I went to bed at 6:30 am. I don’t have a particularly good reason for this as I mostly rebeat the video game Bastion. My day then started around 1:00pm which was equally idiotic as that was late enough to guarantee I’d waste the day but early enough that I wouldn’t be too awake for my day wasting. My frustration led me to start cleaning out my gmail inbox. So I started replying to outstanding requests, caught up with replies to long-standing email threads and formally recognized the failures and oversights that come with ignoring a message for a few months.

The last message I addressed was regarding a recipe exchange I had signed up for in September that I couldn’t bring myself to opt out of. My reply became oddly personal, and I’ve included it below. It started out as an apology and morphed into a meditation on my current life.

I’m a terrible person. Where a normal person would probably have just dropped it or maybe apologized or phoned it in, I’m trying to fix something I’ve left broken for months. I hope it proves to be more akin a broken piece of furniture where time doesn’t exacerbate the failure as opposed to say dropping an egg where failure to attend to it tends to be more problematic the longer it’s left to sit. I fully recognize I’ve fundamentally mis-understood this recipe exchange.

In 5th grade I opted out of a Pollyanna at Christmas but the teacher assumed I had just failed to sign up so I was assigned to give someone a gift. Everyone got something but that person and I felt absolutely mortified by the injustice of it. The teacher swooped in and gave the person a gift on my behalf saying something about it being lost in the closet. Normally adults aren’t so naked in their willingness to save face for children but Mrs. Newton was. I miss her.

I bake. It rewards repetition in a way that other types of cooking doesn’t seem to and this recipe is up near the top in terms of total batches done. I made the mistake of tripling the batch size once thinking a six quart stand mixer would take it. All was going well until, like Icarus I realized I had reached too far and my dreams melted away at 2am in a darkened kitchen as I scraped bits of cookie dough from a thousand kitchen surfaces. Such hubris.

Recipes have a provenance to them, or at least can. My mother would punish my brother and I with authentic Irish cooking so I had little to start from. After she and my father split up, we took on boarders at the house and this cookie recipe was my housemate’s girlfriend’s mother’s, or so she told me (the girlfriend). She was Mormon and I was tickled to be added to a lineage of some sort but the ingredients suggest either substitutions of a much more recent vintage (although the idea of an octogenarian homemaker seizing up pudding as the silver bullet for chocolate chip cookies would be a lovely master stroke). I was later looking up cookie recipes and I found that the recipe below was actually first published by Good Housekeeping in the late 90s. A shorter lineage than I even suspected.

The usage of vanilla pudding adds a toothsomeness to the crumb that lets the cookie coat the mouth and it does so without being cloyingly sweet.

The recipe:

Cream these together

2 sticks butter
227g brown sugar
2 3.4 oz packages of instant vanilla pudding

Then mix this in until the mix has lightened a bit
2 eggs

Then slowly mix these in
287g flour
6g baking soda

Then fold in these
285g chocolate chips
5g vanilla

Preheat to 375 degrees F (this should have come up first)

The pudding makes so these cookies don’t spread too much. I tend to also chill the dough before dishing onto cookie sheets. Also, I recommend a relatively small dough ball. Maybe between the side of a walnut up to maybe the size of a quail egg.

5.5 minutes on each side (if you do two sheets at once, remove tray, rotate top and bottom tray, and rotate each 180 degrees, tiny cookies can cook unevenly)

I hope you’re well and have received recipes from people who’ve proven to be less of a lackwit than myself.

Hit “send + archive” left me with an empty inbox.  This feels nice.

I related the story about the half-eaten bread pudding to my supervisor who replied with. “I was just fine. I saw it told everyone to take it. Is quite good.” This made me wince a little and I saw that she had a cup of it behind her. “Can you at least microwave it a little?” and she agreed to. Later I got an IM from her: Microwave melted chocolate. Even better. You are genius.

I suppose I’ve received worse news.

This incident made me step back and realize that I’ve been dealing with coworkers that have terrible taste in baked goods for nearly a decade. Do none of these people have grandmothers? Do none of them bake? Even on the days where I phone it in and use brownie mix people are agog over it. On my last day I should pull a Wizard of Oz and tell everyone “the power to bake was within you the whole time” before disappearing.

Maybe it is time to get Blackout Baking up and running.

Last Wednesday my work group went on a canoe trip and followed it up with a barbecue at a coworker’s house. I had baked a key lime cheesecake and half baked a bread pudding (thinking I’d serve it warm at the barbecue) and asked my boss to bring them. He was coming later and I had no place to store the baked goods while we canoed. He arrived, I asked him about the cakes and his reply was “aaaaah, shit”. So they waited in the work fridge for my return after Colossalcon.

I came in Monday, checked their status and found the bread pudding was half gone and the key lime cheesecake was completely gone. The cheesecake doesn’t surprise me but the bread pudding? It was only half-baked. Underdone bread pudding has the texture and appearance of croutons covered in chocolate chips and baby snot which never struck me as toothsome.

This rivals the time my coworkers at my previous employer ate 2.5 lbs of seized fudge which had the taste and texture of chocolate chalk.

Fudge in an exercise in seeing how small you can get sugar crystals. You do this by interfering with crystallization by mixing multiple sugar types, letting the fudge get as close to solidifying without touching it and inducing crystal formation, and finally by beating the hell out of the fudge after it’s cooled.

The fudge I wanted to make is a maple walnut fudge because
1) it tastes like Vermont
2) sugar is a cheaper input per pound than chocolate

I generally prepare double batches as baked goods scale and I like to feed people. Normally, this saves time, normally. The recipe called for the syrup to be brought to 240 degrees and at 230 degrees the mixture boiled over. I transferred the mix to another pan after cleaning up a lot of burned sugar I began heating it again. At 230 degrees the mixture boiled over and I thought “why did that happen? I heated it slowly” not remembering that heating rate in no way changes boiling point.

Good job, Terry.

I poured the mixture into a very high stock pot and boiled it directly to 240 degrees. Good thing I went to school for chemistry.

Me: Hi, my name is Terry Robinson.
Secretary: Hi, Terry, what can I do for you?
Me: I’m here to declare my intention to win the Holiday party.
Secretary: What do you mean?
Me: It’s a potluck, no?
Secretary: Yes, but it’s not a competition.
Me: That’s what losers say.

Side Note:

No one at work says “good night” when they leave for the day. I was annoyed by this at first until I realized that leaving people have no easy way of knowing who’s still in. I suppose one could just yell “good night” into a seemingly empty office but I can see how someone would be opposed to this.

I have purchased four recipe books in my lifetime. Two are by Alton Brown, one is Ratios, and the last is 125 Best Cheesecakes. The last of these makes a barely passable doorstop let alone a cookbook. The metric measurements it lists aren’t by mass but by volume leading the reader to add 125ml of sugar or 200ml of eggs to a recipe. This is practically less than useless as it takes up the space where I could have written measurements by mass. Its recipe tips are a list of near tautologies like “to change the texture of the crust, adjust how long you crush the graham crackers”. This man is the Gauss of cheesecakes… Internally, there are pictures of some of the cheesecakes but they are nowhere near the recipe to make that cake and the photos don’t even include a cross reference to a page.

My final criticism is in its “aspirational” bake times. I’ve yet to prepare something from this recipe book that didn’t require at least 20% more bake time. Today’s recipe was off by a factor of 2 and I was rather late to a surprised party because of it. I suppose it being a custard I could have left and come back to it but I leave no cake behind.

Baking with yeast is new to me. I don’t like depending on another organism to do my work in the kitchen. Yeast doesn’t play by the normal rules of quick breads. There is a biological element I need to wait for. Baking powder is governed by the Arrhenius equation. If something is 10º warmer, the reaction doubles in speed. Not with yeast, 10º means death if the temperature goes much above 115º. If this rule held for organisms, we could speed our children to puberty by putting them in a sauna.

I also don’t like the fact that the expiration date on the package represents the date on which the ingredient, well, expires. I am an actuary and need no additional reminders of morbidity. The milk was microwaved to 112º, I added a teaspoon of sugar to the milk, and then added yeast. I waited 15 minutes for froth and saw nothing. Rather than thinking I had dumped a packet of dead yeast into milk I prefer to think there’s a yeast union. At 5:20pm, Yeast Local 219 was simply on an mandated break.

I wound up leaving Randy’s at around 7am, getting home at 8am, and waking up at 2pm. This isn’t the weirdest schedule I’ve slipped into but it was a bit stranger than I wanted. I spent the afternoon and evening walking on my treadmill and catching up on miscellaneous things until I got bored around 9pm.

I still had a lot of cakes and wanted social engagement so I called Stomping Grounds Games and offered to trade them cakes for the right to steal an arbitrary number of sodas and waters from them when I visited. They accepted by terms and the 10 or so people at the store ate their fill of my baked bounty. Someone recommended I sell what I made, a suggestion at which I scoffed, but I thought about it and thought it’d be fair to offer a cake as a prize for a Magic tournament and shortly thereafter the Stomping Grounds Diabetes Open was born. Right now the top prize is a peanut butter brownie mousse pie and top 8 gets creme brûlée. I’m curious to see how it develops.

I’ve gotten better at baking over time. This may sound obvious but today the contrast was stark. The first carrot cake with cream cheese frosting I ever made took me about six hours. Of this, three was actual work and the rest was baking, cooling, and other time where I could do other things. Today, I did this all in about two with one hour being baking time.

Here’s what I think I’ve done differently:
*I use 1 more bowl – In baking, many ingredients can be done in sets. For instance, fats and sugars in cakes will usually be done together. Historically, I tried to use as few bowls as possible, but you can speed up prep by measuring the next ingredient in another bowl while the previous one mixes. This saves the time of removing the mixing bowl from the stand mixer and returning it.
*Knowing when I can over mix – Some ingredients will over mix. For instance, once flour is added, you can mix too much and the gluten in the flour will make the dough tough. It’s hard to over mix butter/sugar and somewhat hard to over mix the semi-final batter. This lets me do a step without watching the mixer.
*Prepping Butter – When I’m going to bake a lot of things, the night before, I leave 2 lbs of butter on the counter still wrapped in a sealed container. Room temperature butter is so much easier to work with.
*Excess Inventory – I follow a simple rule for common ingredients. Always have an open bag and backup bag of something. This means that I always have 2 bags of chocolate morsels, one in use, one in reserve at all times. It requires extra space, but this extra space doesn’t often get accessed so things can be arranged snugly in it. This has almost eliminated emergency store trips.
*Split Recipes – Some recipes are “bases”. The cheesecake recipe I use makes 2 9″ rounds so making two cheesecakes of different types is easy. In this case, ½ was kept plain, the other had cookie crumbs added to it.
*Better balance – A good kitchen balance is indispensable. My previous balance was 5g accurate so I needed a second smaller balance for things like salt. I purchased a $40 quality balance that is gram accurate up to 5 kilos and haven’t looked back.
*Clean everything all the time – I have a half dozen kitchen towels on hand at all times. This allows me to clean as I go. You figure I can probably re-use some dirty bowls between cakes but for whatever reason I find it easier to just clean everything each time and never have to think about where to put something.

Randy Booz turns… something in a week or so and I need to make him a large quantity of cakes because of a promise made while running a half-marathon. Long story short, Randy doesn’t often reply to text messages, I said that if he replied to the string I had sent him I’d bake him a cake for each, I had issued nine messages at that point, thus nine cakes.

Here was the spread:
Carrot Cake
Angel Food Cake
German Chocolate Cake (actually named after a guy not the nation-state)
Oreo Cheesecake
Berry Cheesecake
Apple Cake
Chocolate Peanut Butter Cheese Bar
Peanut Butter Mousse Pie
Butter Cream-frosted Gold Cake

To prepare, I purchased 36 eggs, 6 lbs of cream cheese, 10 lbs of sugar, 10 lbs of flour, a pint of vanilla, 8 lbs of various fruits, 2 lbs of cookies and 38 oz of pepperoni. Why the pepperoni? Because before I started making nine of the tastiest cakes of my life I was sure as heck going back to a low-carb diet.