I have never once called myself anything approaching a competent baker. In my time as a home cook, I have barely been able to turn out passable slice-and-serve cookie dough, much less accomplish tender, fluffy cakes or the perfect chocolate chip cookie. As such, I was incredibly intrigued by the notion that I could make a single serving of cake in the microwave for those moments when the sweet tooth just cannot be cured. Surely, I wouldn’t be able to screw that up.
Of course, I was wrong. I checked out a few recipes before settling on a basic vanilla cake, which I planned to top with bourbon-soaked cherries and sweetened condensed milk. The instructions were easy enough — crack an egg, stir in a few tablespoons of flour, add vanilla, a little oil, and some leavening agents. I also found a vanilla bean in the depths of the pantry, and scraped its innards into the batter before stirring it well.
The resulting batter looked good enough, and I popped it into the microwave for the recommended 90 seconds-3 minutes, hoping for the best. Then I realized that a minute-and-a-half to three minutes was quite the long window, and started into the microwave for the entire time until the cake looked as if it had “baked.” I couldn’t stop myself from opening the door and giving my nuked cake a poke, and surprisingly enough, it looked relatively normal.
I got really excited about this cake, and started scooping the booze-soaked cherries from the jar and warmed the sweetened condensed milk. I waited a few moments for the cake’s edges to peel away from the sides of the mug, and then came that moment of total devastation. What was supposed to be a three-minutes-in-heaven type experience was actually just a rubbery, over-cooked nightmare.
The rapid-fire heating time had quickly congealed the glutens into something that it looked almost like something you’d see coming from a molecular gastronomy kitchen. The cake was wobbly and spongy, sticky to the touch on the outsides. Hoping that my accoutrements would doctor it enough to be edible — I will eat an old leather shoe if drenched in sweetened condensed milk — I began plating the cake, removing it from its mug with a complicated wooden spoon-knife maneuver carefully onto a dinner plate.
Sadly, no amount of sweetened condensed milk or boozy cherries was going to be able to save my cake, which had the texture of rubber and the floury flavor of undercooked cake batter. How could something simultaneously be over and underdone? I dumped the rest of the cake into the trash, and started trying to figure out what the hell had gone wrong.
I was pretty confident that I hadn’t used too much flour or somehow added agar agar, and the directions were too straightforward for me to screw up. After some extensive Googling, I realized that I might have been a little overzealous in the mixing of the batter. I’d spent probably two or three minutes making sure that just a little bit of ingredients were well-incorporated, and that could definitely be described as overkill. This incident was entirely my fault, but it also made me consider whether or not we should be actually reducing the time-honored tradition of delicious baked goods to the microwave, a decidedly inferior cooking appliance.
The answer to that is a resounding no. There is something entirely rewarding about tucking into a crusty slice of homemade bread, and that has almost everything to do with the thousands of hours invested into the art and science of baking the perfect loaf. The tender, near-orgasmic texture of freshly baked cake cannot be rushed, and nor should they be. Mug cakes are sort of like winning a free dinner at Alinea only to find out that they actually meant Taco Bell — you’re going to be super-stoked for a while, but the end result is going to be devastatingly depressing.
That said, I’m not giving up on convenience desserts just yet. It’s incredibly easy to nuke an apple topped with brown sugar, nuts, and butter, and come out with a dessert that is damn near perfect. But mug cakes? Those should be banished to the deepest depths of culinary hell, along with radioactive green pickle relish, vegan mayonnaise, and Guy Fieri.
Photo: Bianca Moraes, CC BY