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piece of cake: not as if


The blog title De Novo reflects a posture of looking at life, particularly the everyday, “as if for the first time.” Yesterday, however, I actually did something for the first time–namely, made a cake from scratch.

A double-layer sour-cream chocolate cake with caramel-chocolate ganache. A literal and figurative mouthful.

The backstory: I am not a cook. If I heat something up in a pan, I consider myself as having “made dinner,” although my cooking skills have broadened and deepened a little since my wedding six months ago. This may be in part thanks to YouTube, which I admit to posing such erudite questions as, “What’s the best way to slice a mango?” and “How does one use a garlic press?” My shamelessness has paid off in additions such as pecan-crusted salmon, vegetable mac ‘n’ cheese, barbecue chicken, and pork chops baked in (homemade) applesauce to my cooking repertoire. Along the way, I have discovered, however, that baking rather than cooking is where my greater pleasure lies.

I’ve found immense satisfaction in mixing ingredients, pouring them into pans, placing them in a hot oven, and letting the aromas fill our big-city apartment. Some recipes have elicited more enticing smells than flavors, like this cardamom tea loaf, although I can’t rule out my incompetence as responsible for the slightly disappointing taste and texture. (Don’t let me deter you from making cardamom tea loaf–I’m sure you’re more bread-adept than I. Plus the scent was worth the effort.) Other baking endeavors have exceeded my expectations. Within seconds of tasting my first batch of almond poppy-seed muffins, I was eager to recreate them. Whether the discovery of a superior recipe or my love of almond flavor most accounts for this, I can’t promise; try the recipe and decide for yourself. Coconut banana bread, pumpkin bread, and chai-infused french toast I also count as worthy of repetition.

Back to the cake. I’m a little embarrassed to say that I did not hunt down a recipe with a glorious family heritage. Nor even did I consult the writings of some illustrious pastry chef. No, I went commercial. I opted for a product-placement recipe: Daisy Brand Sour Cream Chocolate Cake. But it turned out satisfactorily, so I am willing to overlook that. Not being a cake connoisseur, I can’t offer comprehensive and insightful comparisons to other top recipes, but it was moist, it tasted decadent to me, and the pieces held their shape when I cut and extracted triangles.

The ganache–which I adore for its name–I borrowed from a different recipe. Making ganache involves pouring hot cream over pieces of chocolate, but this particular recipe, for caramel-chocolate ganache, added a preliminary carmelization process. The taste of this frosting was heavenly. A silky, smooth, rich flavor like the filling one encounters in the middle of a truffle and never recovers from.

Lessons learned: (1) Waiting for cakes to cool slightly before removing them from their pans helps prevent buckling. (2) Bars of chocolate are easier to chop than chocolate chips–and the longer the knife, the more distributed the pressure, and the more chocolate underneath, the faster the process. (3) Do be careful when you add cream to a pot of boiling sugar-water: Despite warnings in the recipe, I splashed my wrist. (4) New experiences are often pleasurable because of, rather than in spite of, the challenge. (5) Sharing a baked project with a spouse is incomparably better than eating it alone. (6) Even self-declared frosting minimalists may find themselves giddy in the presence of ganache.

Be prepared for this.

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