Friday Speak Out!: Baking Lessons

Friday, October 01, 2021

by Jane Ward

This year I wanted a chocolate roulade for my birthday cake. In the past, my mother’s chocolate roll had been my go-to. As a child watching her, I learned how to beat the egg whites with cream of tartar to stabilize the stiff peaks. How to sift the small amount of cake flour three times to aerate and properly measure it before folding it into the cocoa-and-egg yolk batter. And how to roll the still-warm layer of sponge cake in a clean kitchen towel to prepare it for rolling with the filling. The method was known; the cake would have been the easy choice.

But in February, I didn’t reach for my mother’s recipe. I wanted something richer, I decided, a cake tasting more boldly of chocolate than my mother’s. Feeling experimental, I combined the chocolatey parts of one new recipe with the chocolatey parts of a second, thinking only about the flavor I wanted at the end—and giving no thought at all to how the quantity of melted chocolate might overwhelm the delicate structure of a cake made largely with egg whites.

The cake that came out of the oven was beautiful: shiny, with a crackly, coffee-with-cream colored crust that hid a darkly decadent fallen soufflé center.

I wish I could tell you here that the resulting roulade was beautiful too. But when the layer cooled, it didn’t roll well. Cracks appeared all over the surface. I persevered, hoping that a final glaze of chocolate ganache would hide the imperfections. Instead, that glaze only added weight. My poor concoction couldn’t take that, and it collapsed completely.

This could be a story about remembering to play it safe when there is much on the line, a story about editing decadent impulses and remembering that most basic rule of baking—assessing balance—and applying it. My mother’s cake was balanced; because of that, it worked. But this isn’t that story. Instead, I’m really writing about the necessity of risk and experimentation—in baking, yes, but also in writing.

In the early stages of drafting a novel, the writer must lead with wild imagination, getting the art on the page without the critic looking over her shoulder, whispering questions in her ear: Is that workable? Is it perfect? There must be time for flights of fancy, mistaken or not, in the early stages of fiction, keeping questions of perfection and right or wrong at bay, questions that, if asked too soon, can stymie the story that begs telling. There will be time enough for the critic’s tools later.

This year, my birthday cake was not roulade. I dubbed it Dark Chocolate Trifle as I spooned the broken pieces of cake into a large glass bowl and layered those with whipped cream and leftover ganache. A failed cake became an unexpected dessert full of deep and complex flavors, a flight of fancy edited to become something I couldn’t have anticipated, and it was delicious.

* * *
JANE WARD is the author of
Hunger (Forge 2001) and The Mosaic Artist. She graduated from Simmons College with a degree in English literature and began working almost immediately in the food and hospitality industry: private events planner with Creative Gourmets in Boston, planner of corporate parties at The 95th Restaurant in Chicago, and weekend baker at Quebrada Bakery in Arlington, Massachusetts. She has been a contributing writer for the online regional and seasonal food magazine Local In Season and a blogger and occasional host of cooking videos for MPN Online, an internet recipe resource affiliated with several newspapers across the country. Although a Massachusetts native, Jane recently settled in Chicago after returning to the US from Switzerland. Find her online at:

Twitter: @authorjane
Instagram: @authorjaneward
Facebook: @janealessandriniward


Would you like to participate in Friday "Speak Out!"? Email your short posts (under 500 words) about women and writing to: marcia[at]wow-womenonwriting[dot]com for consideration. We look forward to hearing from you!


movie review said...

A situation that most of us experience in kitchen with new delight beautifully crafted!
Hope your next try on chocolate roulade is a success!
much love to you!

Margo Dill said...

This reminds me of when I watch cooking shows on TV which my daughter and I love. Whenever something goes wrong in the small amount of time these contestants have to create their entry, they will "deconstruct" it by doing something similar to what you did. It's all about creativity and problem solving and more which you are correct are similar skills to what we use when writing.

Jane Ward said...

Yes! Baking holds real lessons about accepting imperfection, trying again and again, problem solving and thinking fast on your feet. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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