Quest #1: CAKE.
When I was writing these all up, I kind of designed some to be easier than others intentionally. My idea was that I'll be busy, or tired, or overwhelmed and I could occasionally just select a quest from the list that's easier to do and I'd continue to move on; I'd just put a few things in that I'd always intended to do but never got around to.
Baking a cake from scratch was one of those.
So, since I was just wrapping up my big thesis write, and it just got submitted, and I was still super tired (and honestly both super broke and more or less unable to leave the house). Doing the whole cake thing seemed pretty straightforward; I'd made cakes from boxes occasionally, but I'm not actually that big on dessert, so it's more often that I bake cookies or muffins. I have made cookies from scratch plenty, and I figured a cake would just be kind of like that but... more.
The first thing I did was some basic research. I guess it would have been interesting to start with, like, cake history, but I pretty much just Google'd “cake recipe” and went from there. I remembered reading, like, Momofuku's Milk Bar book, and I might go out of my way to do it again, but Google did what Google is supposed to do and turned up my results in droves. So, the only question now was, “what kind of cake did I want to bake?”
My absolute criteria for the first bake was, “Okay, what cake looks easy as hell to make?” I don't have the kitchen space or tools (or money) for anything elaborate. I also don't have any real baking chops. One time I was making cookies and I confused powdered sugar with flour, and my cookies absolutely didn't turn out as intended. (They ended up being actually pretty delicious shards of burnt sugar, chocolate, and nuts – so if I had wanted to make candy glass, I would have succeeded pretty admirably.) Not only did I fuck this up the once, I managed to fuck it up three times.
My softer criteria was that it not be overly sweet. Yeah, I know, it's cake. But I'm a fan of either very tiny bites of very good, pretty expensive cake or else something that borders on bread – something I can eat for breakfast when my stomach hasn't finished booting up and I'm still waiting for caffeine to provide its particular brand of animation to my essentially lifeless corpse of a body.
Bonus points if it uses up some of this fucking black-strap molasses sitting in my cupboard. I mean, that's what I ended up doing – it was incidental. I've been unwilling to throw it out, but it's not exactly used in a lot of contemporary cookery.
So, this is what I decided to go with:
It calls for low-fat butter, and I'll be honest with you – I neither know what that is nor do I have any interest in interacting with it. That sounds awful. It also calls for just, like, regular-ass molasses which I guess is fine, but I don't have that. Generally, you can figure what happened.
I know that one element of baking is that it's a science to cooking's art (also a science, but a more free-wheeling, forgiving one, albeit with probably more meat-related food poisoning), and so following instructions is valuable. Fat content will alter texture, as will butter consistency, whether you've sifted the flour, and so on.
This recipe totally did call for softened butter to be mixed with sugar, and even though I had left the butter out under glass for over an hour, it hadn't really softened at all. Unlike, it seems, in the summer where high temperatures will soften your butter, a maintained-with-difficulty temperature in the lower-mid 70's, in January, doesn't easily facilitate a softened texture.
I did what any reasonable person would do in my situation, which is to just get a small sauce pan and heat the butter directly. (I don't have a microwave.)
This is not any of those methods found here:
Despite that, and despite the fact that the butter and sugar mixed together, but didn't mix well with the rest of the ingredients (I ended up whisking them into the batter once it hit the cake pan) the molasses cake looked like it had turned out pretty well. I hadn't greased the pan well enough, I guess, and the bottom stuck a little too much, causing a bit of a mess. It was also a bit crumbly the first time around, which could have been a result of the generally low fat content, insufficient mixing, or maybe even both.
Frankly, I wasn't really satisfied with either how easy it was or how insufficient I was in meeting those admittedly low standards. Although I consider this quest technically fulfilled, I want a re-do. I won't consider it to be well completed until I'm sufficiently proud of my cake result.