Sunday, October 14, 2012


- Yogi Berra

I would say to housewives, be not daunted by one failure, nor by twenty. Resolve that you will have good bread, and never cease striving after this result till you have effected it. 
If persons without brains can accomplish this, why cannot you? 
Housekeeping in Old Virginia, 1878 

I can always sense when something has gone wrong. I can divine when my expectations will be dashed, my high hopes and excitement evaporating into thin air right before my very eyes. Dismay and disappointment wash over me, intermingled with confusion, a thousand little questions popping up like so many bright, blinking fireflies. I peer through the oven window, suffer the blast of damp heat that swallows me up as I tug open the door; I turn my head away and count one-two-three as the mist fades from my eyeglasses and turn back again to observe. I gently press my index and middle fingers down onto the cracked, sugary crust and hear that sssssssss of foamy, undercooked cake and feel the mousse-like quality of puffed yet wet batter. Will this cake, a creation that began as something so chocolaty, so orangey, so sexy, so promising, result in a calamitous failure?
Appearances can be deceiving. A failure, or what we imagine a failure, can sometimes be recuperated, or can actually be transformed into something more than worthwhile, something bordering on spectacular. A failure is merely a reflection of our expectations. We set the bar of perfection, we wring our hands in nervous anticipation, the suspense builds as we wait, each time we reset the timer, adding on just a few more minutes, as we carefully place that square of foil over the top of the browning cake, as we pray and beg that cake to puff and rise just as beautifully as the last time. Finally, we can take it no more. Afraid of an unmitigated disaster, assuming the worst, we switch off the heat and pull that pan out of the oven and drop it onto the rack. “It looks pretty good”, I firmly tell myself, trying to convince my better judgment, my worrywart alter ego. “It may actually be perfect! Moist but perfect!” And I wander off, better to let that cake cool in silence without my eyes boring into its very soul.

I didn’t fail the test, 
I just found 100 ways to do it wrong. 
Benjamin Franklin 

I cross husband in the diningroom several minutes later where he announces “Your cake fell,” casually, almost as if it doesn’t matter. I dash in, heart stopped, stomach churning, disheartened, at the sight of that sunken crust. I twist the center tube up and out and place it on a rack unencumbered by the outer pan, almost expecting it to melt and collapse all over the table. But it holds. I wait until it is completely cool, afraid to move it, afraid to jinx what may otherwise be salvaged. And when I finally do, well, it doesn’t look so bad. I grab hold of the parchment paper and pull up, using my chin to press down on the tube until it falls away. I remove the parchment and flip the cake onto the serving platter, once again expecting it to fall into a thousand little pieces. Still holding. I make my ganache and carefully drizzle it all over the cake, as husband wanders in and comments about how it looks just like another one I did before and why make the same thing again? Ugh. I snap some photos, putting off the inevitable, avoiding direct confrontation of what could very well be something unworthy of my readers. I think back a couple of weeks when husband collapsed in fury, pulling at his hair and wailing over his failed attempt to waterproof the balcony of our future apartment which was a make-or-break necessity for installing the hot water heater. I calmed him down in my own sensible soothing way, as I always do, and told him nothing was a disaster; with patience, reasoning and thought everything could be recuperated and turned into a success. And here I was, berating myself for a failure. Silly.

There are no failures, 
just experiences and your reactions to them. 
Tom Krause 

And so I took my knife and sliced. I took a few photos of that oddly shaped, dark, moist, dense sliver and then I did as I always do after a shoot… I tasted. A crucial part of food blogging that first taste, after all. And with that first forkful, as I wrapped my lips around the chunk of cake, felt the delicate mousse-like confection veritably melt onto my tongue, as my tastebuds were infused with a deep chocolate flavour quickly followed by a hint, a sweet surprising sensation of orange, unexpectedly ethereal, lingering long after I had swallowed, I realized that whatever had happened in that oven it was definitely not failure. Another bite, eyes closed, head filled with chocolate and orange as if breathed in from some bustling Willy Wonka warehouse of creation.

What had gone in the oven as cake had come out as fondant.

Maybe it was the extra liquid in those couple of tablespoons of Cointreau that did it; maybe it was the uneven oven or maybe I measured out too little flour. But whatever it was that changed the texture of the cake, my doodling around just with the idea to create the dessert that I wanted to eat altered forever the results. A little experimentation, a little confidence to dare to do something new, a bit of wishful prayers, worry and agitation channeled into something positive, and, as I told my husband that day as we stood and watched rainwater trickle under the plasterboard, a failure is only a failure if you allow it to be.

And, now that I think about it, this could all just be a simple and clear analogy for a writing career. The lingering bitter taste of frustration washed away with something sweet, the desire to teach oneself to transform imminent failure into success. Patience, determination, belief in oneself, faith that you can put the right ingredients together, toss in a splash of something exotic, the heady kick of courage and action, and yes, maybe you will turn that kick in the pants into something utterly satisfying. A success, just like that cake.

I served a slice of this Chocolate Cointreau Cake, now officially dubbed Fondant, to husband. Expectant glances, nervous waiting were finally answered with his “mmmmmm” and his “this is fabulous!” Oh, yes, it was.

And on another note... and speaking of successes, prepare yourself for the impending announcement of our next From Plate to Page food writing, styling & photography workshop! Dublin, Ireland. May 2013. Intensive, hands-on, non-stop sessions in a glorious setting, infused with convivialty, good drink and food, all the while honing your food writing, styling and photography skills and boosting your creativity! I'll be there!

Photo courtesy of P2P Tuscany alum Elizabeth of Roast Duck and a Big Gooey Cake!

With Chocolate Orange Almond Ganache Drizzle

Find the original recipe for Decadent Chocolate Cake with Christmas Spices here.

1 cup boiling water *
3 oz (90 g) unsweetened, bittersweet or semisweet chocolate
8 Tbs (115 g) unsalted butter
1 tsp vanilla
2 cups (400 g) sugar
2 large eggs, separated
1 tsp baking soda
½ cup (125 ml) sour cream (I used creamy 0% fat fromage frais/quark)
2 cups less 2 Tbs (250 g) flour (increase flour by 1 Tbs/10 g for a drier cake)
1 tsp baking powder
2 Tbs Cointreau **
Chocolate Ganache (recipe follows)

* What I love about cakes that add water is that all or part of the water can be replaced with other liquids to change the flavor of the cake; you can replace part of the water with strong coffee, orange juice or even the juice from jarred fruit such as cherries or blueberries. Just taste before using more than half a cup of flavored liquid. And make sure if you choose to replace some of the water with another liquid it goes well with whatever spice you decide to add. Or leave out the spice completely. And replace the Cointreau with Grand Marnier, Kahlua, Amaretto or rum.

** If you want the orange flavour but don’t want to add liqueur (Cointreau or Grand Marnier), feel free to replace it with the finely grated zest of an orange and/or ½ tsp of orange extract.

Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Grease and flour a 10-inch (25-cm) tube pan. I lined mine with ovenproof parchment paper as I was afraid that the batter would leak out the bottom of the pan.

Chop the chocolate, cube the butter and place them both together in a large heat-safe (Pyrex) mixing bowl. Bring the one cup of water* to the boil then pour over the chocolate and the butter, allowing it to stand and stirring until completely melted and smooth. Allow to cool slightly. Stir in the vanilla and the sugar, then whisk in the egg yolks, one at a time, until well blended.

Stir the baking soda into the sour cream. In a separate bowl, combine the flour and the baking powder together (if adding spices such as cinnamon, add the dry ground spice to the flour and baking powder here). First whisk the sour cream into the chocolate batter, then the flour, whisking until smooth and homogenous. Whisk in the Cointreau.

Using an electric mixer, beat the egg whites until stiff peaks hold. Fold about a third of the whipped whites into the chocolate batter until most of the white has disappeared, then fold in the rest of the whites in one or two additions. Try not to overwork the batter as you will beat out the air incorporated with the egg whites, but don’t be afraid to really fold and make sure no white lumps of any size remain or your finished cake, gorgeously dark, will have white spots in it.

Carefully pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for about 50 minutes (depending on your pan and your oven), until the cake is set and a tester stuck down into the cake comes out clean. When I touched and gently pressed the surface of my cake at 40 and then 45 minutes I felt liquid or unset batter under the surface. After another couple of minutes, I touched and gently pressed the surface again and felt some resistance and knew that it was time to stick a tester (I use a long metal brochette spear) in. Done! Watch the cake carefully at the end as you neither want this cake underdone nor overdone and dry.

Note: as I mentioned in my story, the cake tester did come out clean yet this cake – with a bit more liquid and a tad less flour than the original cake did come out extremely moist, almost damp when cooled, sliced and eaten, yet it was light and ethereal, almost mousse-like.

To see photos of the cake as it comes out of the oven, look here.

Remove the cake from the oven and onto a cooling rack. Allow the cake to cool completely before loosening the cake from the sides of the pan (and the inner tube) with a sharp knife and carefully lifting it out of the pan. If you have lined the pan with parchment, you can grip the edges of the paper and lift it off of the tube. Then place a rack on the top of the cake, flip it over, peel off the parchment from the bottom of the cake, place your serving platter onto the upturned bottom of the cake then flip upright.

Prepare the Chocolate Orange Almond Ganache :

The orange flavor comes simply from using Lindt Excellence Orange Intense Chocolate with Almond bits in it; this is fabulous on this cake, adding just an extra zing of orange flavor.

Chop ¾ cup (100 g) dark chocolate and place in a medium-sized pyrex bowl.

Bring ½ cup (125 ml) heavy cream to a boil. Pour it over the chopped chocolate and allow to sit, stirring, until the chocolate is completely melted and the ganache is perfectly smooth.

Allow to sit at room temperature until it the desired consistency: to drizzle over the cake, it should retain its pouring consistency yet be just thick enough that it doesn’t all run off of and puddle around the cake on the plate.


Maureen said...

If that's a failure, I'm the Queen of England. :) I loved the, "your cake fell" comment. I would get, "what happened to your cake? It looks all flat. Can we still eat it?"

You are so right about failure. It's only our perception unless you're doing brain surgery.

Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

Wonderful way to keep everything in perspective, Jamie. Think of all of the "failures" that led to something unimaginably great, thing like yogurt and Worcestershire sauce. And now, fondant cake!

Barbara | Creative Culinary said...

Never a failure, maybe just a mishap. I should say 'welcome to my world' where the vagaries of high altitude mean every baking adventure is subject to being the same thing. I don't let it bother me; calling myself good at punting...and punt I often have to do. You have done well; you could now bake here with me. :)

Janet Rudolph said...

This sooo appeals to me, especially with the Cointreau. Can't wait to make it

Bunkycooks said...

This cake, fondant, whatever you wish to call it looks fabulous! I love the moistness, so I think it's perfect. :-) So exciting to hear about Dublin next year. I need to find a sponsor!!

Lynn said...

I love this story Jamie, perfect (no pun intended) read for me this morning. I was excited to cut into a pear galette I made for a party last night. I'd adjusted it leaving out cream, less sugar, different spices and liquor. Tasted a smidgeon of a slice and and my chin dropped in a bad way. Not sweet enough, kind of boring but a buttery rich crust. I will count that as a success! BTW- drooling over your cake ;-)

Dewi said...

I definitely make this today. Hope I can take picture of it, as I plan to serve it for my family today. Thanks Jamie!

Carolyn Jung said...

Ah, but sometimes "failure'' actually turns out to be a success in disguise. After all, Chef Jean-
Georges Vongerichten once took out a chocolate cake too early from the oven -- and thus, the now-famous molten chocolate cake was born. We should all be so lucky to have "failures'' like that. ;)

Cherine said...


Not Quite Nigella said...

I was reading this post and nodding the entire time! I've had that feeling, what daring baker hasn't really of having to recalibrate expectations :) And when Nigella was here in Australia she said something along the lines that people nowadays often neglect taste in favour of whether something is photogenic or not. Although this looks very photogenic to me! :)

thelittleloaf said...

This looks incredible and I bet it tastes amazing too. As always, wonderful words and an incredible recipe :-)

Tina @ MorePleaseRecipes said...

So much for great expectations, huh?! The cake looks just beautiful!

Robin O said...

The universe is set to surprise us -- every time. I can just feel that sinking feeling when you heard, "your cake fell." However, a result that is chocolaty, moist and dense is instead of tall and fluffy might not have been what you were expecting. But please, give me just a taste of this wonderment. That is all I ask.

Baker Street said...

Reading your blog is always such a treat, Jamie. I would surely not call this a diaster! The cake looks gorgeous and I'm sure tasted divine!

Deeba PAB said...

Oooooh gorgeous. My word, if this was impending failure, I will dunk everything in chocolate and Cointreau. Just beautiful! Love the way you wrote it sistah. There's seduction in every word!

Ivy said...

The cake looks so moist and heavenly.

Vijitha said...

You are so right about failure. It's just how we take it. My life has been with lots of failures but I feel that's when I realized how precious is to feel successful. For every successful stories I have seen around me , there was lot of tears and hardwork behind it.

Delicious Cake!

The Squishy Monster said...

Oh my word, if this is what "failure" leads to...I think it's just a minor hiccup in what leads to decadence and chocolate =)

David @ Frenchie and the Yankee said...

Chocolate and Cointreau! Brilliant!

Jill Colonna said...

Well if you say it, it's a mistake in the right fondant direction, Jamie! Gosh, if you thought that was failure and your heart sank with that comment about the cake falling, I probably would have dropped the cake to top it off! (Read thrown.) Your liquid cake rules, hic! Wonderful and love each photo.

Tina @ MorePleaseRecipes said...

By the way, what camera do you use? Do you use a flash to get this look?

Jamie said...

@Tina: I now use a Canon EOS 550D with an 18-55 mm lens. I am still learning. I also want to buy the 50 mm lens which works better for food photographer I think. I use no flash but rather Lowell EGO lights and a white box.

Kim - Liv Life said...

So envious of your trip to Ireland!! The conference sounds just fantastic.

Saw your pic on FPD today, and couldn't help but comment just how good it looks!! Well done!

Kalyn Denny said...

Looks seriously tempting!

Jamie said...

@Kim: Welcome and thank you so much!

Lisa said...

Don't you love it when a kitchen 'failure' turns out to be a divine creation? This 'fondant' cake is so much more than's stupendous! Oh, I can't wait to pin it and make it! Fudgy, 'orangey', gooey ganache..I'm in love! xo

Cake Duchess said...

oh boy-what failure?Is this the same recipe on your banner? I need to taste them both to determine ;)Love this decadent cake. xo

Paula @ Vintage Kitchen said...

This is the right way to fail, moist and chocolaty! This is the kind of cakes I like to eat and the kind of posts I like to read, wonderful!

Terra said... friend, that is not a failure, it is pure beauty! It ia always frustrating when a recipe we make loads of times, doesn't come out right. I haven't worked with cointreau yet, I must try it now:-) Hugs, Terra

Sarah said...

What a perfect failure! I wish I failed the way you do ;-). The cake, or fondant, looks incredible. Good luck with your imminent move to your new apartment.


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