If you want to know the most common mistake home bakers make, Marion Cunningham, author of "The Fannie Farmer Baking Book," will give you an answer you wouldn't have expected: What most people do wrong is blame themselves for their failures rather than blaming the recipes or the ingredients.
That's a relief.
And another comfort Cunningham offers for home bakers: "Fortunately you can eat your failures."
Cunningham is indeed a comforting woman, one who at 62 years has just written her second book, her first being the modern re-creation of the Fannie Farmer Cookbook in 1979. She never even made the transition from full-time housewife to cooking teacher and author until she was approaching 50. Now, with this virtual encyclopedia of American baking, she has produced about as homey a cookbook as could be, inventing such new traditions as breakfast pies and neighborhood cakes.
While the cooking world has been jetting around fueled with white chocolate and raspberry essence, Cunningham, who hadn't even been outside of California and certainly never in a plane two decades ago, has reinvented the wheel -- looked into old-fashioned angel food cakes and sourdough breads and soda crackers to understand what makes them work and explain how to make them work best.
No tarte tatin, rather apple pizza pie. Nothing even resembling a mirroir au cassis. Far, far from flourless sauces, Cunningham has instead been studying how to make the old stuff better. Her recipes are for graham crackers and gingerbread. ("People forget that bread in gingerbread really means bread," she says.) The most nouvelle touch in the 624 pages is to call her cookie version gingerbread persons.
All this took 3 1/2 years, since Cunningham spent months at the sources -- visiting flour mills and cracker factories. "A soda cracker is much more complex than puff pastry," she discovered. The process of making that flaky cracker is called laminating, the forming of many layers within the dough; and the factory machinery is able to bake the crackers at temperatures that vary throughout the process, so Cunningham realized that homemade crackers simply can't be as refined as factory-made ones. But she developed one that was awfully good anyway, along with several other crackers. "The one basic rule," she explained, is that "you have to turn these midway in baking."
During those 3 1/2 years Cunningham's research exploded many myths. The perfect method of folding egg whites, she discovered, is not using a spatula but using an electric mixer, at low speed for a brief time. The reason meringues collapse, she realized, is, "We have become niggardly with eggs over the years . . . Why are we only using three egg whites to cover an eight- or nine-inch pie?" And as for angel food cakes, early American cookbooks called for two full cups of egg whites for a cake, and she has returned to that proportion.
"You know what I have turned into at 62?" Cunningham asked. "A preacher." She is going around the country trying to get cooks to look at their ingredients. "Understanding ingredients" such as flour, baking soda and yeast, she preached, "does more for one than understanding techniques."
Which gets her to the most common error bakers make: They don't replace their baking powder frequently enough. "That baking powder fades -- slowly," she warned. It should be thrown away every three or four months.
That advice came from Cunningham's listening to her students' questions and searching for the answers. Their muffins weren't rising enough, and their cakes were not as high -- until they made sure to use fresh baking powder. Then there was the problem of salt-rising bread, an old American recipe that no longer seemed to work. The problem again was ingredients; modern cornmeal no longer had the germ in it, and that was necessary for the bread to rise; in addition, the bread dough had to be kept quite warm, though not necessarily warm in a bowl of rock salt, the technique that gave the bread its name.
All of which led Cunningham to finally understand what makes sourdough bread work. It is the yeast in the starter that is unique, a mutant wild yeast captured from the air by letting a grain -- sometimes with potatoes -- and a liquid ferment together. Whereas most yeasts and leaveners in general are killed by acids (which is why lemon cakes are made with lemon syrup or icing poured over after baking rather than with lemon juice in the batter), these mutant yeasts can tolerate high levels of acid, thus still leaven the bread after the starter has fermented into a sour batter.
The basic question Cunningham had to answer, though, was why she should produce a baking book in this era of light eating. "I think there are a lot of reasons to bake," she started thinking aloud; " . . . It's right here." She patted her book. And so her book is not just desserts or accompaniments or frivolities, but basic, hearty baked goods that serve important purposes. Such as breakfast. "Pie has all the elements of a nourishing good breakfast," she said, so she included particularly nutritious pies such as oatmeal-walnut, cream of wheat custard and yogurt-raisin. Gingerbread, too, is truly a bread, and makes a fine breakfast split and buttered and served with applesauce.
Her intention was to present recipes for things people really do or would make. She routinely asks her students how many had actually made puff pastry in the past year. "Never a hand goes up," she declared. "It's the emperor's clothes." So she wanted to do a book of honest food -- food that people actually cook and actually eat -- not food that is "phonied up." Thus she has chapters on "neighborhood cakes" -- simple, full-flavored and often made with fruits and vegetables -- plus "foolproof cakes" and "cakes with new textures" for health-minded people who prefer to use the more nutritious parts of grains and less sweetening. She has more than a dozen and a half pie doughs, from buckwheat to nutty chocolate.
She looked for recipes that solved real-life problems. Take Gravy Icing, for instance, which substitutes flour and granulated sugar for confectioners' sugar in a cooked icing, with results that are "perfect and foolproof; it lasts and lasts and never changes." Her editor was not, to say the least, enchanted with Gravy Icing; and in fact, the recipe is only listed as a variation of Continental Frosting rather than featured on its own. But, said Cunningham, "That's what we're all looking for." It's an easy, foolproof and delicious frosting, "the American counterpart to that true buttercream . . . I defy you to tell the difference between that and legitimate buttercream," she said. Gravy Icing is typical of a Cunningham -- or Fannie Farmer -- recipe. It is a surprise. It is simple and old fashioned. It is practical. As Cunningham put it, "I love Gravy Icing. Number one, it's true. It's authentic." CREAMED OATMEAL-WALNUT PIE (Makes 1 9-inch pie)
A grand answer for breakfast -- serve warm with a pitcher of warm heavy cream and a rasher of bacon or a slice of ham on the side. Any leftovers will keep, refrigerated, for several days. The oatmeal crust is very good with this filling. The dough breaks easily, so be a little patient and patch torn spots when necessary.
FOR THE OATMEAL DOUGH: 3/4 cup, plus 3 tablespoons white flour 1/4 cup oatmeal flakes (not instant) 1/4 teaspoon salt 1/3 cup vegetable shortening About 2 tablespoons water
FOR THE FILLING: 1 1/2 cups milk 1/3 cup brown sugar 1 teaspoon cinnamon 1/2 cup oatmeal (not instant) 1/2 cup raisins 3 tablespoons (about 1/3 stick) butter 2 eggs, lightly beaten 3/4 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
Mix the 3/4-cup flour, oatmeal and salt in a bowl. Work the shortening into the flour with a pastry blender, two knives, or your fingertips until the mixture looks like coarse bread crumbs (the oats will remain intact). Sprinkle the water over the flour mixture, a tablespoon at a time, and stir with a fork after each addition. Gather the dough in your hand and press it gently. If it holds together, even though it looks rough and is slightly sticky, it is ready to roll out. Gently press the dough into a cake about 1 inch thick and 3 inches in diameter.
Sprinkle a smooth, flat surface lightly with flour, and put 2 extra tablespoons of flour at the far edge of the surface. Use this extra flour to dust the rolling pin and to sprinkle on dough or work surface if the dough begins to stick. Using a large, heavy rolling pin, start in the center of the dough and roll lightly in all directions. With the aid of a pastry scraper or metal spatula, lift and turn the dough often to keep it from sticking. If it does stick, dust it with the reserved flour. Fit the dough loosely into the pie pan and flute the edges, and the pie shell is ready to be filled before baking, or to be partially baked or fully baked.
Line the pan with the rolled-out dough, prick all over with a fork, then press a piece of heavy-duty foil snugly into the pie shell. Bake for 6 minutes at 425 degrees, remove the foil, and bake for about 4 minutes more, until just beginning to color. Remove the pie shell from the oven. Reduce the heat to 350 degrees.
Combine the milk, sugar, cinnamon, oatmeal, raisins and butter in a saucepan, and cook over medium heat just until the mixture thickens and bubbles. Stir 1/2 cup of the hot mixture into the eggs, then stir the eggs back into the remaining hot mixture. Add the walnuts. Pour the filling into the partially baked crust, and place the pie in the oven.
Bake for about 30 minutes, or until set. When done, the edges of the filling will be quite dry, and the center will be slightly moist and shiny. Let the pie rest and settle for about 30 minutes, then cut into wedges and serve warm, with a little heavy cream, if you wish. SALT-RISING BREAD (Makes 3 8 1/2-by-4 1/2-by-2 1/2-inch loaves)
FOR THE STARTER: 2 medium-size potatoes, peeled and sliced thin 1 quart boiling water 1/4 cup nondegerminated cornmeal, such as stone-ground 2 tablespoons sugar 1 teaspoon salt
FOR THE SPONGE: 1 1/2 cups milk Starter (above) 1/4 teaspoon baking soda 4 cups all-purpose flour (includes flour for kneading)
FOR THE DOUGH: About 6 cups all-purpose flour 2 1/2 teaspoons salt 6 tablespoons vegetable shortening Sponge (above)
To make the starter: Put the potatoes in a large bowl, pour the boiling water over, then stir in the cornmeal, sugar and salt. Place the bowl in a larger bowl of hot water, and set in a warm place where the temperature remains fairly steady -- a gas oven with just the pilot light on, or an electric oven with the interior light on, or on top of the water heater. Replace the hot water two or three times -- or whenever you think of it and it's convenient -- over the next 24 hours. Then remove the potato slices from the bowl, and continue on with the sponge.
To make the sponge: Heat the milk until it is comfortably warm to your finger, then add it to the starter, along with the baking soda and 3 1/2 cups of flour. Beat briskly until smooth -- a hand rotary beater helps to smooth out the lumps. Cover with plastic wrap and again place in a larger bowl of hot water. Set in a warm place where the temperature remains fairly steady -- a gas oven with just the pilot light on, or an electric oven with the interior light on, or on top of the water heater, and let the sponge double in bulk -- this usually takes 2 to 3 hours, but check it after 1 1/2 hours. When doubled, it will look creamy and light. Don't let it sit longer after it is creamy and light or it will lose its "cheesy" flavor and become sour.
To make the bread dough: Put 4 cups of the flour in a large bowl. Add the salt and mix lightly with a fork. Drop in the shortening and blend it in with your fingers -- as though you were making pie dough -- until the mixture looks like fine meal. Add the flour mixture to the sponge and beat until well mixed. Add enough flour -- 1 or 2 cups -- to make a soft, manageable dough you can knead. Turn out onto a floured surface and knead for a minute or two. Let rest for 10 minutes.
Resume kneading until the dough is smooth (this dough is heavy and rather puttylike) -- about 10 minutes. Divide into thirds and shape each piece into a loaf. Place in greased 9-inch loaf pans. Cover with plastic wrap, set the pans in a larger pan of hot water, and again set in a warm place to rise. This final rise will take about 3 hours, and the loaves should increase in volume by about 1/3 -- this is less than the usual doubling in bulk. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 45 to 55 minutes, until golden brown. If in doubt, better to bake a few minutes longer than underbake. Turn out of the pans and cool on a rack. GRAHAM CRACKERS (Makes 12 2 1/2-inch squares)
These taste like the commercial graham cracker but are so much more flavorful and fresh. 4 tablespoons ( 1/2 stick or 1/4 cup) butter, softened 1 egg, well beaten 6 tablespoons sugar 4 tablespoons honey 1/2 teaspoon baking soda 2 teaspoons water 3/4 teaspoon salt 1 1/2 cups graham flour plus extra for dusting 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
Combine the butter, egg and sugar in a bowl, and beat until smooth and creamy. Stir in the honey and blend. Dissolve the baking soda in the water and add to the butter mixture. Add the salt, graham flour and all-purpose flour to the mixture, and blend thoroughly. The dough should hold together and be manageable. If it is too "tacky," add a little more graham flour.
Liberally dust a surface with graham flour and roll the dough to a thickness of about 1/8 inch. For convenience in handling, cut the rolled dough into three or four sections that will fit on your cookie sheet. With a knife score the dough, without cutting through, into 2 1/2-inch squares. Prick each square a few times with the tines of a fork. Using a spatula, place the sections of scored cracker dough on an ungreased cookie sheet. Bake on the first side for 8 minutes at 350 degrees, then turn the crackers over and bake for another 6 to 7 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool on racks.
To make cinnamon graham crackers, substitute 4 tablespoons sugar for the honey, and add 1 teaspoon cinnamon. CHOCOLATE BRAN CAKE (1 8- or 9-inch round cake)
Bran is a hearty complement to the flavor of chocolate. In Cunningham's book the baking time for this recipe is excessive; it has been changed here, and will be changed in the next edition. Butter and flour for pan 4 tablespoons ( 1/2 stick or 1/4 cup) butter, softened 1/2 cup sugar 1 egg 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa 1/3 cup milk 1/3 cup buttermilk 1 cup all-purpose flour 1 cup bran 1/2 teaspoon baking soda 1/4 teaspoon salt Honey chocolate glaze (recipe follows)
Grease and flour an 8- or 9-inch round cake pan.
Combine the butter, sugar, egg and cocoa in a mixing bowl, and beat until the mixture is smooth and well blended. Pour in the milk and buttermilk. Combine the flour, bran, baking soda and salt, and add them to the bowl, beating until the batter is well mixed and smooth.
Pour into the prepared cake pan. Bake at 350 degrees for about 25 minutes, or until the middle is just firm to the touch and a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. Remove from the oven and let cool in the pan set on a rack for about 5 minutes, then turn out onto the rack to cool completely. Glaze the cake with Honey Chocolate Glaze. HONEY CHOCOLATE GLAZE (Makes 1 cup)
The shiniest of glazes; it tastes of butter and chocolate. It may be made ahead and reheated gently when needed. 4 ounces (4 squares) unsweetened chocolate 4 ounces (4 squares) sweet chocolate or 2/3 cup sweet chocolate morsels 8 tablespoons (1 stick or 1/2 cup) butter, softened 2 tablespoons honey
Place the chocolates in a small saucepan, then set in a larger pan of simmering water. Stir frequently until almost melted, then remove from the water and continue stirring until melted and perfectly smooth. Beat in the butter a tablespoon at a time. Stir in the honey. Let the icing cool a bit; it should be neither cool enough to hold its shape nor so runny that it will drip off the cake. WHITE LEMON CAKE (1 8-inch round cake)
This cake has a good lemon flavor. Because it is made without wheat flour, it is a boon to people with wheat allergies and is quick and easy to prepare.
Butter and flour for cake pan
1/2 cup honey
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 cup white-rice flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 cup water
1 teaspoon lemon extract
Basic uncooked icing, lemon-flavored (recipe follows)
Grease and flour an 8-inch round cake pan.
Put the eggs and 6 tablespoons of the honey in a mixing bowl, and beat until light and well blended, then beat in the oil. Combine the flour, salt, and baking powder, and add them to the egg-honey mixture, beating until smooth. Add the water and the lemon extract and beat well.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 to 30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. Remove from the oven and spread the remaining 2 tablespoons honey over the top. Let cool in the pan set on a rack for 5 minutes, then turn out onto the rack to cool completely. Ice with Basic Uncooked Icing, flavored with lemon juice. BASIC UNCOOKED ICING (About 1 cup)
Unlike a frosting, which is thick enough to spread with a spatula or knife, this icing is thin enough to pour over the cake but dries as it sets. You can vary the flavor by using water, milk, coffee, lemon juice, orange juice, or any other fruit juice. 2 1/4 cups confectioners' sugar, sifted if lumpy 1 tablespoon butter, softened 3-4 tablespoons lemon juice 1 tablespoon grated lemon rind (colored part, or zest, only), optional
Place the sugar, butter, and 3 tablespoons liquid in a mixing bowl, and beat until very smooth. The icing should be thin enough to pour, but not so liquid that it runs off the cake. If it is too thick to pour, add more liquid; if it is too thin, beat in a little more confectioners' sugar. You will have enough to frost the tops and sides of an 8- or 9-inch cake, or about 18 cupcakes. Stir in the citrus rind, if you wish. GRAVY ICING (Makes about 3 cups) 1 cup milk 1/3 cup flour 16 tablespoons (2 sticks) butter, softened 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar, sifted if lumpy 1 teaspoon vanilla extract 1 cup walnuts, chopped (optional)
Place the milk and the flour in a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan and whisk vigorously until the mixture is perfectly smooth. Bring to a boil over moderate heat and boil for 1 minute, stirring constantly. The mixture will be very stiff. Remove heat and let stand until cool.
With an electric mixer, beat the butter, sugar and vanilla together for about 5 minutes, until light and fluffy. Add the cooled milk and flour mixture and continue beating for about 2 minutes more at high speed, until the frosting is soft, light and fluffy. Add nuts, if desired. You will have enough to fill and frost an 8- or 9-inch two-layer cake or a 13-by-9-inch cake. Refrigerate if you are not planning on using it that day.