Sunday, January 22, 2012

Cakes don't grow on trees - they are mostly grass.

I baked a cake today.  This was my second attempt at the Day-To-Day-Cookery's easy chocolate cake and it turned out much better than the last attempt.  For anyone who's planning to have a go, one cup of milk is not nearly enough, despite what the recipe says.

I like to think I'm pretty good in the kitchen, but when it comes to cakes, I am yet to prove myself.  You probably think that making a cake is pretty simple, but imagine what it would be like if you had to prepare the ingredients from scratch.  Here's what your ingredients had to go through to get to your kitchen.

This starts off as wheat, which is essentially a grass.  It grows during winter and is harvested using a machine called a header which takes the seeds off the top.  It then has to be cleaned to get the stones and grit out of the crop.  Water is added to soften the grain and it is then cracked by passing through rollers.  The grain is then sieved to separate the grain into three parts.  Depending on what type of flour you use, you may have some or all of these parts.  More rolling and sieving refines the flour.  White flour has all of the bran and germ removed, while wholemeal flour uses the whole seed.

This is also a grass in its initial form.  The sugar is in the stem of the grass so it must be cut close to the ground.  Leaving the roots means it can reshoot and you don't have to plant again for next year.  The cane then needs to be crushed and is combined with water to extract the juice.  At this point there is still dirt in your sugar, a product called slaked lime filters this quite successfully. The water is then boiled off and what we have left is a syrup. When the water is sufficiently removed, crystals form.  The left over syrup is removed by spinning the product like in a washing machine.  This refining process is done a couple of times to remove the syrup (called molasses) and get different types of sugar.

Cocoa comes from the seed of a pod which grows on a tree.  Unlike trees I've seen though, this pod grows not from the leaves and branches of the tree but directly from the trunk.  It doesn't taste anything like chocolate at this point.  It is harvested by hand because machinery might damage the tree, and the pods don't ripen all at the same time.  The beans need to then be fermented and dried.  After this, the cocoa beans are roasted to crack and remove the shells and the meat is then sieved and ground into powder.

The vanilla bean is actually a cylindrical capsule which is the fruit of a type of orchid.  The flowers of this orchid are pollinated by hand because they only last for a day if they are not pollinated.  The fruit is harvested by hand also and then wilted to stop any further growing.  The temperature is increased to sweat the moisture from the bean so that it doesn't ferment.  It is then dried at room temperature and enclosed in boxes for about three months to produce the flavour.  Vanilla extract is made from soaking this pod in alcohol and water.  Vanilla essence is a more complicated process and the imitation vanilla essence I used in my cake today, is more difficult to determine.

Chooks lay eggs.  Only female chooks can do this.  Male chooks, also known as roosters, have the job of fertilising the eggs which should ultimately result in a baby chicken so they don't lay, just like men don't have babies.  Female chickens still lay eggs even if there is no rooster around.  These are the ones we eat.  There is no refining process.

Cows produce milk.  Only female cattle can do this.  The same way only women can breastfeed their children.  Cows must give birth before they can begin producing milk.  Same as us.  The cows are milked twice daily at the farm.  Milk is then sent to a factory to be homogenised (milk and cream are mixed together permanently) and pasteurised (heated to kill off germs). Other ingredients are added depending on what type of milk you buy in the supermarket. The resulting liquid is then bottled, and sold as milk.

Butter is made from cream, which is skimmed off the top of the milk.  Skim milk is left over.  The cream is then pasteurised and cooled into a crystalline form.  The cream is then churned to produce buttermilk and butter grains.  The buttermilk is separated off and the butter grains are worked into an even product.  Salt may be added to enhance flavour and acts as a preservative.

So there you have it.  All cake ingredients had to come from either a plant or an animal.  They do not just appear in supermarkets but must go through huge transformations just to become ingredients.  And you thought making a cake was easy.

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