There is no getting around it – I have a sweet tooth. Other than rice pudding, I’ve never met a well-made dessert that I haven’t liked. For me, a slice of fabulous cake or a scoop of gelato trumps fries any day.
But I have also learned how to turn down sweets that are likely to be big disappointments, even if they look gorgeous. If you’ve attended school functions or meetings where the cookies are from that “way too uniform, grocery-store-thick icing,” you know what I mean. I’ve even left a dessert half-finished on occasion, if the first few bites are disappointing.
After reading a Washington Post article about Bergers cookies, Baltimore’s iconic sweet, I got to thinking about what makes one cookie or slice of cake tempting while another sits on the plate, uneaten. Personal taste is, of course, crucial. But what can a home-baker do to make cookies and cakes appealing?
3 Home Baking Tips
Ingredients – Quality and Freshness Count
Whether it is chocolate, nuts or any other ingredient, using the best quality ingredients you can find (and afford) is a big plus. There is no bigger turn-off to a chocoholic than to bite into a chocolate-looking cake that barely has any cocoa flavor at all.
When my brother was little, he told my mom that he had taste tested a bunch of Baskin Robbins ice cream flavors with his eyes closed and determined that he couldn’t tell one flavor from another.
Try a chocolate taste test and you may be surprised at the results. Sure there are cheap brands of chocolate that you might have predicted would be (and are) terrible. But when seeking the most pleasing brand of chocolate, price should not be the determining factor. In one recent case, Serious Eats found that testers preferred Trader’s Joe’s 72% Dark Chocolate over many more expensive brands.
Make sure your ingredients are fresh. Nuts, butter, dried fruit, oil, and even flour (especially whole wheat and white whole wheat) can go bad. Check to make sure that you are using ingredients that look and smell fresh. In the case of nuts and butter you can also taste them. And if you are using fresh fruit, especially berries, pick only the ripe and good ones. The mushy or bad ones won’t hide in your baked goods, they’ll bring the whole final result down.
Taste and Texture Balance
My own dessert failures fall into 2 major camps – either something just didn’t work out, or the result was too extreme. The latter category is basically too much of a good thing. A lemon bar cookie can have a nice citrus taste, or it can be so lemony that you can’t bear to eat another bite. A chocolate cake can be dense in a delicious way, or it can go so overboard that you feel as though you are eating a chocolate bar instead of a baked good.
Sometimes, balance is a matter of pairing tastes and textures. On Saturday night, I had an amazing chocolate cake served with a dollop of whipped cream at Buck’s Fishing and Camping. The cake and its frosting were incredibly chocolatey - delicious, but almost too rich. So the pastry chef left the whipped cream unsweetened. On its own or with a less rich dessert, the whipped cream would have been odd to my taste. Paired with the cake, the cream provided a smooth, light finish that beautifully balanced out the rest of the dessert.
The Fantasy and Nostalgia Factor
Who eats dessert for its nutritional content? If you answered “me,” you’re kidding yourself, you don’t know anything about nutrition, you have a weird sense of humor or you eat boring desserts. My highly unscientific surveys of dessert eaters convince me that fantasies and nostalgia motivate many of our dessert choices.
Of those who do indulge, some crave chocolate chip cookies, while others go for cake that looks like it could have been served at one of their childhood birthday parties. Whether their taste runs to rugelach or baklava, Berger cookies or black-and-whites, French macarons or banana bread, knowing your audience is the best tip of all.