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Baking: A science not for the unrestrained

By Staff | Nov 6, 2015

The reason I am not a baker is because I cannot be restrained. For me, a recipe is simply a list of suggestions. Usually I Google a whole bunch of foodie sites and look at a whole lot of recipes before I begin cooking something I’ve never done before. Familiar as I am with the basics of roasting, braising, boiling, poaching and frying, and the fundamentals of how a roux is built, browned and finished to create a sauce, I take to the kitchen and start to play. Condiments and spices are my arsenal of allies, as I taste and adjust and stir up something delicious.

Baking isn’t like that. It’s science. To get the cake to rise, the cookies to spread, the pie to set, a baker must follow the specifics of ingredients, timing and oven heat. That sounds just a little too much like work.

I have to go freestyle. And fortunately, I have discovered a process for baking that invites that.

Start with diet soda and cake mix: just take one of the former, and one of the latter, mix them together, put in a pan and voila! Ignore the instructions on the cake-mix box to add butter or eggs or oil. This works very well for me, because ignoring instructions is my forte.

My favorite combination is dark chocolate cake mix and ginger beer.

Fold and fold and fold until the soda is combined with the dry mix. The batter will be alarmingly soupy. Pour it into a nine-by-nine pan that has been prepared with baking spray and put it in a 325-degree oven until it the sides begin to pull away from the pan and a toothpick inserted at the center comes out clean. Somehow, the soda fizz impels the cake to rise, and the result is a super moist cake that holds its moisture for several days.

Of course, being me, I drop a big handful of milk chocolate chips all over the top of the batter before baking. I can’t stop myself. I have to change it up.

Which is why I have to write down the latest iteration of this formula to come out of my kitchen, before I forget it.

It involves cornbread. Good cornbread is oh-so good, and bad cornbread is just awful. The cornbread I have made for years, based on the little box mix from the grocery store, has always been pretty terrible. I have followed the directions on the box exactly (ah-there’s the problem!), and gotten dry, crumbly, nearly gritty cornbread with poor flavor.

For a pot of chili I made recently, I had to have cornbread. The inventor in me emerged. I took the ol’ standby box mix and a can of diet ginger beer and combined them. The result was pure soup. Even with the knowledge that the cornmeal would absorb the liquid, I could see that this was not a batter that would set. So, I pulled a box of baking mix (think Bisquick) from the pantry, and added a full cup, bit by bit. The soupy batter thickened, and I poured it in the pan.

And voila! Much improved cornbread. Still more crumbly than I want, but nicely flavored and not at all gritty or dry.

I am noting the formula here so I will not forget it: one to one to one. One box of cornbread mix, one can of ginger beer, one cup of baking mix. I promise this will work. I’ll report back if I fool with the formula further and the result is positive.

I can’t help myself.