Q. The enclosed bourbon cake recipe has a good flavor but it just won't bake properly. It's suppose to bake 3 1/2 hours at 275 degrees; the result is a soggy sort of a cake-pudding with a hard top crust. Is something wrong with the recipe?
A. The recipe contains too much sugar. A bourbon cake -- especially this one with its preponderance of candied fruit -- is really a form of fruitcake. If you compare the Time-Life Good Cook series (Cakes volume) bourbon cake recipe with this one, you will see that the sugar content of this recipe exceeds that of the Time-Life recipe by 50 percent.
The excess sugar situation is exacerbated by the recipe's liberal use of candied fruit. By soaking the fruit in the bourbon and using the bourbon as the recipe's liquid (replacing the milk or buttermilk of a spice cake recipe), you are actually extracting the sugar from the interior of the fruit, and adding it (still another pound -- or 2 cups) to the batter. The result is a flour-thickened confection.
Sugar prevents the setting of the cake batter by interfering with absorption of water by the flour's starch granules. The "batter" bubbles and seethes for about 3 hours while its concentrating syrup component loses water by evaporation. Should you be so fortunate as to have an oven with a window, you can observe sugar's effect -- after about 30 minutes, the cake batter at the bottom of the pan approaches the boiling point of water. Steam pushes upward and, because the batter is still quite liquid and pliable, the cake's surface rises and falls in similar fashion to the magma at the core of a volcano.
There are two solutions to this geological accident. Either soak the candied fruit and raisins in water and discard the water (in which case, you would be discarding their flavor as well). Or, reduce the recipe's sugar content. That's just what I've done in the recipe that follows. I've also made a few other alterations.
RECIPE BOURBON CAKE (Makes one 10-inch tube cake)
1 cup candied red cherries, chopped
1 cup candied, diced citron
1 cup dark seedless raisins
2 cups cheap bourbon
1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) butter
3 1/2 cups sugar
6 eggs, separated
1 tablespoon dark molasses
2 teaspoons freshly grated nutmeg
1 teaspoon baking powder
5 cups cake or pastry flour
4 cups pecans
Combine cherries, citron, raisins and bourbon. Soak 3 or 4 hours. Drain fruits and reserve bourbon. Cream butter with 3 cups of the sugar until light. Beat in yolks, one at a time, then blend in the molasses, nutmeg and baking powder. Add half the flour and half the bourbon. Blend until smooth. Repeat with remaining flour and bourbon.
Beat egg whites until they form soft peaks. Gradually pour in the remaining 1/2 cup of sugar and beat to a stiff meringue. Fold meringue into cake batter briefly and, before it is completely incorporated, blend in the fruits and nuts. Transfer to a well-greased and floured 10-inch tube cake pan. Batter should be an inch below the edge of the cake pan. Bake for 3 hours at 300 degrees.
Cool cake in the pan for at least 4 hours. When ready to unmold, heat bottom of cake pan over burner on low flame. Run a spatula around the edge and turn out onto cake plate.
Q. Do you know if there has been a change in the way margarine is formulated in recent years? It seems that cookie recipes I was using 20 years ago just don't turn out as well. The cookies spread more now and are thinner and more crisp.
A. Margarine has indeed changed. At one time, most margarines contained some animal fat. It had a higher melting point than the partially hydrogenated vegetable oils currently in use and the cookie batter stayed solid longer in the oven. Just the few extra minutes of solidity reduced spreading and kept the cookies moister and less brittle.
It is now in the public consciousness that animal fats are bad for you. That perception has in turn led to the use of all-vegetable-fat margarines. The customer also demands a fat that spreads easily on our soft, soggy sandwich bread. The old margarines just couldn't do that as well. Since the country is populated by more sandwich-spreaders than by cookie-bakers-who-know-why-their cookies-aren't-working, the impetus is toward a more perfect spread.
If you want a better cookie but don't want to use butter, use either half margarine, half shortening, or use all shortening. You can substitute either on a one-for-one basis despite the fact that margarine is about 16 percent water.
Q. You have mentioned in the past that the best surface for handling bread is wood, and you said that plywood is the most economical wooden surface of all. Please give a few instructions on care of the plywood. Shouldn't I wash it between uses?
A. To make your own breadboard, buy a 4-by-4-foot or 3-by-3-foot piece of AB plywood from the lumber company. Sand the edges to smoothness with medium sandpaper, and sand the surface with fine sandpaper. This will prevent splinters.
Never wash or wet the plywood's surface; this raises its grain and makes it rough. Should this happen, allow the surface to dry for several days. Then, using a sander and medium sandpaper, sand it to smoothness. Finish once again with fine sandpaper.
There is no need to wash a breadboard. Its wooden pores and crevasses become filled with dried yeast cells and dead lactic acid bacteria. Although this doesn't sound any too appetizing, these are the natural flora of bread and pastry doughs as well as of flour. Should pieces of dough become plastered to the wood's surface, use a "bench scraper" to remove them. Bench scrapers (also called dough cutters) are available in any restaurant supply store, and shouldn't cost more than a few dollars. When using one, always scrape with the wood's grain. You will find that the bench scraper keeps the plywood's surface quite smooth.