Saturday, October 9, 2010
And that's how the carrot cake crumbles.
From my Facebook fan page:
My mother emailed me asking how to fix her friend's crumbly carrot cake. The e-mail said the cake had excellent flavor and moistness, but crumbled to bits when it was cut.
Ahh, carrot cake. Who doesn't love carrot cake? Or, rather, who doesn't love that its a delicious vehicle for cream cheese frosting into my belly? Yum. (On a side note, when I worked in a bakery, I always tried not to laugh when customers would get carrot cake because it was "healthier." It's cake, my friends. Cake with frosting and cream cheese. Lots and lots of both... But, whatever makes you happy.)
Crumbly carrot cake is a disappointment. I'm disappointed already. But there's a couple of very simple things that I want to talk about before I go into the possibility of it potentially being a bad recipe.
1. The size of the carrots and extra goodies you add at the end may be your culprit. For those of you living under a very large rock with no sunlight or ways of communicating with the outside world for the past 300 years, carrot cake calls for lots of extra stuff besides eggs, butter and sugar. You have your shredded carrots, raisins, nuts, pineapple... lots of bits and pieces of yummy little things. When you start adding all of this to cake batter, its going to disrupt the gluten. To put it very simply, gluten is the protein that holds your cake together. But when you start to add lots of stuff to your cake batter, it tears apart the gluten, making it much harder for the cake to hold itself together- hence the crumbliness. (Yes, crumbliness is a word. I checked.) So carrot cake, to begin with is going to fall apart a lot easier than something very simple like a plain chocolate cake just because its got a lot of extra gluten-tearing crap in it. Something your alleged "mother's friend" may want to try is shredding the carrots smaller, chopping the nuts smaller, and possibly even pureeing them all together. In most home kitchens that aren't pimped out like mine is (thanks to the miracle of wedding gifts- thanks everyone!), you're going to use a cheese grater to grate the carrots, which gives you pretty large-sized shreds. If you use a microplane (or some people just call it a zester), you get really small, fine shreds of carrots that aren't big and jagged enough to tear apart so much gluten. Here's what it looks like: I use mine all the time for lemon zest and parmesan cheese, its a well spent $15 investment.
I'm a fan of just pureeing everything together because when you add the nuts and fruit and carrots at the end, it gives you a really smooth batter with all the flavors but none of the chunks that make the cake crumbly. Its not your traditional looking carrot cake when you slice it- there's no giant shreds of carrots, but there's also no crumbliness. That's how you make awesome meatloaf too, without the annoying look of those little presumptuous chunks of carrots and celery. Yuck. (Plus, I just really like to use my food processor. So much fun that I'm borderline embarrassed.)
2. Lets talk about cutting cakes. Cutting cake is something I've done a LOT of, especially wedding cakes. (And that's a blog for another time. Holy Drama, Batman.) When you cut a cake with lots of stuff in it, you've got to use a serrated knife. That's the knife that has the little jagged teeth on it that hurts really bad when you cut your finger. (Let me make that mistake for you- you don't have to do it yourself.) When you use a serrated knife, you have to saw, not just push down. The teeth are on there for a reason: it looks like a saw because you have to SAW. By sawing with the knife, the knife does all the work and cuts the cake without destroying it, as long as you don't start pushing down. Try this next time: saw saw saw... don't press down.... saw saw saw.... don't press down. Make that your mantra. You'll be amazed at how nicely you can cut a piece of cake without tearing it apart.
Something else to consider when cutting cake, and this may be obvious to you, but its not to everyone: let the cake cool before you cut it. For real. Cutting warm cake, no mater what kind it is, is going to give you really messy, crumbly pieces. If you stick it in the fridge and cut it when its cold- even better if you're going to neat slices. But warm cake and a knife will never bode well for avoiding crumbliness. (I LOVE that word!)
3. I don't know what kind of recipe she used- perhaps its an old family recipe that's 100 years old- but I want to point out something.
Are you ready for it?
Wait for it.....
Wait for it......
Sometimes, recipes are BAD!!!!
No, its true, especially now that everyone can put whatever they want on the internet, and that includes a lot of really terrible recipes. Honestly, sometimes recipes just don't work. If you prefer to find your recipes online, try and avoid sites like cooks.com, where anyone and everyone can upload a recipe to share. There's no double checking on that website- some of the recipes are good, some of them are really horrible. For pretty solid, free recipes, I'm a fan of epicurious.com which features recipes from Bon Appetit and Gourmet, both of which (until the publishing industry started to crumble too) were super reliable sources. And for the best of the best recipe websites, I'd recommend joining cooksillustrated.com, which is $35 bucks a year. If you haven't read any of my blogs where I geek out of this website, let me tell you... its the best test kitchen in the country. They test recipes over and over and over again until they WORK, and as a bonus, you're never inundated with pictures of Rachael Ray, like some other food websites. This is the magazine that broke the news about using vodka for the flakiest pie crust ever. But if you're into cookbooks and not the internet, the best baking recipes I've used over the last 10 years were all found in The Fannie Farmer Baking Book. The basics, like chocolate chip cookies, banana bread, and carrot cake, are all really killer.
And what do you do when your recipe is bad? Just because a recipe is bad doesn't mean you can't change it. Play around with it, add some things, take some things away. Don't be afraid to have fun and make mistakes. I mean, if the author of the recipe already gave you a crappy recipe, you probably can't make it much worse. But if you do, you can always send me an email.