“Despite being a widespread practice, baking requires a burdensome amount of precision to get right. You can’t just wing the flour amounts and whatnot. If you do, whatever’s in the oven will end up betraying you. So it’s funny that the universal test for such a finicky discipline of cooking boils down to DURRRR just stab it DURRRR.” —Drew Magary
As per annual tradition, during the last week of November 2019, food media belched up their usual pre-Thanksgiving slew of Very Serious Articles, ranging in topics from arguing about cranberry sauce, to dealing with MAGA relatives, to declaring the boulevardier the official drink of Thanksgiving*, to strong but polarizing opinions about Black Friday, and of course we saw at least fifty different pieces advising fifty different ways to roast turkey with all fifty authors claiming Absolute Truth. It’s no wonder we’re almost twenty years into The Information Age and at least ten years into the Caring About Food Age and we still lack any sort of consensus on how to properly cook turkey. Whatever. Surprising no one, least of all myself, my favorite pre-Thanksgiving piece came from Drew Magary, where he deployed his trademark wit, charm, and snort-inducing one-liners to inform us that cake testers don’t work.
I thoroughly enjoyed the article, despite disagreeing with his thesis. America, they do work; you’re just doing it wrong.
I bake. A lot. I’ve made more mistakes than you care to know about, but through the failures and successes, I’ve learned a thing or two about determining doneness. Cake testers work if you’re doing it correctly. The problem is, no one tells you exactly what to do, and not do. So today I’ll be rushing in to play the part of your White Cake Tester Savior. Here we go. The three most important points in using a cake tester are as follows: 1) use an actual cake tester**, they sell them cheap and they take up almost no space in your junky gadget drawer; and 2) you have to insert it sideways to get a true reading; and 3) you have to focus on what kind of texture your cake tester is stabbing.
To my first point: many people just grab a toothpick, and the problem is that it’s not long enough for the vast majority of things we bake. You won’t get to the center, which is of course the last part of the cake to finish baking. Toothpicks, especially on loaf cakes, can be misleading and offer a false sense of security. Use a long skewer if you must, but an actual cake tester is best.
Second point: inserting it sideways at a down angle gives a more complete picture as the tester will make contact with more of the cake. Cakes just don’t bake evenly. You can insert it vertically, in the center, like you’re supposed to, have it come out clean and not know that a section less than an inch away is still raw batter. Inserting sideways solves this problem.
Magary advocates the touch test to see if it’s baked through, which is sound. I use it too and it’s instructional. But not foolproof. Which brings me to my third point. You’ve gotta pay attention to how the cake tester feels when sliding through that cake or quick bread. If there’s no resistance, if it feels like the tester is swimming in raw batter, that’s because it is! When the cake is done, your tester will literally feel like you’re slicing through cooked cake. You know, because you are. You’ll feel that resistance, that solidity. When it’s done, sliding the cake tester in should feel like a smaller, less invasive version of drawing a knife down the center of a cake to cut a slice for yourself.
I hope this has been helpful, but I more wonder if what I’m really illustrating here is a truth any Food Network personality, cookbook author, or food blogger would rather deny: baking takes practice.
Reps, many reps, are required to learn how bread dough is supposed to feel when it’s ready to proof, or when cookies are done but not overcooked. Don’t get me started on the skills involved in frosting cakes well, and despite the “Anyone can do this!” cries from dumb and harried morning show sound bites, pies come with at least a medium-sized learning curve and are incredibly easy to screw up.
Obviously, no competent baker sharing their know-how (and thirsting for clicks and fans) wants to intimidate anyone, which is probably why we shy away from being honest about the practice element involved. We shouldn’t though. No one wants to paint baking as unattainable. It’s not. Cinnamon rolls are not Olympic gold medals. Literally anyone can figure this out. But until you really grasp certain skills – and you won’t grasp them until you’ve done them many times – it’s not going to feel easy or second nature. That’s just how it is.
I attempt to write my baking recipes in a “for dummies” style, because I know that helped me when I began learning. I wish that guaranteed success for you, but the harsh truth is, it just doesn’t. A million things can go wrong. I’m sure this is the part where I’m supposed to wax eloquent about baking imitating life and embracing our imperfections and mistakes and blah, blah; but that really doesn’t help when you realize your rolls never proofed a mere hour before your dinner guests arrive.
Lest I leave you on a dour note, I will reaffirm that baking is an absolutely attainable skill. Any dolt can learn it. It just takes some practice and some willingness to learn from mistakes, that’s all.
A few quick tips or shortcuts to shave a few failed attempts off your journey:
- Read the recipe in its entirety before beginning.
- Have ALL the needed ingredients, including exactly which measuring vessels you’ll need, out on the counter and ready to access before you begin baking.
- Don’t fret (at least not right away) if your treat took longer or shorter than the bake time. The goal is not staying true to a published recipe, it’s having whatever you’re baking come out of the oven at the right moment.
- Try to never bake in a rush, at least not until you’re really comfortable with it. Rushing is the best way to miss an important step. Don’t ask me how I know that.
So this is my attempt to not bullshit you, and hope that the straight shooting is somehow inspiring in your own baking endeavors. I personally find baking one of the more enjoyable and rewarding, if occasionally frustrating, parts of life. I’m happy to put in the time to hone the skill. Yeah, I have disasters, I don’t spot mistakes in recipes until it’s too late, I forget to set timers, the whole bit. That being said, I’ve been on this spinning planet for forty years now, and I’ve yet to come across any aspect of life that was truly effort-free and didn’t involve some metaphorical, and occasionally literal, splats on the way to success. Why should baking be any different?
*I wholly endorsed this advice. For three days in a row.
**This is not a sponsored post. I own this cake tester and I paid for it myself and no one paid me to tell you to buy it.
- ¾ cup dried apricots, chopped
- ½ cup dried cherries
- ¼ cup golden raisins
- ¼ cup raisins
- ½ cup dark rum
- ¾ cup warm water, 105 F to 110 F
- 4 tbs granulated sugar, divided
- 2 7 gram packets active dry yeast
- 1 large egg
- 1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise, seeds scraped and reserved
- Zest of 1 orange
- 4 cups bread flour or all-purpose flour
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- ½ tsp grated fresh nutmeg
- ½ tsp gound ginger
- ½ cup unsalted butter, softened
- ½ cup slivered almonds
- ¾ cup MARZIPAN
- 2 tbs unsalted butter, melted
- Plenty of confectioners’ sugar, for finishing
- 2 ¼ cups almond flour
- 1 ½ cups confectioners’ sugar
- 1 large egg white
- 2 tsp vanilla extract
- 2 tsp almond extract
- In a small to medium bowl, toss together apricots, cherries, golden raisins, and raisins, and rum. Cover and let stand 12 hours. I can attest that you can let this go as long as overnight and it’s fine.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook attachment, combine ¾ cup water, 1 tbs granulated sugar, and yeast. Let stand until mixture is foamy, about 10 minutes. With mixer on medium speed, beat in egg, vanilla bean seeds, orange zest, and remaining 3 tbs granulated sugar.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, salt, nutmeg, and ginger. With mixer on low speed, gradually add flour mixture. Now add softened butter, 1 tablespoon at a time. Beat until a smooth dough forms, 5 to 8 minutes.
- Spray a large mixing bowl with cooking spray. Place dough in bowl, turning to grease top. Cover with plastic wrap or a clean towel and let proof until doubled in size, 1 to 2 hours.
- Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silpat.
- Turn out dough onto a lightly floured work surface. Lift the dried fruit out of the rum (leave any remaining liquid in the bowl) and then knead the fruit and the slivered almonds into the bread dough. This will take several minutes and you will be convinced up until the last second that it will not work. Keep going, it will work. When you’ve got the fruit and almonds kneaded into the dough, cover it with plastic wrap and let stand for 10 minutes. Do not under any circumstances cheat this step.
- After that brief rest, divide dough in half. Pat one half of dough into an 8x8” square. Take your marzipan log from the refrigerator and cut off about one quarter of it. You’ll need three quarters of the log. Rewrap that little bit for another use or discard. Now divide that three quarter log in half. Roll one half into an 8x1” cylinder. Place that cylinder in the middle of the dough square and roll the dough around it. Flip it seam side down and pinch the ends together and under to enclose the marzipan. Repeat with second half of dough and marzipan.
- Place both formed loaves onto prepared baking sheet. Cover and let rise again until puffy, 30 minutes to 1 hour.
- Preheat your oven to 350 F.
- Bake until golden brown and thermometer inserted into the side registers 190 F. Please note that due to the marzipan, it’s hard to get an accurate reading. Inserting the thermometer on top is hopeless, so the side offers a better guess. When tapped it should feel sturdy and sound hollow. Bake time is 35 to 40 minutes, and you should cover with foil as early as halfway through if it’s browning too fast.
- Once the loaves are out of the oven, brush immediately with the melted butter then dust with excessive and gratuitous amounts of confectioners’ sugar.
- Let cool at least to warm before slicing with a serrated knife and serving. Keep wrapped tightly in plastic wrap and store in a cool, dark place and it can last up to a month.
- Place almond flour and confectioners’ sugar in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until combined. Add egg white and both extracts. Process until mixture holds together. If mixture is too dry, add water 1 teaspoon at a time. It should look (and taste!) like roll-out cookie dough. Dump marzipan onto a sheet of plastic wrap and form it into a log. Wrap up and store in the refrigerator until needed. This makes about 1 cup.