Jennifer Bloom has been baking for a while – most lately in a home-based baking business called Cupcakes and Muffins and More, Oh My! in Fort Wayne. You might say she's at the baking equivalent of graduate school, inasmuch as she specializes in the notoriously finicky realm of gluten-free baking.
And yes, she's had her failures, some of them rather spectacular.
Gluten-free baking must substitute for wheat flour, which contains the substance that causes offense to the gluten-intolerant. Gluten, however, is also the substance that makes baked goods have that light and chewy, craved-for texture.
“What I was trying with my baking was using the (gluten-free) mixes that come premade, but a lot of them are gritty and grainy and didn't have the texture I wanted. So I looked at blogs, and I was trying different flours, like brown rice flour, and potato starch and tapioca starch. And then I tried coconut flour,” she says.
“Coconut flour was awful. You have to add so much more of it, and it was so dry,” Bloom, 30, says. “I made a carrot cake with coconut flour, and it was dry as a bone. It was awful.”
So, when home bakers suffer a disaster, they shouldn't feel bad, says Margy Hooker, chef, cookbook author and organic food enthusiast and grower who owns and runs Tanglewood Berry Farm, 2427 S. Hadley Road.
She puts it this way: “Cooking is an art, but baking is an art and a science.”
Small changes, in other words, can lead to large differences in results. That's why baking recipes are very specific about measurements, and beginning bakers are cautioned to use standardized measuring cups and spoons and level dry ingredients, and to preheat ovens fully before adding filled cookie sheets and cake pans.
Which brings up a personal detour. About three months ago, I made a sponge cake to take to a family gathering.
Now this is a rather forgiving cake, as cakes go, and I have made it, from my mother's now-memorized recipe, hundreds of times over the years.
But this time, when I went to turn over the tube pan to let the cake cool, the top fell – splat! – onto the counter. It looked done. It tested done.
But I had rushed it into a still-preheating oven, which browned the top perhaps a bit too much while the heat never got to a section about 2 inches underneath.
Back went the cake in the pan into a turned-off oven for a few minutes. Then I put the top back on and frosted the whole thing, and no one was the wiser.
At least, I think no one was the wiser.
One of Hooker's repeated fails was crème brûlée. It's an egg, cream, sugar and vanilla custard that has sugar on top. As a last step, it can require the baking equivalent of a blowtorch to caramelize the sugar into a sweet, crunchy crust.
That aspect, which seems likely to go awry, was not the problem, she says. No, the custard stayed runny, even if baked while the pan was surrounded by a water bath.
The a problem was the humidity.
“You cannot make crème brûlée on a high-humidity day,” she says. “I've made crème brûlée over and over again, but it would not set up right on days like that. You wouldn't think it would be a big issue, but it is.”
That's why bakers should never halve or double recipes and assume they'll turn out, she says. But fails are a part of the game.
“When I had a restaurant, I would always let my chefs try different things. Some wouldn't turn out at all, but I never got mad at them because that's what cooking is all about. It's a lot of trial and error.”
Indeed, Hooker says, lots of things beyond a cook's control can alter baking outcomes. The age or quality of yeast used in bread, for example. The temperature of the kitchen or whether there's a breeze where the bread is left to rise.
The size of eggs. The temperature of the shortening. Whether the zucchini for the zucchini bread – warning, second personal detour ahead – has a particularly high moisture content and leaves the “bread” soupy, even when baked for an extra 15 minutes.
Or whether on a particular day, the baker has the short-term memory of a gnat.
“I do a lot of cakes, and my biggest thing that makes me crazy is that I'm too hurried and I put everything in the oven and I suddenly realize I still have eggs on the counter and I forgot to put all of them in,” Becky Carpenter says.
She's manager of Country Kitchen SweetArt, 4621 Speedway Drive, and a professional wedding cake maker.
“I just did that two nights ago with a birthday cake. It's so frustrating. You can't do anything about it, and you can't use that cake.”
One of Carpenter's fails came in a wedding cake's frosting. Frosting is pretty easy, Carpenter says, but she didn't realize that food color in icing can become a completely different color when exposed to sun.
“The bride ordered pink flowers, and the sun turned all the flowers peach. Fortunately, she was fine about it,” she says.
Bloom says she has had fails with gluten-free brownie mixes. After crumbly pan after crumbly pan, she went online and found that people were adding baking soda, an extra egg and half the oil, contrary to package directions, to get palatable results.
“You shouldn't have to do that,” she says.
And, about a month ago, she tried a grain-free, sugarless banana bread that she couldn't justify putting on her roster, even if it would satisfy potential paleo-dieter customers.
“It was really eggy,” she says. “It tasted OK, but on a scale of one to 10, it was about a six. I kept it for myself. I want at least an eight for customers.”
But sometimes things she is skeptical about turn out great.
She is now selling two gluten-free cupcakes with unusual flavor combinations – one is lemon lavender and the other, pink grapefruit with a honey-butter icing. The two are her best-sellers.
“Most people are afraid to try it,” she says of the latter, which has local honey whipped into the icing and grapefruit juice and zest in the batter.
“It gives it just enough tang, and it's citrusy but not too bitter. You just never know.”