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Esurientes - The Comfort Zone

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

One-bowl chocolate citrus cakes (and a theory)

When I posted about the one-bowl chocolate cherry cake a few weeks ago I also meant to include this photo of the cupcakes I made using the same technique; but with a jar of the (bitter!) grapefruit marmalade I made last winter. I took these to a market stall, where all except one were bought by the one person who was off to lunch at her daughter's house. I kind of hoped she wasn't going to give them to her grandchildren; with dark chocolate, not a lot of sugar and bitter marmalade, these were definitely for adult tastes!

I had an email today from a reader telling me of an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about a one-pot chocolate cake showdown. Recipes were made from recipes by Martha Stewart, Amanda Hesser, Nigella Lawson and Shirley Corriher. The article included the usual criticism of Nigella's recipes I have come to expect from US writers (I'm sorry!!). I find it really interesting that the criticism of Nigella’s recipes generally come from the USA – and I have a theory about this. I feel it's not actually to do with her, but with her American editors who are converting her recipes to American-style cup/volume measurements. Nigella's recipes use the more precise measurements by weight, which, when baking is really what you should be doing. Baking, by its very nature is all about accuracy, therefore you really need to weigh your dry ingredients rather than add them by volume. Volume measurements change depending on whether you "swoop or scoop", the humidity of the day, the altitude etc.etc. They're just not accurate enough, and this was reinforced when I went to my bread baking class this week and we were told always to bake by weight not volume. I do believe this was the case in this article because they complain about having to measure 3/8 cup of sour cream! Hehehe. In my Nigella books all her sour cream measurements are in millilitres, which are much easier to measure.
I find it really funny that the Brits & Aussies/Kiwis generally rave about her recipes and the Americans find them really inaccurate. The measurement systems are different. Doesn’t that say something?!?!?

Now I openly admit that I might be wrong about this, so I'm happy to hear anyone else's opinions - either about Nigella's recipes or the baking by weight VS volume argument.


  • I hate fractions of cups - maybe US measuring jugs have a lot more lines! Volume measurements haven't always worked for me - either too much or too little batter.

    I like Nigella's commentary and reminders; hence I use quotation marks to highlight handy images.

    Imagine if they tried to convert Jamie Oliver recipes!

    By Blogger Belinda, at 4/25/2006 02:56:00 pm  

  • Mmm.
    I love Nigella and her recipes have always worked perfectly for me, though I approximate measurements sometimes!

    By Blogger Pinkeagle, at 4/25/2006 07:21:00 pm  

  • I've read quite a few claims that her recipes don't work, but have never experienced that myself. Apart from her pistachio macaroons, everything I've cooked according to her instructions have turned out delicious and perfect. Even the macaroons tasted lovely, even if they didn't look like 'proper' macaroons.
    I'm not even sure that it's the problem of conversions- I don't have kitchen scales and use one of those measuring cups that gives tiny lines for the weight equivalents of various ingredients. Hardly a reliable 'weighing tool', but still works just fine.

    By Blogger Pille, at 4/25/2006 09:59:00 pm  

  • Belinda - I love Nigella's commentary too. It's very witty and contains so many wry little literary references that make me smile. I find the British are better at that sort of cook book than the US writers. Or maybe I'm just drawn to the British personality.
    Yes, I can't stand cooking by using cups! 3/8???? I was never good at maths...

    Pinkeagle - Good to know!! I'm glad I'm getting some positive feedback. I've read so many reviews criticising her lack of accuracy.

    Pille - Very interesting! I wonder if there's something to do with having the right "feel" for baking. I've noticed I've become a lot more confident knowing what I should do without having to slavishly follow the amounts and methods. I wonder if you've developed a feel for how her measurements work?

    By Blogger Niki, at 4/25/2006 10:12:00 pm  

  • I must pay more attention to Nigella. Your theory is intriguing: might it also be that her European taste calls for less sugar? Americans are sooo addicted to sugar. While the "science" of baking and the advisability of weighing is much discussed -- it's not my experience. I turn recipes upside down all the time (cutting sugar, especially) and never weigh anything (although am religious about fluffing flour and all dry ingredients before measuring) -- with only a rare mishap.

    Great discussion!

    By Blogger Alanna, at 4/25/2006 11:03:00 pm  

  • In my view baking is a science and the cookbook that taught me that is an American one The Cake Bible - and Rose thoughtfully provides her recipes in volume, ounces and grams - very thorough indeed. I fairly much stick religiously to a recipe unless I am baking some kind of heavy banana/nut/concoction and then I will interchange white with brown sugar, plain flour with wholemeal etc.

    I think the expert on Nigella's recipes would have to be Sarah who is learning how to eat - maybe we should get her to weigh in (no pun intended) on this issue?

    By Blogger Lushlife, at 4/26/2006 05:48:00 pm  

  • Hi!
    I've been lurking around your blog for a while now.

    I'm Australian, but have an American version of "How to be a domestic goddess"- a birthday present which was sadly ordered over the internet for me.
    I've found the recipes in this book very hard to use (and have had more failures than successes)- so much so that I'm going to buy a 'real'copy of the book.

    I much prefer to measure by weight, it makes everything so much easier and more accurate. :)

    x Teresa

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4/26/2006 08:28:00 pm  

  • AK - Interesting. I had noticed that the cookie recipes in the Maida Heatter book I have tend towards an excessive sweetness for my tastes, but I might not be representative of all Australians. Although our Cadbury chocolate is less sweet and more smooth than your Hershey's. I like the idea of "fluffing" your dry ingredients in cups, although I have to admit I'm surgically attached to my scales. :-) I think they're especially good if you're a novice home cook because they provide the exact precise measurements new cooks need.

    Lushlife - I had that book; I ordered it 2nd hand over the internet, but I gave it away as a Christmas present last year to somebody who I thought would really appreciate it. You've reminded me I must order another. I loved her mix of science and passion verging on obsession about testing ingredients and providing all forms of measurement for ingredients.
    I've recently discovered subbing wholemeal flour in dense cakes; I really like it.

    Teresa - Thank you! Thank you for confirming what I've suspected to be the case. I wasn't certain it would cause problems, but it's good to know that it might be a significant factor. I've also noted that various ingredients have been left out of the American edition - most notable (for me) the unrefined icing sugar in the Winter Plum Cake and burnt butter cupcakes. This icing sugar really makes the cake (it has a really toffee/vanilla/fudge flavour) and plain icing sugar in the American ed. just wouldn't be a nearly satisfactory equivalent.

    By Blogger Niki, at 4/26/2006 08:42:00 pm  

  • I am American - and from Pittsburgh, I saw that article. Did they even give the Nigella recipe? Because I am going to hunt it down and make it - but I am fanatical about using weight if at all possible. If someone wants to email me the weighted version, i'll do a taste test between the weight version and the measuring cup version : )
    My fav cooking magazine, Fine Cooking, gives most of its baking stuff in weight, and it's so much easier! Maybe I should move to Australia...after all, you guys do have TimTams, too...

    By Blogger BabelBabe, at 5/01/2006 09:26:00 pm  

  • Babelbabe- I'm not even sure which recipe they used. Nigella doesn't have many chocolate cakes that use sour cream, and those that do are not one-bowl, food-processor things. I'm a bit confused. I'd love to see ANY comparison between a weighted and volume measurement cake. I'd find it really interesting.
    Tim Tams rock. :-)

    By Blogger Niki, at 5/01/2006 10:31:00 pm  

  • It is important to use individual discretion when baking. I bake by weight and volume, depending on recipe nationality. The typical humidity here in Hong Kong is over 90%, but one day it dropped to 65% and I had to omit a full cup of flour from my normal 2 1/2 cups of flour pizza crust recipe.

    By Anonymous pumpkinpie, at 6/12/2006 03:33:00 pm  

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