In for the long haul: the trial and error of worthwhile recipes

It pays to give recipes a second try. Differing weather conditions, humidity,  and altitude can all affect a recipe as much as different qualitites of ingredients: I make my own self-raising flour here in America, for example, as I don’t feel I’ve had much success with the store-bought kinds. In a way, it’s handier to make it as I need it so I don’t have a half-used bag sitting around cultivating weevils, ick.

It also pays to follow recipes as they are stated. The Mammy used to be inundated with requests for her brownie recipe or her Pecan Tassies recipe. She would later be told the recipe didn’t turn out as good as hers. “Well, did you follow the recipe?” she would ask. “No,” came the reply, “I used this instead of that and added less sugar and some coffee to the brownie recipe.” Well duh, Mammy would think to herself. If you’re not going to follow the recipe then don’t be surprised when it tastes like something else entirely. People can be so silly.

The Sticky Toffee Pudding you see plated here is Attempt #4: The One.

Attempt #1 went like this: I followed the recipe according to instructions and was alarmed to discover a very runny batter. I thought I had perhaps gone wrong in my conversions as I am without a proper weighing scales at this current point in time, AND because I am using cups instead of grams. So I added extra flour, just enough to make the batter less sloppy. The cake was delicious and I was hard-pressed to stop myself from eating all of it straight out of the oven. I was wonderfully surprised by the richness and depth of flavour imparted by the medjool dates. It was, in a word, wow. Big Joe and My Joe were both equally speechless when the sauce and the ice-cream came into play. All plates were licked clean.

Attempt #2: A sort-of dinner party that never really took off, owing to flaker-outers and scary biking incidents involving our invited guests. Dessert has pretty much become my sole contribution to foodie get-togethers these days so, based on the success of the first Sticky Toffee Pud, I decided to make another. It just so happened that one of our guests, the delightful Esther, was visiting from the UK, so I hoped she would dig this very British of desserts. I thought I’d be a clever smarty-pants and reduce the amount of liquid in the recipe – the amount of hot water that goes with the dates and baking soda – so that I wouldn’t end up with the runny batter from Attempt #1. The cake ended up rather dry. I was pretty disappointed. The lashings of toffee sauce helped some but I had a terrible feeling that everyone around the table was eating silently because they didn’t like the cake, not because they were too busy horsing it down.

Attempt #3 and #4 came about on the same day, the day Happy Food Baby got her groove back. With Attempt #3 I reduced the amount of liquid used for soaking the dates but I also scooped them out of the liquid, leaving approximately 80ml behind. Major mistake: there were vital juices and particles of soda in that liquid, needed to add spring and bounce to my cake. The result was flat and dry. Luckily, I had exactly enough dates for a second batch so this time I did exactly as Nigel told me – it goes to show that following a recipe as it is stated is good practice indeed. The results were bang on, the best one yet. I could see the difference in colour: the cake was a bright gold colour; the bubbly texture was evidence of the soda in the batter. It felt springy and flexible, not heavy and stodgy. However, I turned my oven down to 175C / 350F and cooked the cake for 25 mins: I always set my cooking alarm for 5-10 mins less than the cooking time stated, even if I’ve done the recipe a thousand times before. You can always cook it some more if it’s under done, but if it’s burnt it’s ruined. For Attempt #3, cooking it at 180C / 375F for 30mins was too much. I smelled it burning before the timer went off.

Observe the difference in textures in the cakes below. On the left is Attempt #3, with less liquid and reduced baking soda in the batter. Attempt #4, on the right, is more bubbly and golden. There is even a slight difference in size. On the right, the cake is larger.
 Which is which? The one on the right is Attempt #4



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