On Baking In A Foreign Land

October 26, 2011

My oldest pal Casey Butler is no stranger around here! You will remember her famous dude-friendly, beer filled recipe for Chocolate Stout Cupcakes.

She is just back from Scotland, where she was surfing, eating sweets, and hanging out with pro-surfers, for whom she baked sweets.

Casey writes,

“Let me just say up front that in this instance, “foreign land” refers to both dude land and Scotland. I’m about to make a crass generalization: dude land, typically, isn’t overflowing with aprons and measuring apparatus and organic flour.


I knew I was in trouble when forced to hazard a guess that “bicarbonate of soda” was roughly the same thing as baking soda. Luckily, it is exactly the same thing.

How did I get myself into this predicament?

     I wanted to thank some ludicrously good-looking and generous friends in Scotland for kindly sheltering me for a couple of nights. After divulging that I think about little other than food and that, no, this condition does not manifest itself in a constant desire to cook, but rather in an impulse to bake, I rashly promised to bake them my famous man cake (aka chocolate stout cake).

    So, here I was in Tesco. Before me stood a shelf–not of “baking supplies,” but “cake ingredients” or something like that. I had already taken far too long just to locate this tiny section of the store and now, I was staring hopelessly at rows of neatly stacked vanilla flavoring and pre-packaged mixes. I couldn’t see chocolate chips (most likely for the fluorescent lighting) and instead snapped up a couple of bars of bakers’ chocolate (semi-sweet?). I hadn’t come with a very precise ingredient list. Or any ingredient list. I’d made this cake a bunch of times before and I figured I could probably remember the most vital components off the top of my head. If not, I reasoned, I could make another trip with a proper list. At this point, I had my stout and my chocolate, a small sack of flour, some demerara sugar, baking powder, and the frighteningly scientific sodium bicarbonate. The guy with whom I’d hitched a ride had already paid and was standing on the far side of checkout, patiently absorbed in a bag of candy, and I decided that I’d found enough ingredients.

  It’s hard to gauge whether my second attempt (a day or two later) was more or less successful. I had a wicked head cold. I still hadn’t checked what I actually needed to buy. I couldn’t remember if I’d already bought sugar, so I bought more. (I had.) I managed to find cocoa powder, with the help of a suspicious store employee. It threw me, as it was in the same place as hot chocolate. I bought measuring spoons, since someone had said something along the lines of, “Yeah, I wouldn’t rely on many of the things you need being in that house… he’s not a big baker.” I had to make a separate stop for measuring cups, just for good measure. Ha. Ha. I dropped all of this stuff on the kitchen counter, swallowed some foreign cold medicine, and went back to the surf contest whence I had come.
When I returned to the house later, it turned out that I didn’t need baking soda. I also forgot to pick up sour cream. Well, oil would have to suffice because I was not squeezing in a third trip to the food store and baking a cake before catching a bus at 7 p.m. And anyway, ingredients turned out to be the least of my worries.

There was no internet access at the house, which is partly why I hadn’t meticulously compiled a list, so I used a borrowed iPhone to access (slowly) the recipe on this site, actually. I had to convert all of my U.S. standard measurements into metric and my oven temp to Celsius. I’m pretty sure that 176.66666666666 (million 6es) C was the right temperature. I’m also pretty sure that is exactly the temperature to which I set the oven. I’ll get back to that later. I dispensed with the completely unnecessary details of this recipe, like “cool slightly” and “just to combine” and threw all of the ingredients into a bowl with reckless abandon. I mixed ‘em together and put them into a 9 x 12 inch [glass] baking pan, which I conscientiously prepped by smearing butter all over it. I sprinkled some flour on top of that.
It was only about eight minutes in when I picked up on an unsettling smoky aroma. I opened the oven and realized that what I had taken for standard oven racks were, in fact, broad pans in which traces of oil were now smoldering. I used my oven mitts tea towels to remove them and noticed that the top of the cake was beginning to crisp while the rest of it was still rather liquiform. How the cuss did the temperature make its way up to 200 degrees?! (That’s nearly 400 F.) I lowered it and tried rotating the cake and moving it to a different rack. In the process, my protective tea towels betrayed me. A nasty blister developed on my thumb.

I ignored the scalding water that was sputtering between the two pots I’d decided would make the best double boiler and made a ganache with whole milk instead of heavy cream. As it happens, that doesn’t really matter, either. Oh, and all the while, I had the back door open to the chilly Scottish rain, in order to air out that embarrassing burning smell. This didn’t do much for my cough.
Miraculously, the cake actually looked like a cake, and after scraping off some uhh… better-cooked pieces on the top, I hid the scars in a generous slathering ganache. I didn’t have time to taste it before leaving, but my friend said (ironically, via email), “Cake was good thanks.” Was it good enough to stand in as payment for several nights of room and board? I don’t know, but I’m not going to quibble over exact values here. I’m just thankful it was actually edible, and “good” had already surpassed my expectations.

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