Column: When baking goes wrong, keep trying


In the compiled photos above, a store called “The British Emporium” is pictured. As well, there’s a picture of the writer, Kalyani Rao, mixing the ingredients for a cake. Next to her is the final result. “The reason I had come to the British Emporium was to look for a Yule chocolate log cake, consisting of a rolled sponge with a cream filling and ganache frosting,” Rao said. “My penpal who lives in London recommended it as her favorite dessert in the winter, and I set my heart on trying it for myself.”

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Every year, as the weather grows colder, my mom and I search for desserts to make to stay warm. Both of us are legal and loyal New Zealanders, and I especially like to look for United Kingdom desserts to try making. I’ve always enjoyed baking, and it feels like a respite from the weeks of finals right before the holiday break. However, baking is unpredictable, and results can be far from what you expect.

It started when my mom told me one night that there was a shop called “British Emporium” in Grapevine, Texas. It was a bit of a far drive, but nothing we couldn’t handle on a Saturday. I was thrilled, as I didn’t even know that British shops in the U.S. existed. To find a New Zealand shop would be a miracle, I’m sure, but a British store already exceeded my expectations. I’m an avid tea drinker, so I thought I fit the bill well enough.

It was located in the Old Main Street shopping center of Grapevine, and it was so tiny, we spent a while driving around looking for it. But the minute I stepped inside, it seemed like I had fallen into the 9 3/4 platform from Harry Potter, with the incredible amount of objects piled into the shop. Stacks of jams towered over the jolly nutcracker ornaments in the corner, and the yellow Marmite labels cheerfully stood out. A shelf of mugs decorated with plants, animals and the Union Jack faced me on the left, and on the right was an entire wall dedicated to tea; it was tea heaven. I swear I spent 20 minutes just looking at all the names, and I settled on taking home some ground English Breakfast tea.

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The real reason I had come, however, was to look for a Yule chocolate log cake, consisting of a rolled sponge with a cream filling and ganache frosting. My penpal who lives in London recommended it as her favorite dessert in the winter, and I had set my heart on trying it for myself. For some reason, it had stuck in my mind for weeks as I pondered how to make it. I’m a vegetarian, and the cake required four eggs, so my mom and I had apprehensively considered many different ways to make it. First, I was hoping I could just buy it at the British store to try a correctly baked version. Fortunately, they had some packages in the store, but they were very costly. It probably costed a lot for them to ship a whole cake from England, but I decided it wasn’t worth it, and that I should just make it at home.

Cake No. 1

The first step was to make the chocolate sponge, and everything looked fine so far. What I was really worried about was the rolling part. You have to roll the sponge up to set the shape, then unroll it to spread the cream, then roll it back up again. The final shape should be like a tree branch, which explains the name “chocolate log.”  However, the egg replacer could have gone any number of ways; it could have caused the

cake not to rise, or it could have made it rubbery, or stiff, or too soft. That’s the trouble with vegetarian/vegan baking — sometimes you never know what you’re going to get.

I started to worry when I took it out of the oven and saw barely any rise. When a cake doesn’t rise, it means it’s really dense. I rolled it up fine, but when it was time to unroll it, it fell apart. The cake was in pieces, and I was tense. I’ve made cupcakes and cakes many times, and I’ve never had something I was making be irreparably ruined before. I had to throw it away. But my mom reassured me that it was okay, and I resolved to remake it with a different kind of egg replacement.

Cake No. 2

Nothing was obviously wrong until I put it in the oven. This time I had used whipped aquafaba, aka chickpea brine, as the egg replacement. I felt my heart drop into my stomach as I peered into the oven, watching with horror as it bubbled like a potion in a cauldron. It was rising like something that I had never seen before. I must’ve not mixed the batter well enough, and I could already tell it was going in the trash. I could have cried at that point.

Cake No. 3

My patience was wearing thin, and I decided to try to make it one last time the next day. It was around 9 p.m. when I started, and 10 p.m. when it finally unrolled, but there was yet another problem. It had risen, but this time too much. Therefore, it rolled into more of a soggy rectangle than a perfect log. Looking at it, I was exhausted. Was I making a chocolate brick instead? I decided to ice it anyway since I had all the filling and frosting premade from the night before, from the very first cake attempt.

As I iced it, it sunk further and further down as the sides started to split. By the end, it had just become a lopsided three-layer cake since the sides had completely come apart. The worst part was that it didn’t even taste good. Vegan cakes have a tendency to taste rubbery since they’re missing the eggs, which is what makes a cake taste light and fluffy. This cake was a prime example. But I still had fun decorating it, even though it looked a mess. It was pouring outside that night, and I dashed outside to add a wet flower from the garden as a garnish. My mom and I both had a slice of the flavorless cake and then put the rest in the trash. Admittedly, the frosting and whipped cream filling tasted amazing, and it was a shame that the vegan chocolate log had been impossible to make.

My final interpretation

Did this mean I was a bad baker? I don’t think so. For people who like baking, they know that sometimes recipes just aren’t meant to be. You never know exactly the ingredients that the author used, and maybe the brand of flour was the make or break of their cake. It’s also hard to decide when to stop trying to make something — The first time the cake failed, I desperately wanted to figure out what went wrong. The hardest part is realizing sometimes you may never know. I won’t know if the eggs were the reason this cake was impossible to make vegan, but it’s the most probable reason.

The dangers of a secretly bad recipe isn’t a reason not to try baking. I think it’s a really engaging and rewarding hobby, and you develop life skills while sharing delicious desserts with your family and friends. I really enjoy baking, but it does teach you life lessons on the journey. And no matter what, have fun with it. Even though I was disappointed with my final try at the chocolate log, the frosting did taste delicious, and it was rewarding to take out my anger at the recipes not working on the cake before we threw it away … just kidding. Maybe.

P.S. If you want to try baking, make some simple cupcakes — they can never go wrong. My personal favorite comes from “Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World,” by Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero.