Friday, September 25, 2015

Master of the Disaster - Castella Cake (Finally!!!)

I've done it. Not achieved perfection, no, for that is a journey long into the future, but one of many stops on that everlasting quest. For a while now, I've been working on a cake that's incredibly simple, but incredibly difficult to get exactly right. This is a bit of a longer post, so if you'd like to know how I have inched closer to mastering the delicate perfection that is castella cake, kindly skip to the last paragraph.

Whenever I find little flaws that don't affect the enjoyment of a dessert, I like to call them technical faults. A sink in the middle of the cake, an errant crystal in the ice cream, a dimple in the frosting, those are all technical faults. 

Almost always, it is the flavor of the dessert which is fine, but the texture which is off. Flavor comes from ingredients and texture from technique. Conveniently enough, my ingredients are always acceptable; after all, I'm the one who sources them. Once I acquire it, I yield control, other than proper maintenance (refrigerator, cupboard, what have you). Technique, however, that's the really fun part. There lies the execution, the real core of cooking and baking, kissed or beaten by environmental factors that you thought were under your control, but mock you while you whip your eggs.

Lately, I've been delving into personal development, motivation and efficiency. I want to know how I can improve my work process, and how to cast myself in the best possible (i.e. employable) light. I like to think of past experiences as ingredients and the current present as the technique. Whether baking a cake or building a business, there are only 2 things at play: what was done before, and what is possible to do now. It's not really possible to change what was done before. Similarly, if the ingredients are already bought, there you are. You can buy more ingredients, certainly, just as you can learn additional skills. Did you run out of cream while assembling a tiramisu? Walk, bike, drive a vehicle to the nearest cow or store. Are you moving to Italy for 5 years to work? Get on italki, find an Italian dictionary, bookmark Google translate, find the best pizzeria in town (I'm joking a little bit, but some of the best pizza I ever had came from a place which was run by a couple from Rome...). 

See the similarity? Both require time and another resource, usually money and effort. You can sometimes compensate for ingredients, but eventually, they have to be sourced. I liken it to learning a skill or hiring someone with the proper skills for a business, or a career. 

I find it strange that when it comes to baking, it's so much easier to just start, and force myself to go through the motions. Eventually, I'll have a cake, or dinner. Same with washing dishes or clothes, sorting, cleaning. Simple, physical tasks. For me, the mental are harder: studying, programming, applying for jobs, writing. They all require total focus, while it seems that my brain takes every moment available to shut off. My brain is either really efficient or selectively lazy, depending on the perspective. 

Not so for this castella cake. As I mused in this post, one of my weaknesses is the easy promise, even (especially...!) to myself. I'm trying to fix it, and one promise that I have kept is a castella cake for my mother. Every year, I make a birthday cake for each of my parents and my brother. Every year, since I started this, around the time I found this recipe, for over 5 years now, my mother has requested the same cake. It's not too complicated, consisting entirely of eggs, sugar, flour, milk and vanilla. Rather, it's the technique that requires precision and plain, pure, hard work. I won't list the recipe here, not when you can find it so detailed and clear on Just Hungry

This time, it even took 2 tries, since I found that you can only put one cake in the oven at a time. Luckily, I did have enough eggs to try again, and it survived the trip to Hong Kong. However, it did not survive my grandmother on my dad's side, who loves cake, but hates butter (how are we related...?!). In fact, the perfection of which I speak was actually accomplished in Hong Kong, borrowing my uncle's tiny, portable oven. One more hint: turn the oven temperature somewhat higher than recommended. That is the only change I can say for this recipe. Unfortunately, I don't know how high, since the way I found this out was that my uncle's oven is ridiculously miscalibrated. An adventure for another time...

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