My tried and trues

I’m not usually one to point fingers, but this week, the blame for my absence rests squarely on the ginger-scented shoulders of the cake you see here.

It looks just about perfect, doesn’t it? Near-black with molasses. A moist and tender crumb. Cinnamon. Cloves. Black pepper. And to top it all off, several ounces of fresh, grated ginger. As my mother-in-law might say, “What could be wrong with a cake like that?” I have no idea, Sarah. No idea. For all of my conviction that this cake was decidedly off, I could find not a scrap of evidence to prove it. I’m not even entirely convinced that it wasn’t perfect. Loath as I am to embrace this possibility, it could be that I simply didn’t like it. That’s a hard thing for me to admit.

It was sometime back in 2006, I think, when my dad explained to me as gently as he could that “some people just aren’t going to like you,” no matter what you say or don’t say, do or don’t do. It’s the “he’s just not that into you” of fatherly wisdom. But what my dad never told me, and I’m finally beginning to figure out for myself, is that sometimes, I will be the “some people,” and no matter how springy the crumb, no matter how fiery the ginger on the tongue, a cake – or any number of things, really – may turn up now and again that, for reasons impossible to articulate, I just. don’t. like.

I’m not sure why, but for me, this realization is a much harder blow to my psyche than the fact that I (gasp) may not be the proverbial apple of every eye that glances my way. Don’t get me wrong. When I’m reading the paper, or a book, or watching a movie, and I come face to face with a nice juicy flaw, I’m the first to pounce. I’ll tell you precisely what’s wrong and precisely what’s right. If Eli’s around to egg me on (he’s a feisty little critic himself; I love it), I’ll sink my teeth into the “critical” part of critical thinking and run. (Have I mentioned that Virginia Heffernan is one of my heroes?) But when evil lurks behind a curtain of seeming perfection and refuses to show itself, it’s maddening. MADDENING! And suddenly, I’m back at the table, fork in hand, trying desperately to convince myself with a third slice that, actually, I loooove this ginger cake. Even when I don’t.

Had this ginger cake been the one and only letdown last week, I would have pulled myself up by my apron strings, greased another cake pan, and fired up the oven for plan b. But as it happens, this promising cake was the result of having already done just that when a different cake, a buttermilk spice cake with brown sugar icing, flopped earlier in the week. Like its replacement, the buttermilk spice cake appeared to be everything I had hoped for but, for whatever reason, fell flat. I didn’t even bother to snap a picture of the sorry thing.

With two failed cakes already on my conscience, I decided to back away slowly from my list of must-try recipes, and turn instead to my tried and trues. I dipped hungrily into the archives of Sweet Amandine and, since we last met, I’ve prepared two soups, one tomato, one carrot and fennel; a lemon tart; Eli’s roast chicken (okay, I didn’t make it, but I ate it); two batches of buttermilk biscuits; a tray of salted chocolate almond toffee; an olive oil citrus cake; eggs over anything and everything; and broccoli salad. I’ve enjoyed a lovely meal out to celebrate the birthday of my friend, Mary; slurped and sucked my way through at least half a dozen oranges and grapefruits; and gnawed the last bits from the rind of a very fine hunk of Gouda that followed Eli home one day. On Sunday, I indulged in a first-rate Swiss cheese, spinach, and mustard sandwich. It was considerably less blurry than it appears.

All of this hopping around in the archives and citrus slurping and slapping together of sandwiches made for some very good eating but, sadly, has left me without a recipe to share with you today. I’m sorry. But it turns out that a week or so with my tried and trues was just what I needed to get my kitchen legs back. I’ve got some new recipes on deck that I can’t wait to try. I’ll report back, soon.


Sasa said...

Aw, I relate about loving someone you can be a critic with, *so* satisfying...
I tend to eat up only-so-sos more because I can hear my Japanese obaachan (grandma) telling me that it takes a year of a farmer's sweat to make a grain of rice than because I want to love it though, hehe, guilt.
I will email you a lovely ginger cake recipe by none other than Delia Smith and maybe that will make up for it if you have time to give it a go.

Lilly Higgins said...

Theres nothing more disheartening than not liking your own creation, It looks gorgeous though! I must say thank you for the brilliant olive oil citrus cake recipe. I don't usually make the same thing over and over but I've made the olive oil cake THREE times! I love it. Everyone who tastes it loves it! Thanks! x Lilly

nina said...

i'll take a story about your less than desirable baking anytime even without a recipe as you always have such insight and a lesson to be learned...

i feel better about my sawdust-like results in the quest to find the perfect, moist, gooey vegan brownie, something that has alluded me thus far!

i think your red table is getting almost as famous as mav's blue one :).

happy tuesday and i hope the dissertating is going swimmingly. i'm thinking maybe that photo of your handwritten notebook on flickr has brilliant research ideas!!!

Linda said...

i can tell you this...your citrus olive oil cake is sheer bliss...made it ate it... made it froze it... defrosted it (the great texture & citrus notes were intact & perfect) & on my kitchen counter is an "out of the oven" citrus olive oil cake...we are obsessed with it!

i too am critical & tough on myself...i try to fine tune & let some of it go...but it always shows up in some form...

why don't you whip up your ever wonderful "comfort me with apples" pie, enjoy a cup of tea & know when you are ready so are we!!

molly said...

Cakes can be so sly, all pretty face and substandard crumb. Pesky buggers.

braiseandbutter said...

i can empathize. almost every new recipe i tried this week was a complete and utter dud, but i forced them down several times to "see if i was missing something". nope. just plain not good, though i was loathe to admit it.

the1catch said...

I so appreciate your post! As a writer, there are some weeks when I just have to close the laptop. I dig out old books and the stacks of memoirs, profiles and articles I've been saving. I read and read and forget about writing. When we return to what we do - whether writing or cooking - it's with a newfound humbleness, eagerness and appreciation!

Joie de vivre said...

I thought these were brownies when I saw the picture! I can totally relate to kitchen failures too. No one is perfect!

Rosiecat said...

Aw, sweet Jess, your archives are a great place to hang out! I'm sorry to hear about the cake; I've done the same thing with my kitchen failures. But it is SUCH a relief to just throw it out and let it go. It's not your fault.

I'm not sure what this says about me, but I really love cooking posts about failed recipes. It's not that I'm happy that the recipe failed to please. I think it makes me feel better about my picky palate and it lends humility to the writer, which is very endearing. Keep cooking, friend, and we'll be here, ready and waiting for the next dispatch from your kitchen :-)

PS Can I have a piece of toffee? Pretty please? ;-)

Hilary said...

I know the feeling only too well. On Sunday I made a new cupcake recipe and I thought it was just, well, awful. Sometimes it's enough to make your heart sink.

But you can pass that gingerbread over here... I am sure to like that.

Shayne said...

I adore the line "a very fine hunk of Gouda that followed Eli home one day." Brilliant!

Amy said...

As Stephanie once said to Grandma regarding her applesuace, "You know Grandma, this isn't your best stuff." Even the best have cooking issues now and again.

Julie said...

So funny - I did the EXACT same at Christmas. Made the deadliest looking dark, sticky ginger cake. I so wanted to love it. I didn't. It was just too much. I kept nibbling; it didn't grow on me. I turned it into a trifle, doused in custard and cream and sauteed pears.

Char said...

mmmmm ginger cake. hope the week gets better.

megan said...

This post is great in so many ways - thank you!


Kelly said...

Jess -- Glad to hear you are doing well. I was wondering if school was taking over for cooking as of late! And I am glad to hear we all have bad cooking days. I spent half a day on my husband's birthday cake this weekend, and it ended up tough (boston cream pie from scratch). Of course, he was a wonderful sport and has been eating it every day!

Jess said...

You're all so good to me. I'm thrilled that several of you are enjoying that olive oil citrus cake. It really is a winner. (Unlike, ahem, certain other cakes we know.) I'm happy to report that last night, I pulled something from my oven that was unmistakably delicious. What’s more, I think I know how to make it even better. I'm going to give it one more go, and I'll share it with you here, soon. It's going to be good, people.

Sasa - Whoa, and I thought that my Jewish grandmother was the queen of the guilt trippers. I think your Japanese obaachan has her beat. It was so kind of you to send me that recipe! Thank you. I've printed it out, and it's on deck.

Lilly – I have that olive oil citrus cake running on a repeat loop through my kitchen, too. So far, no one has complained! I'm so glad that you love it. And I agree that the ginger cake looks beautiful. That was part of what killed me!

Thanks for the encouragement, dear Nina. When you find success with that perfect vegan brownie, please do let me know. I have a very near and dear vegan in my life (Eli's brother) who would be most grateful, I'm sure. As for that notebook on Flickr: I was actually writing a letter - that I wasn't sure I would send - to an artist whose work I very much admire. After I snapped that shot, I copied the letter out of the notebook, took a deep breath, and sent it. It felt great.

Linda - Thank you for reporting back on the olive oil cake. Do you hear that everyone? You can freeze that cake! You know, I've been thinking that it has been too long since my last pie. I'll have to remedy that.

Molly - Indeed. What's that old expression? Don't judge a cake by its deceptive outer crumb? (Okay, I made that up.)

Braiseandbutter - Oof. How frustrating. It sounds like we both need to remember to trust our tongues. They do not lie.

the1catch - Hello! I love what you say about writing and rediscovering inspiration. I do the same -- that is, once I finally remember that sometimes the best thing I can do to get writing again is actually to stop for a while and recharge. I'd love to hear which pieces you turn to when you feel you're spinning your wheels.

Joie de vivre - They do look mighty chocolate-y, now that you mention it. I'm afraid, then, that had you bitten in, you would have been in for a double disappointment: not chocolate and not particularly good!

Oh Rosiecat, you always know just what to say. Thanks for the kindness, friend. And yes, I have more than enough toffee to share. Just scramble up here from Texas as soon as you can, m'kay?

Hilary - Oh no! In my opinion, failed cupcakes are even worse than a failed cake. After dividing the batter among all of those little cups and frosting each one, you deserve something that's anything but awful. I hope you'll have better luck next time.

Hi, Shayne, and thanks!

Aunt Amy - Well, if Grandma sometimes missed the mark, I guess it's okay if I do, too, every now and then. (I so wish I could cook with her and for her today.)

Holy cow, Julie, you certainly know how to squeeze a proper victory out of kitchen disappointment. Custard? Cream? Pears? It's almost enough to make me want to bake this cake again and give it the Julie treatment. Almost.

Thanks, Char. Yes, things are already looking up, in the kitchen, and out.

And thank you, Megan. xo.

Kelly - I have been busy with school, but never fear, my oven is never cold for long. I'm so sorry to hear about the birthday cake. That's the worst when it's meant to be a gift for the one you love. Good for you for tackling the Boston cream! I bet you'll get it right the next time around.

Jada Ach said...

I know how you feel, Jess. The kitchen in my new apartment hasn't been nearly as baking-friendly as my old one was. (It's the kitchen, not me! Or at least that's what I like to tell myself.) I love your blurry photo! It reminds me of Orangette's aesthetic.

Jess said...

Jada - How did I miss this comment? I'm sorry. I didn't mean to ignore you! New apartment? Congratulations on the move. Sorry to hear about the kitchen, but based on the "happy accident" that you posted earlier this month, it looks like you're more than managing. That last photo is a Polaroid, which is probably why it reminds you of Molly's site. She is a true Polaroid artist.