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My Fear of Baking
and How I Overcame It

By Lori Grossman

It must've been the sight of some quick breads in the grocery store that reminded me. I'd always loved to bake, first when I helped my mom, and later, on my own. The wonderful aroma that filled the house and the pride I felt when I took cakes, cookies, scones, biscuits, or some other treat out of the oven made all the work worthwhile. That is, until the day when I last made banana nut bread.

Everything had gone smoothly. It was a recipe I'd made dozens of times before. This time, though, I made a fatal mistake. My mind was hundreds of miles away with a friend who was going through a rough time. I mixed the ingredients, put the batter in the greased pan, and left it to bake while I quickly phoned my friend to see how she was getting along. The bread would be done in about one hour, which would give me more than enough time -- I thought.

You're probably way ahead of me by now. We were deep in conversation and I never heard the "ding" of the timer in the kitchen. By the time I looked at the clock, panicked, and quickly hung up, the damage was done. I know that blackened fish and chicken are popular choices on restaurant menus, but I've never seen a dessert called "Blackened Banana Nut Bread."

All that work for nothing. Dyed-in-the-wool perfectionist that I am, I agonized over food going to waste. (Mom used to tell me that story about kids starving in Europe whenever I didn't finish what was on my plate.) Whenever I thought about making another banana nut bread, I got busy doing something else. Gradually, I stopped baking altogether. I couldn't face another failure.

Wiser heads than mine gradually prevailed. Concerned friends, including Patricia Mitchell, the maven of this website, have urged me to try again. I'm not ready to repeat banana nut bread just yet, so I chose another recipe which, coincidentally, also contains pecans.

I had never heard of a pecan upside down cake before; the idea was intriguing. I've always loved pecans. I think they have an extra depth of flavor that walnuts lack. Also, I cherish happy memories of going out pecan hunting with my dad every autumn (I would bet that many Texans enjoy hunting pecans more than deer!).

Taking a deep breath (and vowing not to go anywhere near the phone), I began assembling the ingredients. There were a few "speed-bumps" to negotiate first. The recipe called for toasted pecans. How long should I toast them? I found these directions in a cookbook:

Toasted Pecans

Position a rack in the center to upper third of the oven and preheat the oven to 325°F. Spread shelled pecans on a rimmed baking sheet in one layer. Toast the nuts, stirring occasionally, until they just begin to turn color, approximately 8 to 10 minutes. Watch them carefully. Even if you don't blacken them, when overdone, they will taste bitter. Cool completely before using.

I had never heard of a pecan upside down cake before; the idea was intriguing. I've always loved pecans. The other challenge I faced was zesting the lemon. You're supposed to remove only the colored part of the peel, not the bitter-tasting white part, called the pith. Previous efforts using a box grater had left me with grated knuckles instead of zest, so I tried adding a few drops of lemon or orange juice instead, or whatever kind of citrus the recipe called for. That usually wasn't just right so, in time, I just ignored that part of the recipe. There's hope for me, though. I have read that there's a nifty gadget that makes zesting quick (and bloodless), so I'm going to look for one. One step at a time.

Texas Pecan Upside-Down Cake

  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 3/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon, divided
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 1 tablespoon boiling water
  • 1 cup (a little over is okay) whole toasted pecan halves
  • 5 ounces (about 1 cup) unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder (make sure it's fresh)
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2 large eggs at room temperature
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup whole milk
  • 1 small lemon, with zest grated, then halve lemon and juice through a strainer
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract mixed with 2 teaspoons bourbon
  • Bourbon Whipped Cream, if desired (recipe follows)
Position a rack in the center of the oven, and preheat the oven to 325°F. Butter a 9-inch round cake pan.

Put the 3 tablespoons unsalted butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and melt it over medium heat (watch closely to make sure it doesn't; burn; if it does – even if it just browns – toss it out, clean the pan and start over again).

Into the melted butter, stir the brown sugar and 1 teaspoon of the cinnamon, honey and boiling water, mixing well. Bring it to a simmer and cook for exactly 2 minutes – no more. Turn off the heat. This makes a thin sugar syrup.

Pour the syrup into the prepared cake pan. Carefully place the pecan halves (remember, the syrup is hot) flat side up in concentric circles, starting on the outer edge and working towards the middle. Completely cover the bottom of the pan.

Whisk together the flour, the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon, the nutmeg, baking powder and salt.

Separate the eggs (crack egg open, and carefully transfer the yolk from one half to the other, letting the egg white drain into a separate glass bowl). Put the yolks into a good-sized mixing bowl (I use glass bowls). Beat the yolks well, then gradually beat in the sugar until fluffy and light. In turns, add the spiced flour, then the milk, mixing well between additions. Fold in the lemon zest (if you have a zester), 1 tablespoon of lemon juice, and the vanilla extract.

With a clean wire whisk or a handheld mixer, beat the room temperature egg whites until they hold soft peaks. Fold a spoonful into the batter and then fold in the remainder. Pour the batter evenly over the sugar syrup and pecans in the cake pan.

Bake until a toothpick or cake tester inserted into the center comes out clean. This can take approximately 30 to 35 minutes – maybe a little longer, depending on your oven.

Let the cake cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then run a knife around the edge to loosen it. Lay a flat cake plate over it, then invert the pan and plate carefully (hold on tight!) to release the cake. Serve warm or at room temperature with Bourbon Whipped Cream, if you want to be really decadent. Makes one 9-inch, single layer cake.

Bourbon Whipped Cream

  • 1 cup very cold heavy cream (whipping cream)
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 tablespoon bourbon
The cream, bowl and whisk or beaters should be very cold. Chill in the refrigerator or freezer for a few minutes before whipping the cream. Put the cream in a glass or stainless steel bowl and whip it with a whisk or a handheld mixer at medium-high speed until frothy.

Sprinkle in a tablespoon of sugar and beat until the cream is thick. Beat in the remaining sugar and whip until the cream holds stiff peaks. Fold in the bourbon. Let stand for at least 10 minutes before serving. Makes about 1-1/2 cups.

Now that I'm back in the saddle (so to speak), I just might tackle that Banana Nut Bread recipe again. Before I do, though, I'd better check the batteries in my smoke alarms. Just in case!

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