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For Good Measure: A Non-Baker's Adventure in Cake Making

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After speaking with Mary Walke, the designer behind Mary Mary Handmade, about her exclusive measuring spoon necklace for the Shop and passion for baking, I decided to face my greatest culinary fear: baking a cake.

Strawberry Cake

I cook a lot. On any given night, you'll find me braising chicken in milk, simmering carrots in butter and honey, and experimenting with another broccoli rabe pasta. So try to contain your shock when I tell you this: I have never baked a cake.

While I have been cooking for as long as I can remember, my baking career has not been nearly as successful; its path is marked by burnt cookies, overly runny pies, and deflated muffins. A boyfriend once compared my chocolate chip cookies to E.T. after they had shriveled into inedible, oblong lumps, and my mother referred to the sugar cookies I baked last Christmas as "holiday bricks."

More: Craving some molasses cookies? Measure carefully.

One memorable sheet of ginger snap cookies came out better resembling asphalt than cookies of any kind. My perfectly rounded scant teaspoons of dough had expanded to cover the entire cookie sheet in a shiny black, hardened coating in the span of 8 to 12 minutes. A friend's post-mortem revealed that I had misread "two tablespoons of molasses" as two cups—I had to throw away the baking sheet.

Molasses Cookies

It should come as no surprise after the ginger snap incident that my failure as a baker comes from my inability—or, more likely, refusal—to properly measure anything. While I cook most of my meals directly from recipes, I often glaze over specific measurements.

In my mind, a teaspoon of turmeric is the amount of spice that fits between my thumb and two fingers when pinching it out of the spice tin, one cup of wine is equivalent to roughly four seconds of pouring at a 40º angle, etc. I knew better than to attempt baking a cake, with its dry and liquid measuring cups, tablespoons, and teaspoons. Then I spoke to Mary Walke, the designer behind Mary Mary Handmade who recently created an exlcusive measuring spoon necklace for the Shop.

Measuring Spoons Necklace  Measuring Spoons Necklace

Over the course of our conversation, Mary admitted to me that she had only recently become a baker. This piqued my interest, as most of the bakers I know seem to be born with their natural ability to measure out the perfect cup of flour, and are armed with an explanation of why measuring by weight is truly superior to the cup method. Mary explained, "I've discovered that I love baking, cooking, and learning about new processes like how to make bread and cakes. I'm pretty self-taught—I love exploring all different techniques and just kind of practicing and seeing what I can do." Mary created the measuring spoons necklace as a symbol of a passion for baking to be shared and enjoyed by others.

I had to wonder, do I even own a set of measuring spoons?

After speaking with Mary, I set out to talk to our own baking aficionado, Sarah Jampel, the writer and editor of For Goodness Cake. She recommended that I make the Strawberry Cake for Mother's Day (and Other Days) by drbabs for my first cake. "It's so, so good and easy," she assured me, "You'll be completely fine." I had my doubts.

Pecorino Cheese Cake

My first challenge came before I even raided the pantry. The recipe called for a 8- x 12-inch ceramic dish; my two closest options were a 9- x 13-inch and a 7- x 10-inch glass pans. Off to a good start. My boyfriend, a talented baker who I recruited for damage control, recommended that I pick the larger of the two. Apparently cakes rise?

Undeterred, I carefully arranged my mise en place, collecting bags of flour, baking powder, and turbinado sugar from the depths of my pantry. I began with smaller, more manageable measurements first. Baby steps. I measured out the baking powder and salt without incident, albeit somewhat cantankerously (Does anyone really ever measure out a half teaspoon of salt?).

Measuring by Weight

The yogurt almost derailed me. Is it more accurate to measure yogurt in a wet or dry measuring cup? Yes, it's technically a wet ingredient, but a dry cup made more sense to me. There was trouble in paradise when I misread "tablespoon" as "teaspoon" for the vegetable oil, but I made a quick recovery after Google informed me that there are 3 teaspoons to every tablespoon.

The measuring process lead me to contemplate such (cooking-related) life-altering questions as: Should I be measuring the milk from the bottom or top of the meniscus? Whatever happened to "pinches" and "splashes"? Do people ever measure eggs, or do they just trust that they are all roughly the same size?

How to Measure Flour

Then came my Everest: measuring flour. I tried to make do without a scale and instead use the tips from an incredibly timely Food52 article, How to Measure Flour. The article instructed me to first aerate the flour by whisking it with a spoon then fill the measuring cup one spoonful at a time without pressing down on the flour. I then scraped the excess off with a knife, and voila: one accurately measured cup of flour.

The rest of the process went relatively smoothly. Sure, I defintely built up some muscle in my right arm after creaming the butter and sugar "on high speed" for 3 minutes without the help of a stand mixer, but the cake came out—to my immense relief—beautifully. I can't say I've turned a corner completely, but I've definitely learned a thing or two about the value of measuring. I'd say I've earned my measuring spoon necklace.

How to Cream Butter

Here are a few of the tips I learned, for my fellow non-measurers:

  • 1 tablespoon is equal to 3 teaspoons.
  • It's easy to misread measurements, only to realize you doubled the flour as you pour it into the mixing bowl. To avoid error, try to measure out as much as you can in separate bowls before combining them into one big bowl where you can't retract an incorrect measurement. Yes, you will have more dishes to do at the end, but at least it's fail-proof.
  • Yogurt, according to an unofficial poll of the Food52 editors, should be measured in a dry measuring cup—should you ever run into that conundrum.
  • The method you use for measuring flour makes a difference. While one cup should measure approximately 4.5 ounces, it can weigh as much as 6 ounces if measured incorrectly.
  • On that note, never shake or tap flour once it is in the measuring cup, as this may cause you to over-measure.
  • If you insist on approximating measurements, at least use these tips to help you approximate.

Strawberry Cake

Strawberry Cake for Mother's Day (and Other Days) by drbabs

Serves 8 to 12

1 1/2 pound strawberries, hulled and halved
2 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 pound (1 stick) butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 eggs, room temperature
1 cup plain Greek yogurt, room temperature
1/2 cup milk, room temperature
2 tablespoons turbinado sugar

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

What are some of your greatest baking fears or feats? Tell us in the comments below!

Photo by James Ransom

Tags: Tips & Techniques, Long Reads, Profiles