Lauren of Celiac Teen over on Twitter had asked her friends about their biggest kitchen disaster. I’ve been lucky that I had very few huge mistakes (but loads of minor to medium ones), but I’m sure there are many more huge mistakes to come. The one that immediately came to mind was a cake I made right before I moved to San Francisco. Though the recipe for the Gluten Free White cake with Italian Meringue Buttercream Frosting at the end of this post isn’t exactly what I made back then, it existence wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t learned a little bit about baking and frosting from my mistakes.
It was the fall of 1997. I had broken up with my boyfriend (my first boyfriend, the first boy I had ever kissed, yes that one) three months earlier and I had moved into my parent’s basement to reassess what I wanted to do with my life.
Strangely, nearly 13 years later, I still don’t know what I want to do with my life. But at least I no longer live in my parent’s basement. I tell myself that is an improvement.
My birthday was coming up, and though a large number of my friends had moved away from St. Louis (and I was plotting my escape as well) I still had a few friends who lived there. Friends from childhood and friends who I’ve know for a very long time. Most of whom I’m still in touch with to this day (thank you Facebook)
So I invited a few of them over for a little birthday celebration. And with that birthday celebration I decided to bake myself a cake. My friend Stephanie thought it was wrong that I was baking my own birthday cake, but I disagreed. This cake, I was baking, wasn’t going to be just ANY cake. It was going to be a spectacular cake. An AMAZING cake. A cake for EVERYONE to remember. One to celebrate not only who I was, but who I was going to become…
I’ve always had ambition when it comes to baking. More importantly (I thought) I had spunk. I was determined to make a cake to celebrate my singlehood, my newfound independence, and the fact that I had a plan – to save up money and move out that sparkly big city of San Francisco which I had visited a few months earlier.
So I baked a four layer cake. Two layers of white cake. Two layers of chocolate devil food cake. Chocolate AND vanilla buttercream. A cake to tower over all over other cakes.
Boy I didn’t know what I was doing. I’ve made baking mistakes before. My friend Jill came over in grade school and I convinced her that we could bake chocolate chip cookies (I had made them dozens of times before). We used only egg yolks (which my mom inexplicably had in the fridge) instead of whole eggs and each cookie came out gooey, disgusting and unsalvageable. To this day, I’m sure Jill thinks I can’t bake. I have distinct memories of throwing a dinner party (one of the very few dinner parties I’ve ever had with my ex-boyfriend – yes the same ex that I mentioned before) and mistakenly added three tablespoons of cinnamon to a carrot cake instead of three teaspoons. The cake was utterly inedible. And that’s sad because my carrot cake is fairly legendary (well, legendary amongst a small but elite circle who have had the pleasure of tasting it).
But this cake was kind of a disaster; it was the sort of cake that you would find in a Dr. Seuss book (and that’s not really a compliment).
The cake layers hadn’t cooled enough by the time I started frost it. So they started to slide all over the place. I wasn’t really well versed on making frosting and I hadn’t made enough of the chocolate buttercream, and too much of the vanilla so I improvised and frosted the top with the vanilla. And the cake, well the cake was pretty spectacular looking. Spectacularly lopsided and ridiculous.
But I made it, and my friends ate it and politely told me that they loved it. In fact, I kinda think they DID love it. It was absurd in the sort of way that I am, slightly off kilter, and not perfect. And, in fact, though the cake was a fail, I kind of loved it. Because I was in a place in my life where I needed to try new things. Try ambitious things. And the only way you learn is by failing. I still believe that.
It’s funny how you can go into the kitchen hundreds or thousands of times and make a great meal, wonderful dessert or simple but satisfying snack. But it’s always the failures you remember most. My mom, who doesn’t really like to cook, is most known in our family for her infamous attempt at making clam chowder. We don’t talk about the hundreds of times that she makes sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves, or the steamed pork buns that she made from scratch (yes, those pork buns you get at dim sum, I grew up with them at home on a regular basis), or my favorite soup, the one that I’ve NEVER found in any other restaurant because it’s a traditional Taiwanese soup and even when I eat at Taiwanese restaurants they don’t have it (it’s seasoned with black vinegar, dark and light soy sauce, and has fat chunks of tender bamboo tips, and sliced pork coated in a ground fish paste). My mom has tried to teach me how to make it numerous times, but I’ve never really learned it. Perhaps next time I go back home, I’ll make her show me one more time.
But it’s the mistakes that we talk about. The clam chowder. The one that too salty, too thin, too clammy briny (I think she put the entire can in without draining the clams). And that’s a shame. Because it’s the wonderful homemade food I grew up that made me who I am now. It’s the craft and the time spent in the kitchen and the dinners we had together as a family that help form my identity. And that’s what we don’t talk about.
In my head that Dr. Seussian birthday cake is my clam chowder. Not because my friends talk about it (I’m sure they don’t even remember it the way I do). It’s because I know that despite the ugly, lopsided cake that it was, I tried, and it wasn’t THAT bad. And I’ll try again. And again. And eventually I’ll figure it all out. And I’ll learn a heck of a lot in the meanwhile. It’s the flaws that make us interesting, human, have character, gives us depth. And one look at that cake…well I dare ANYONE to tell it’s not one darn interesting looking cake, one that is fully of character!
I did eventually save up enough money to move out to San Francisco. I met a wonderful man, and we live in a teeny tiny apartment in one of the best neighborhoods in San Francisco and have a close circle of friends that mean the world to me. Every time I look at him, and think about my life, I think to myself “How they hell did I get so lucky?”
A year after I moved to San Francisco I threw another party, where I made paella (vegetarian and seafood), gazpacho, a green salad with homemade balsamic vinagrette and baked polenta. I also baked a bunch of cookies, brownies and a couple of cake. I wasn’t as ambitious with the cakes, instead keeping them to two layers each. And I cooled it all the way. It was a hit at the party, where people were afraid to even cut into it. And it was at that party I realized that I was always going to throw dessert parties and skip the hot savory food, because I could prepare the food beforehand and actually enjoy the party, not stand over the stove in the kitchen the entire time trying to make food for the guests.
I’m getting ready to figure out the logistics of another dessert party, scheduled sometime in September. This will be my twelfth year in San Francisco throwing dessert parties. AJ and I don’t know the details yet. But if you’re in the San Francisco Bay area, let me know. Maybe I’ll send you an invite. Hopefully there won’t be any more kitchen disasters before the party (though, in truth, there’s usually at least one). But if there are, I’ll view it as a learning experience. And I’m sure it’ll make great blogger fodder for a later date.
Gluten Free White Cake with Italian Meringue Buttercream
This isn’t the recipe that I used for the birthday cake disaster. Instead I’m giving you a gluten free version of the white cake layer, because Celiac Teen is the one who inspired this post. This is my go-to recipe for a basic gluten free white cake. I use it for nearly every dessert party I throw, and my friend Kim who’s actually wheat allergic usually shows up REALLY early to my parties make sure she gets a slice of it as it disappears fast. It’s adapted from the dearly departed Gourmet Magazine (Conde Nast Publishing I shake my fist at you!).
1 3/4 cups white rice flour (extra finely ground)
1/2 cup potato starch (not potato flour)
1/4 cup tapioca flour
1 cup neutral tasting oil (canola, soy or corn works)
1/2 teaspoon of salt
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon of xanthan gum (make sure it gluten free)
1 cup of buttermilk
1 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla
2 cups white sugar sugar
4 large eggs
1. Preheat an oven to 350˚F, and spray cooking oil (make sure you’re just using cooking oil spray and NOT baking spray that has flour in it. That would defeat the whole purpose of a gluten free cake) on the bottom and sides of two 9” pans. Line the bottom of the pans with parchment paper rounds.
1. Whisk together the flours, salt, baking powder and xanthan gum until well combined.
2. Stir together the buttermilk, oil, and vanilla together.
3. Beat together the eggs and sugar with an electric mixer until combined. Add the dry mixture and the wet mixture in alternative batches, starting with the dry flour and ending with the wet mixture.
4. Evenly pour the batter into the cake pans and bake in the middle of the oven until a toothpick comes out clean from the center of cake. About 35 to 40 minutes.
Italian Meringue Buttercream
This recipe is adapted from a Martha Stewart recipe. She says that it can’t be double or tripled, but must be made as is and not in advance. She says it does not freeze well, and it does not sit well. However it’s suitable for a wedding cake. *shrug* Go figure.
Just so you know I’ve never had a problem with it. I make it for the cake, shove it in the fridge for a couple of hours to firm up (be careful, because the frosting solidifies if you let it sit in the fridge too long and if you take it out and accidentally bump it, it could crack – if this happens, just let it come to room temp and fix the crack as the frosting softens back up). I take it out an hour or two before I serve it to bring it room temperature. Never had a complaint.
2 cups of white sugar
2/3 cup water
6 egg whites
a generous pinch of salt
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 1/4 lbs of unsalted butter (5 sticks) at room temperature
1 1/2 teaspooons of vanilla
3 tablespooons of Grand Marnier, Cointreau, or some other flavored liqueur of your choice (this is optional)
1. Beat the butter with a mixer until it is light and fluffy. Put aside.
1. Combine the egg whites and the salt and cream of tartar in a standing mixer bowl fitted with a whip attachment and whip the egg whites until stiff peaks form. The cream of tartar and the salt will help stabilize the egg whites.
2. Put the sugar and water into a small saucepan and boil until the sugar dissolves. Continue to cook the sugar water until a candy thermometer reaches 240˚F or if you are old school, the “soft ball” stage (don’t know what that is? Check out this video)
3. Take the saucepan over to the standing mixer and turn it on to high speed. Drop by drop add about 1/4 cup of the syrup to the egg white. Once that has been added, gradually add the rest of the syrup in a very tiny steady stream. Once the entire syrup has been added, continue to mix the egg white meringue for about 10 minutes or so (until the side of the mixing bowl is cool to the touch). You want to make sure there isn’t any heat left or the butter will melt. I’ve actually taken an ice compress out and used that against the mixing bowl to speed the process along.
4. Take the beaten butter and add it about 3 Tbsp at a time beating well after each addition. The frosting should get really thick and creamy, but if it doesn’t the meringue may be too warm. Take it off the standing mixer, and stick it in a bowl of ice water to cool it down. Then continue.
5. Once you’ve added all the butter, beat in the vanilla extract and any flavored liqueur that you want.
6. Use immediately. At least that’s what Martha says. And who am I to question Martha?