sank and was very dense in the middle.

Any ideas/tips? Many thanks for any advice you can offer.

Baking S.O.S. says: It sounds like you are doing everything right, so the only suggestion I can make is to go back to square one: if the recipe(s) you are making doesn’t turn out the way you want, try a different one.

I always fall back to the real experts, bakers and pastry chefs who have spent their entire careers testing and developing recipes to get the formula just right. When you start with a recipe that you know has been tested to work correctly, then the cake should turn out well when all those other variables have been tested, as well.

My favorite sources are “The Cake Bible” by Rose Levy Beranbaum and Cook’s Illustrated Magazine, which tests every recipe through countless variables and variations to find the perfect results and then publishes only the final winning recipe in the magazine.

You can search Rose’s cake recipes on her blog at the link above, or find one of her chocolate cake recipes here at the Community Food Co-op blog.

Or try Cook’s Illustrated’s Chocolate Layer Cake, posted on the Dallas Morning News website. I will note that in my experience, all my favorite cake recipes contain buttermilk, as this one does, so it should produce a delicious flavor.

I hope one of those recipes will produce better results for you. Good luck!

Baking Powder vs. Baking Soda: How Chemical Leaveners Affect Baked Goods

Shanne asks: I made this recipe (the banana blueberry version) but I substituted buttermilk for the milk.  They ended up tasting like they had a horrible baking soda overload.  I believe that I did not double the baking soda…of course, it is possible but I am generally careful about those things.  Could the buttermilk have caused the baking soda to “over-react”?  I made some other substitutions to the recipe but nothing “chemical” in nature.  (Coconut oil instead of canola, brown rice flour instead of wheat, and ground flax/oat flour instead of oat bran.) I’ve made this recipe before and they were fine.  Also, they “sunk” in the middle this time.   It is so weird as I have never had this happen before in my baking.  I’m very curious to know what caused this.  If it was a momentary “brain cramp” then I know I have to be more careful in the future!

Thank you for your input!

Baking S.O.S. says:  Substituting buttermilk for milk will definitely affect the chemical makeup of the muffin batter. Buttermilk is much more acidic than milk, so it reacts differently with the chemical leaveners in the recipe–the baking soda and baking powder.  And when the chemical reaction is altered, it can create a metallic or bitter taste in your finished product. Also, altering the chemical reaction that causes the product to rise can also cause the product to sink in the middle once it comes out of the oven (as you said your muffins did).

Because buttermilk is acidic, it needs an alkaline leavener–specifically baking soda–to create the chemical reaction that makes a baked good rise.

Baking powder contains both acidic and alkaline ingredients to create chemical leavening all on its own–without any acidic ingredients needed in the recipe.

Since you introduced more acidity into the recipe with buttermilk, you should not need as much baking powder to make the muffins rise. (too much baking powder caused the metallic, bitter taste in this case)

The general rule of thumb for chemical leavening is: use about 1 tsp. of baking powder OR 1/4 tsp. of baking soda per 1 C. of flour in a recipe.

Given that the original recipe calls for oat and wheat brans in place of what would otherwise be flour (for dry ingredients), and since you altered the dry ingredients even further by using different flours and brans, it would be extremely difficult to advise you exactly how much baking soda you would need with all the different substitutions being made. All I can suggest is that you keep trying different variations until you achieve the desired results you are looking for–but expect to encounter several “mishaps” before you find the right combination of ingredients that work.

You could start by eliminating the baking powder all together and see what happens. If that doesn’t make the muffins rise enough, trying adding baking powder back in in smaller amounts–maybe 1/4 tsp. or 1/2 tsp. rather than the full 1 tsp. the recipe calls for.

Good luck with the experimentation!

Baking Cakes without Eggs (or Vegan Baking)

Menakshi asks: I have a problem and am desperately looking for an answer. I am an amateur baker who is trying to bake without eggs. My problem is that my cakes come out of the oven perfect, but after cooling down, they are dense and heavy. I am also selling some cakes, but the general reviews are that they are tasty but hard (not hard as in difficult to cut the cake, but I am guessing what they are trying to say is that they are not as light, fluffy or soft as cakes with eggs). Are eggless cakes suppose to be dense? Is there a solution?

Can you suggest some recipes without eggs?

Baking S.O.S. says: I do not have much experience baking without eggs–I am not a vegan. But luckily, my boss’s sister IS a vegan, and she is also a nationally-famous vegan cookbook author, too.

So I am going to refer you to the Post Punk Kitchen blog where Isa Chandra Moskowitz gives plenty of advice on how to replace eggs in baked goods. She has some good recommendations here, so I would trust the expert vegan baker much more than myself!

Lastly, Isa has an entire cookbook dedicated to vegan cupcake recipes called Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World. I have perused the book, and the recipes look beautiful and delicious, though I have never made any myself. Still, I have it on good authority from my boss that Isa’s recipes are fantastic!  So you could certainly use any of the recipes in the cupcake cookbook to make regular-size cakes.  It is still cake batter–the only difference is the size of the pan you put it in.

Good luck!

Chocolate Truffle Recipe for Valentine’s Day

coated in bittersweet chocolate cocoa or finely chopped, toasted almonds

coated in bittersweet chocolate cocoa or finely chopped, toasted almonds

Last night, I taught a Handmade Chocolates class at the Franklin Park Conservatory as part of their Food Education classes. We made traditional Bittersweet Chocolate Truffles and Chocolate-Dipped Strawberries.

The Handmade Chocolates class is always popular at Valentine’s Day, so in the spirit of the season, I share my recipe for you here. Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

Traditional Chocolate Truffles

Yield: approx. 3-4 dozen truffles

Ingredients
1/3 C. heavy whipping cream
6 Tbls. unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
2 C. (one 12-ounce bag) semi-sweet or dark chocolate chips (I prefer dark or bittersweet chocolate for this recipe)

Coating:
1/3 C. Dutch-processed cocoa powder
OR
1/3 C. almond meal, lightly toasted in a 350-degree oven for 5 minutes

Directions:
1. Place the chocolate chips in a medium stainless steel bowl.
2. Place the cream and butter in a small saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, just until bubbles form around the edges and steam arises from the pan. [This is called “scalding” the cream.]  *Be careful not to let the cream boil—it will spill over the edge of the pan!
3. Pour cream mixture over the chocolate chips.  Cover with plastic wrap and allow to sit for 5 minutes so the chips can melt.
4. Stir with a wire whisk until completely smooth.  NOTE: If chocolate does not melt completely, set the bowl over a pan of barely simmering water to create a double boiler.  Continue stirring with whisk until mixture is complete smooth.
5. Remove bowl from double boiler. Cover with plastic wrap (works best when the wrap touches the surface of the chocolate directly) and refrigerate until firm, 1-2 hours.
6. Scoop and roll the mixture into 1-inch balls.
7. To coat the truffles, place the cocoa powder (or almond meal) in a small bowl.  Roll each ball in the coating and transfer the truffles to a tray or container lined with waxed paper.  Separate layers with additional waxed paper.
8. Cover tightly and refrigerate up to 2 weeks or freeze up to 3 months.

Note: Chocolate truffles taste best when served at room temperature.  Allow them to warm to room temp. before serving.

Can I Bake a Cake in a Toaster Oven?

Alma asks: I baked a moist 7-Up pound cake, but it turned out a disaster!!! The measurements I followed are:
3 C. all purpose flour
3 C. sugar (I used half the sugar)
5 eggs
1 C. Sprite (no 7-up available)
1 T. vanilla

Bake in 325 oven for 60+10 mins (1 hr.+10 mins). That was the recipe on YouTube I saw.

I preheated my oven @ 190 degree Celcius for 10 mins. I used a round cake pan (8 in. by 2 in.) and baked it for 60 mins+10 mins. Inside the oven, the cake was rising, but when my oven bell rang, I turned off the oven and took out my baked caked. It was heavy, unevenly cooked: toasted on the outside, uncooked inside. What do you think would be the cause of this??? Was it the oven? The mixing method? My oven is a toaster oven with rotisserie. Please help. I am desperate to bake a cake for my coming birthday.

Baking S.O.S. says: There are any number of things that could have gone wrong with your cake, but my guess is that the biggest problem was trying to bake a cake in the toaster oven, especially if the oven were set to “toast” rather than “bake” by mistake.

But let’s start from the beginning: The recipe itself could be part of the problem. If you have never made a recipe before, then you don’t know whether the recipe actually works or not. I have tried plenty of new recipes that I did not like the results, so rather than trying to make those recipes work, I simply scrap the recipe and move on to another one until I find one that produces the results I like.

In this case, the recipe does not call for any leavening agent to make it rise, such as baking powder or baking soda. Although traditional pound cake is made without any leavening agent, many recipes will call for some baking powder to help it rise a little bit. Since this recipe does not call for any baking powder or baking soda, that would explain why the cake sank after you removed it from the oven. There was nothing in it to make it rise and stay risen.

Also, since you cut the amount of sugar in half, that is going to affect the overall results, as well. Sugar provides not only sweetness, but some moisture to the cake, and it also helps the cake to brown evenly. Sugar caramelizes as it bakes, giving baked goods that lovely golden color. When you cut the sugar in half, it will certainly affect how your cake turns out. I always say that baking is a science: you must follow the recipe exactly the first time you make any recipe so that you know how it is supposed to turn out. Then you can experiment with adjusting ingredients to your own preferences.

Back to the problem of the toaster oven: You said your cake was baked unevenly–done on the outside, but not on the inside. My guess is that toaster ovens are not really designed to handle big baking projects like baking full-size cakes for over an hour. I cannot say from my own experience, but it seems as though toaster ovens are designed for smaller jobs–smaller items and baking for less time. Perhaps the toaster oven could not hold a consistent temperature for over an hour of baking time or when it was full of cake pans. If you have access to a conventional oven–even at a friend’s house–I would recommend baking your cake in a conventional oven.

Lastly, if your cake wasn’t fully done in the center at the end of the baking time, you can always leave it in longer and continue testing for doneness. The best way to tell if a cake is done all the way through is to insert a wooden toothpick in the center. If it comes out with wet cake batter, bake it longer. If it comes out clean or with dry cake crumbs on it, it is done.

Happy Birthday to you!

Baking Cakes Without Eggs

Ayush says: I’ve tried an egg-less chocolate cake many times but it is not doing nicely. Every time it turns hard or rubbery. Also it sinks down after rising before it can set. I make it in a convection microwave oven. Can you please help me so that i can get it right?

Baking S.O.S. says: I don’t have a lot of experience baking without eggs, but I can try to give you a few suggestions. Perhaps there might be something that you haven’t yet tried.

First, I don’t like to bake cakes in convection ovens because the movement of the fan causes the fragile cake batter to sink and fall. This could be part of the problem that is causing your cake to sink. If you have a standard conventional oven, or if you can turn the convection feature off, I would recommend baking your cake in a conventional oven.

Secondly, are you baking a cake recipe that is formulated to be baked without eggs? Or are you simply eliminating eggs from a standard cake recipe? If so, are you substituting anything else in place of the eggs?

If you simply eliminate the eggs from a cake recipe, that would explain why your cakes are turning out dense and rubbery. To make an egg-less cake, you would either need to find a recipe that is formulated to be baked without eggs, or you would need to use some kind of a substitute for the eggs. Eggs perform a number of important functions in baked goods, so it generally doesn’t work to simply eliminate them from a recipe. You need to substitute something else.

There are several egg replacer products, including: Bob’s Red Mill Egg Replacer and Ener-G Egg Replacer.

You can also use finely ground flax seed combined with water as a substitute for eggs. The formula is: 1 Tbsp. of ground flax seed + 3 Tbsp. water = 1 egg

Lastly, I have baked delicious chocolate cake recipes that use mayonnaise or Miracle Whip in place of the eggs. (just read the label carefully to make sure that the mayo doesn’t contain eggs in it) You could do a quick Internet search for chocolate mayonnaise cake recipes, or try this one here at allrecipes.com: Chocolate Mayo Cake. Good luck!

Christmas Cookies: Baking with Butter vs. Vegetable Shortening

Terry asks: I would like to bake some cookies for Christmas and I’m confused.  I haven’t baked for many years, and the recipes call for butter and Crisco.  I have the butter, but I don’t have the Crisco. Could I substitute all butter? I want to bake: thumb prints, snow balls, twice-baked cookies, oatmeal, and several others. I would appreciate your help.

Baking S.O.S. says: Sure, you can certainly substitute butter equally (meaning use the same amount) in place of Crisco in cookie recipes. In fact, I prefer the taste of all butter over vegetable shortening.

There was a time when it was believed that vegetable shortening was actually better for your health than butter, so many old cookie recipes call for vegetable shortening for at least part of the fat. But now that we know that hydrogenated oils are actually worse for our health than butter, there has been a shift back to baking with all butter. So it’s perfectly fine to make that adjustment yourself, regardless of what the recipe calls for.

Here’s what might happen if you bake with all butter instead of half butter/half Crisco: Butter contains about 20% water, so as it heats and the butter melts, it tends to spread more, making your cookies thinner & flatter.

Vegetable shortening does not make cookies spread as much, so the benefit to using shortening is that cookies will be more puffed and thicker.

To prevent cookies from spreading as much, I always bake on parchment paper, so that can help alleviate some of the spreading when you bake cookies with all butter, and you will have cookies that taste better, too! (Vegetable shortening has little to no flavor.)

I will say that I have a few recipes that I still prefer the results of baking with vegetable shortening over butter, but the only way to know is simply to try both ways. With the cookies you listed, it sounds like you will be fine baking with butter.

Happy holiday baking!