I wonder what our grandmothers would say about the way we fastidiously spoon flour into a measuring cup when we are baking and then scrape the top off for the exact right amount of flour every time.
I wonder what our homemade bread would become if we used our hands to approximate how much yeast and salt to put into a 2-pound loaf of sandwich bread.
Our grandmothers and great grandmothers could do this in their sleep, but only because they did it every single day. They HAD to do it every single day.
I suppose if I’d made 5,000 pies over my lifetime, I’d know exactly how much salt should go into the crust down to the individual grain, too.
Wait, come to think of it, I might have made that many: Four pies per sailing trip times 25 trips per summer times 16 years (not including the years before I was chef on the J. & E. Riggin) equals 1,600 pies. Not quite 5,000. I have a ways to go.
In any event, while yes, baking is a science and measuring matters, sometimes I wonder if we have lost the thread of instinct and the tactile in favor of the precise and the written rules of a recipe. Yes, recipes are written to be followed … but they can also just serve as guidelines. There is, I think, a balance to be struck, especially since not all of us bake or cook as much as our grandmothers had to and therefore could use more guidance than simply a “pinch of salt.”
Thankfully, we have a choice now. Actually, we have an overwhelming number of choices: frozen or fresh, homemade or takeout, to cook or not to cook and all amalgamations in between.
However, the choice to cook or not to cook, to bake or not to bake, shouldn’t be governed by worries that you are measuring incorrectly or not following the rules/recipe properly. Let your inner grandmother guide you and let loose a little. Have fun with the ingredients you have on hand, be playful and yet mindful, and it will all come out OK. Maybe even just like grandma used to make.
Bailey’s Irish Cream Cake with Chocolate Bailey’s Buttercream
Serves 10 to 12
This recipe is inspired by Kate Schaffer’s Olive Oil Chocolate Cake from her cookbook, “Desserted.” It’s very much like one my grandmother used to make for us when we were small. That recipe has gone to the ether of lost recipes, but this one is close enough that Grandma would approve.
FOR THE CAKE:
1 cup canola oil
2 cups brown sugar
3 large eggs, at room temperature
2 3/4 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup Bailey’s Irish Cream
1 cup hot freshly brewed coffee
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Grease, parchment and flour two 9-inch round cake pans. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Combine the oil, brown sugar and eggs in a large mixing bowl. Sift together the flour, baking soda and salt. Combine the Bailey’s, coffee and vanilla.
Add the combined dry ingredients to the egg mixture in three additions, alternating with the combined wet ingredients, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients.
Divide the batter evenly between the two pans and bake for 30 minutes or until the cake begins to pull away from the sides of the pans. Remove cakes from the oven and, after 10 minutes, turn the cakes out onto racks, peeling off the parchment, to cool completely.
FOR THE FROSTING:
4 large egg whites at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
2 cups (4 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
12 ounces bittersweet chocolate, melted and cooled
3 tablespoons Bailey’s Irish Cream
In a very clean mixing bowl with a very clean whisk attachment, beat the egg whites to soft peaks. Add the sugar gradually until it is fully incorporated and the whites have formed glossy peaks.
Reduce the mixer speed and add the butter in about 2 tablespoon increments. Wait until each butter piece is fully incorporated before beating in the next clump.
Continue until all of the butter, and then the chocolate and Bailey’s, have been added.
To assemble, remove the cakes from their pans. Spread the top of one cake layer liberally with frosting and then place the other cake layer on top. Frost this layer liberally, on the top and sides.
Annie Mahle is the chef aboard the Maine windjammer, Schooner J. & E. Riggin. Her latest cookbook is “Sugar and Salt: A Year At Home and At Sea.” She can be contacted at: