I woke up with an itch to make a coconut cake on December 27 or 28. With everything overflowing with food because of the holidays I decided to postpone the cake, not least because I’d probably be the only one eating it. I have the mixed fortune of living with people for whom “Cake I like” rhymes with “Chocolate” and while they would pay their respects to my coconut creation that would be as far as they’d go.
I waited for New Year’s Eve to pass, then it was January 1, which is official do-absolutely-nothing day, and then it was January 2. It happened to be a work day — at a reduced workload but still — so I postponed again.
Now, I have to admit part of the reason for the delays was the recipe. Copied in my recipe notebook (By hand. On paper. Numbered pages.) in the distant past when I first got the baking bug, the recipe for this coconut cake apparently lacked coconut in the ingredients but featured three large eggs, to be divided and the whites beaten to a hard foam. I was too lazy to divide eggs and beat whites (yes, I have a mixer, so what?) so I kept putting it off. Finally, on Saturday, I got appalled by my own procrastination and made the cake.
Naturally, I did not divide the eggs. The ingredient lineup suggested a finished product consistency similar to that of muffins, so I decided to follow the general instructions for muffins instead of the snobbish divide-and-conquer egg approach. As I beat the eggs with the sugar — I mixed equal measures of white and brown versus the recipe that expressly stated white sugar just to be rebellious — I thought back to the days when I didn’t dare move an iota away from a recipe in case I messed up.
You know those days when you’re venturing into something new and exciting that you don’t know a lot about but are so eager to learn you can’t stay still? Yeah, that. These are also the days when you follow recipes — or writing advice — blindly because you believe their authors. They have been doing this for a long time. They should know, right? Of course not. Recipes are often anonymous (and a bit too creative sometimes) and what works for one author might not work for another.
Those early days of baking were the days of most of my failures. Apparently, you can’t just substitute yogurt for milk. You have to know exactly how much yogurt to mix with water to make the substitute. Also, if the recipes says you shouldn’t open the oven door during baking you shouldn’t open the oven door during baking no matter how much you want to. These are just a couple of the lessons I learned the hard way, the way I learned stream of consciousness is not a universal approach to writing.
Another thing I learned during those days — or rather years — was that there are hard and fast rules that you can’t break without ruining the end result. While substituting yogurt for milk is not one of them, misreading millilitres as grams definitely is. I have no idea how I did that when ml looks so much different from g but I did and I ended up with some sort of a sweet bread instead of the fluffy cake I had anticipated.
Misreading “freezer” as “fridge” is another failure I cannot attribute to anything else but an inborn selective blindness because carelessness sounds too harsh. The result of that particular misreading (and miswriting. I wrote “fridge” in the recipe as I copied it) was so spectacular I uploaded it to the cooking fails thread on Bored Panda.
Needless to say, there’s a parallel between cooking and writing to be drawn yet again. In fact, there’s a parallel to be drawn between any two activities that require both creativity and rule-following. Enthusiasm and big dreams are great but reading the recipe right is a lot better in order to avoid having those dreams crushed. The greatest thing about writing? There is just one recipe: read a lot of books. It’s not exactly hard to follow that, is it?
No university degree, no writers’ retreat, and no sort of organised educational event ever will make you a better writer than you were born as if you don’t read tons of other people’s books. You don’t have to take my word for it. Take Stephen King’s. The only way to learn to do something, before beginning to do a lot of it, is learning what others have done in that area. Some will be good, some will be bad but it’s all an education.
Now for the cake. As I said, the recipe only mentioned coconut shavings at the end, where it called for lemon curd and a sprinkling of said shavings. I, however, was not content with a sprinkling. I wanted coconut in the cake. Which is why, with the decade of experience I have in baking, which makes me a junior apprentice, I decided to up the amount of liquids in the dough, add 50 grams (that’s grams, not milligrams or kilograms) of shavings to it and sprinkle with rum essence.
The result was light golden-brown in colour with a sweet aroma of coconut and rum. Now I had to add something to make it a real cake. I had no patience (or eggs) for lemon curd, so I made something else. A milk and caramel sauce that has been a favourite of mine since the first time I experimented with it. For reasons I will not go into but someone blunter would call distractedness, the caramel was ready before I was, so I got really dark caramel for my sauce, the kind with a slightly bitter note. I cut the cake in half (that’s horizontally, not vertically) and smeared both halves with the sauce. I let it soak well into the cake and then I dug in.
It is painfully obvious that in terms of looks, this coconut cake is a failure of near-epic proportions. Its taste, however, compensates for the looks, believe me. Or don’t, of course. We all have our tastes. Mine happen to include a weakness for the combination of sweet, bitter, and coconutty, and I appreciate substance over form in every area, except architecture. Form matters in architecture. Also in civil engineering. Form matters in writing, too, but ultimately, it’s the substance that will make someone love a cake or a novel.
I’ve been baking for twelve years now and writing for eleven. I’m still learning about both but I can say with confidence I know the hard rules. I know some of them well enough to break them without (completely) ruining the end result. But I’m not a revolutionary, really. It’s not about breaking the rules for me. It’s about using them as support.
There is a reason why you can’t mix milk and lemon juice together. There is also a reason the passive voice works a lot better in non-fiction, scientific texts than in fiction. The reasons are pretty similar, really. Doing these things ends in failure. The way to avoid failure? Learn the rules, then blend the milk into the batter and then add the lemon juice or write a humour story in which you poke fun at the passive voice.