At first, we sort of made fun of my friend Brian when he went to ice cream college. Brian, along with his wife Jackie, owns Ample Hills Creamery, an artisan ice cream company in Brooklyn, NY.
As it turns out, ice cream school has nothing to do with the fun stuff, like mastering the art of the perfect scoop or the correct combination of toppings for a banana split. Instead, the focus is on the science of ice cream. I love blueberries–they’re my favorite fruit–but when I tried making blueberry ice cream, all I got was blueberry-flavored ice crystals. The problem, Brian learned, was the ratio of cream to water. Blueberries have a high water content, so more fat (i.e., cream) is needed to balance out the ratio. The value of Brian’s newly acquired knowledge is that he can now create his own ice cream flavors.
I’ve never been much for the science of baking, choosing instead to focus on the art of cake design, but I do like the idea of playing around with recipes. I recently purchased BakeWise, by Shirley O. Corriher, after I heard her interviewed on NPR’sAll Things Considered.
In it, she explains why some cakes don’t rise properly. Among the countless other things that can go wrong in the baking process (baking powder that’s past its prime, inaccurate oven temperature, not properly creaming butter, etc.), there is the very real possibility that the recipe is just plain wrong. Wrong? It never occurred to me that an existing recipe, let a lone a recipe that’s actually in print, could be wrong. Corriher explains that the problem is often the ratio of leavening agents to flour:
If a cake falls or does not rise well, you might think that you did not use enough leavening [baking soda or baking powder]. More frequently, however, the problem is just the opposite. When a recipe contains too much baking powder or soda, the bubbles get too big, run into each other, float to the top, and POP–there goes your leavening! Your cake or muffins will be very heavy or fall completely…Even in “good” cookbooks there are many recipes that contain excessive amounts of leavening agents. Unfortunately, this leads to heavy cakes, quick breads, and muffins. Guidelines for ideal quantities of leavening are:
For each cup of all-purpose flour (4.4 oz/125 g) in a recipe use no more than:
1 to 1 1/4 teaspoons (5 to 6 g) baking powder
1/4 teaspoon (1 g) baking soda
This is just one of the gems in Corriher’s book. BakeWise is the baker’s equivalent of ice cream college, and gives readers the confidence to tweak existing recipes that just don’t work and the tools to create original recipes. Don’t be surprised if you soon see Erica OBrien’s recipe for blueberry cake.