Late-Night Baking

For the author, the urge to bake strikes at night. From top: her Golden Nutmeg Buns, Favorite Bittersweet Chocolate Bars and Almond Soda Bread.
For the author, the urge to bake strikes at night. From top: her Golden Nutmeg Buns, Favorite Bittersweet Chocolate Bars and Almond Soda Bread. (James M. Thresher - For The Washington Post; Styled By Lisa Yockelson For The Washington Post)
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By Lisa Yockelson
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, September 23, 2009

It is well past 9 p.m. I am dreaming about dough and batter, yet I am not asleep. The night is still young for obsessed bakers like me who enjoy the tranquilizing act of stirring a brownie batter, kneading a batch of yeast dough or tossing together a quick bread before bedtime.

Recreational artists, knitters, needlepointers, woodworkers, scrapbookers and other crafters know how much fun it is to practice a kind of aesthetic hobby. Baking is a nifty activity that presents a tasty reward at the end.

What's more, I know there are legions of you out there decorating cookies, rolling all kinds of dough, baking novelty cakes and pulling pans of bar cookies from the oven after the sun sets. We have had numerous conversations about this, and your individual secrets are safe with me. I am frequently at the homes of friends who readily pull out baking ingredients. And off we go.

The thread goes something like this: At dinner I am mulling over what makes a chocolate confection so fudgy and (at the same time) moist, or what kind of quick-bread dough would readily accept full-flavored chunks of almond paste, or what kind of spice (besides cinnamon) might animate a sweet yeast dough. The musings go on and on. Before you know it, I am scouring the pantry for raw materials.

The pleasure of waking up to a tin or two of something delicious is obvious. But the pitfalls of baking late at night, when all about you is wrapped in a veil of silence, can be quietly hilarious. Take my Banana Cake Episode.

Wanting to find the perfect cake -- dissolving of texture, downy and tall, filled with the pure, stark flavor of the fruit -- I embarked upon an on-again, off-again fling of creating banana-infused batters. I bought enough bananas (about 15 pounds) to get me through the long-term project. Or so I thought.

The formula began to tease me. Suddenly, I decided to change the ratio of butter to liquid-creamy dairy, forcing me to make runs to a market that stays open late: first for buttermilk, then for sour cream. I ran out of ripe bananas next, so it was back to the store. Spying me with a few pounds of bargain bananas hanging from my arm, the cashier gave me a knowing wink and nod.

Then there was the Chocolate Incident. Is there anything better than a warm block of chocolate goodness to cap the evening? Hardly. After a challenging day, I set about to melt three-quarters of a pound of chocolate the old-fashioned way, in a heavy pan, to make bittersweet bars. I broke the chocolate into small chunks and shards, then tossed it into a wide pan with a long handle. Once the chocolate had melted to a silky, fluid state, I reached lazily to remove the pan from the burner; somehow, my elbow tipped the handle and allowed the mass to cascade all over the stove top.

When you just have to have chocolate, no task is too daunting. After tidying up, I continued following the recipe. The confection, difficult to cut when cooled for less than an hour but noteworthy in its unctuousness, was worth the spill. Mental note: Maintain composure at all times when baking at night, and soldier on, especially when a buttery chocolate thing is in the making.

Finally, I come to the Intrepid Baking Interlude: Time moves at a crawl when you are waiting for yeast dough to rise once or twice. Only truly dedicated bakers would embark on such a project after sundown. One night, the idea of my cardamom-infused yeast dough, rich in butter and whole eggs and notably fragrant, captivated me enough to dive right in around 9.

It was a cold evening, and the dough was taking its own sweet time to expand. Usually, that would please me, for the flavor and texture of the finished product would be enhanced by a leisurely rise. Soon I realized that if I shepherded the dough through to its golden-baked conclusion, I would be slathering a roll with butter and jam around 3 a.m., a little too early for breakfast.

At that point, the dough had completed the first fermentation stage. I folded it over onto itself and compressed it lightly, then wrapped it properly and placed it in the refrigerator.

The next day, the flavor of the dough had improved, yielding a better bread than what would have resulted from middle-of-the-night baking. Lesson learned: Evening is a good time to accomplish the initial development of a yeast dough, but any baking of breadlike treats should be confined to the quick variety (such as my accompanying Almond Soda Bread recipe).

Even in early fall, baking after sundown is a cooler, more comfortable experience. Certainly you can plot and plan accordingly, hoping to avoid emergency runs to the market. But if the unforeseen happens, you may just meet up with me in the baking aisle, reaching for that gotta-have ingredient.

Lisa Yockelson is the author of "ChocolateChocolate" (John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2005). Her new book, "bakingStyle," will be published by John Wiley & Sons in 2011.

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