I’ve discovered over the years that the recreational-eating public regards the life of a professional cookbook author as one long, glowing feast of dishes whose recipes I pen perfectly as aromas fill my pleasant kitchen.
Well, maybe it’s that way in the assistant-laden worlds of Rachael Ray or Paula Deen. But in mine, the process can be as messy as the proverbial sausage making.
For example, I spent a recent weekend tethered to king cake.
King cake is traditional for Mardi Gras in New Orleans and the parties leading up to it, which end on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.
King cakes aren’t actually cakes. They’re breads that start with a sweet yeast dough that is either rolled up with cinnamon or wrapped around a creamy filling. This confection is then frosted and sprinkled with sugar in the Mardi Gras colors of green, gold and purple.
Before baking, a small plastic baby is inserted in the dough (some go old-school and use a pecan half or a dried bean). The person who gets the slice of cake containing the baby has to bring a king cake to the next party.
The interesting thing is that as big a deal as king cakes are in New Orleans, I’m told that few people make them at home because dozens of good bakeries churn them out. So my NOLA contacts were of little help with recipe advice.
I wanted to make a filled, coconut-flavored king cake for this recipe, which is destined for my next cookbook. Why? Because I like coconut. It’s my book. I think I have some say.
On an ingredient prowl at the supermarket, I spotted cream of coconut, the stuff that goes into pina coladas. Ah, I thought.
On my first attempt at the dough, the yeast died. The rock-hard stuff hit the trash can with a thump. An hour and several mixing bowls wasted.
The second time, the dough rose beautifully. I made a filling from softened cream cheese and the cream of coconut, and it was sweet enough that I didn’t need to add sugar.
I also discovered the best place in my kitchen to soften butter or cream cheese: The flat top of my black coffee maker, which sits directly under a toasty warm overhead halogen light. I beamed at my resourcefulness – and made a note not to forget about the softening fatty substances and allow them to leak into the water reservoir.
Things are going now, I thought. I pressed out the dough and spooned in the filling. I slid the ring of dough onto a cookie sheet, let it go for another rising and then put it into the oven, congratulating myself on my cleverness. Cream of coconut, so original.
Then I smelled something.
I looked in the oven and saw that the filling had popped out of the sides of the dough and was billowing out, like shaving cream from a punctured can, and hitting the hot oven rack.
I think I discovered why pina coladas are served frozen.
For the third try, I scrounged up my few remaining clean bowls and fell back on regular old coconut in the filling and coconut flavoring in the icing. My creative ego felt punctured. But four runs of the dishwasher later – I had used every bowl, spoon and measuring cup I owned by then – I had a coconutty, not-too-sweet king cake. Just what I wanted.
I despised chemistry class in high school and avoided science courses in college, but now spend a lot of time tinkering around a laboratory. Cooking is chemistry, of course, when you talk about such things as heating ingredients. But cooking is also a mental chemistry experiment, where I go a little wild sometimes imagining what can I put together, and occasionally come up with Frankenstein’s monster.
At least my bombs haven’t literally led to explosions, yet.
And I’m not abandoning that cream of coconut-cream cheese idea. It will make the perfect frosting for something. Let me think now. ...