On Ratios and Good Ingredients
Jun. 9, 2009 6:33 pm
Updated: Sep. 16, 2009 8:21 pm
A friend of mine recently bought a copy of Michael Ruhlman's new book, "Ratio." The premise is that, while technique is a huge part of cooking, everybody should have a dozen ratios up their sleeves—then they're halfway to knowing recipes for hundreds of dishes. Bread dough can become biscuit dough or pizza dough. (As a baker, I find that a little too simplistic: flour plays a huge role in baking, and I would use completely different flours for breads, biscuits, and pizzas.)
However, I do use ratios in baking. Traditionally poundcakes were made with a pound of flour, a pound of sugar, a pound of butter, and a pound of eggs (a pinch of salt and a little vanilla extract always help, too). That results in a really dense cake that doesn't necessarily appeal to modern tastes; most recipes are adjusted to have less sugar and butter, fewer eggs, maybe some baking powder for additional leavening, etc. One thing Ruhlman emphasizes in the book is the importance of having a kitchen scale. I couldn't agree more. Once you know what basic ingredients weigh (flour, sugar, butter, and so on) it's actually faster to weigh them than to laboriously measure out all of those cups of flour. There's a fairly comprehensive chart here, called Baking Ingredient Conversions.
At any rate, I was thinking about ratios and had a hankering for that American classic: a yellow layer cake with chocolate frosting. I decided to make the One-Two-Three-Four Cake II. I did the math; it's not exactly equal weights:
8 oz. butter
14.2 oz. sugar
11.7 oz. cake flour (I rounded up to 12 oz.)
2.8 oz egg yolks
4 oz. egg whites
2 tsp. baking powder
8 oz. milk
1 tsp. vanilla extract
Happily for my ratio experiment, I was almost out of sugar. How does a person with four different types of flour, two different grinds of cornmeal, three kinds of sugar, plus molasses, honey, maple syrup, and golden syrup in her pantry run out of plain ol' sugar? I had bought a 10-pound bag to make the wedding cake that I blogged about a couple of months ago. Shockingly, it was gone. With the scrapings from my sugar canister combined with the contents of my sugar bowl, I had just about 10 ounces of sugar (just about a cup and a half). That would have to do. It was nine o'clock at night, my cake pans were greased and lined with parchment, my butter, eggs, and milk were all at room temperature, and nothing was going to stop me from baking that cake.
I would call this recipe, with my modifications, 1-1¼-1½-1 Cake (1 part butter, 1¼ parts sugar, 1½ parts flour, 1 part egg—if they're extra large and weigh 2 oz. each). The name doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, though. I hoped at least the cake would melt on the tongue.
I mixed the recipe as directed, but I used two 8-inch cake pans instead of three nine-inch pans. Oh—and in my consternation of having no more sugar in the house, I dumped all 10 ounces of it in with the butter. I probably would've creamed all of the sugar with the butter, anyway, since I wanted the leavening from the creaming method, and adding sugar to the egg whites (like the recipe specifies) wouldn't necessarily help stabilize them. I like beating the egg whites by hand, with a big balloon whisk; that means I can just leave the cake batter in the Kitchenaid and not have to wash the bowl. I use the whisk to fold in the egg whites. To quote another baking blog,
[A note about folding in meringue or egg whites: beat them until they've reached medium-stiff peaks. By folding in the meringue, you're working it a bit more, and if the whites are dry and stiff and overbeaten, they're very difficult to incorporate. You end up with little islands of beaten egg white in your beautiful filling. Start by folding one third of the egg whites into the filling—the light mixture into the heavy mixture—using a big whisk or rubber spatula. Once that's fully incorporated, fold in the remaining meringue.]
Because I had all of the batter divided between two pans instead of three, I ended up baking my cake layers about 10 minutes longer than the recipe stated.
On to the buttercream:
Since I was out of white sugar (!), I used brown sugar to make the Easiest, Most Delicious Meringue Buttercream recipe. A bakery where I used to work made a delicious devil's food cupcake with brown sugar buttercream—you can find the recipe in the Gourmet Cookbook. I wanted to make a chocolate buttercream, and I thought that using a brown sugar base would add a nice caramel note to the chocolate. I made a half-batch of the recipe, which was enough to fill and frost my layers—but just barely. You have to be pretty good about eyeballing the amounts you'll need to fill each layer in order to end up with enough frosting to finish the outside of the cake.
I made a chocolate buttercream by adding two ounces of melted, cooled chocolate and 1/3 cup of sifted cocoa powder to my half batch of buttercream. (I chopped the chocolate to help it melt more evenly, and put it in the microwave for a minute. That was enough to melt most of the chocolate, and I stirred the bowl with a rubber spatula until the rest of the chocolate melted. I set that aside to cool while I made the buttercream.)
This is the part where I talk about the importance of really good ingredients. I used Sharffenberger unsweetened chocolate (now owned by Hershey's, sadly; they've closed their Berkeley chocolate factory). Then I made a huge, enormous, ruinous error in judgment: I didn't have any of my good cocoa powder left. I decided to use some of the "Hershey's Special Dark" cocoa that my husband had bought. After all, I'd made the cake with less sugar, made buttercream out of brown sugar…why go to the store now, when I was so close to being done?
I don't think I've ever thrown out a just-opened box of anything before, but that Hershey's cocoa has gone into the trash. My lovingly mixed buttercream turned an unpleasant grayish brown color, not a lovely pale chocolate brown. The delicate flavor was completely overshadowed by a horrible sour taste. Instead of the nice bittersweet kick that you get from good chocolate, it was acrid and—sour really is the best word for it.
Well, I frosted the cake anyway. I would've soaked the layers with simple syrup if I'd had any sugar, which would've made the cake a little more moist. The result of my 1-1¼-1½-1 cake? A fine-tasting yellow cake, unpleasantly tainted with a sour chocolate frosting. (We still enjoyed eating it, though.)
One-Two-Three-Four Cake II: baked in two 8-inch pans
Easiest, Most Delicious Meringue Buttercream - half batch, with chocolate & cocoa added
Cake slice close-up
Piece o' cake