Yes I am first and foremost a potter but when I am not in my studio making work, chances are I am in my kitchen baking cakes, brownies and all things chocolate. In fact right at this moment, the aroma of biscottis baking in the oven is wafting out of the kitchen, filling the house with a delicious smell. Having baked for so many years, often with excellent results, I had unquestioningly assumed the title of “baker” amongst friends and family. So when, three weeks ago, my chocolate cake sank in the middle for the very first time, I dismissed it as an anomaly, for I was, after all, distracted that day. The failed cake promptly became cake balls and that was the end of that. However, in the subsequent week, the failure happened again! It had to be the oven. After all, nothing had changed in my recipe or my ingredients so obviously the oven heat was off. Weren’t older ovens notorious for that? With that notion in mind, I ordered an oven thermometer to gauge the discrepancy of the errant oven so that I could go back to baking my flawless cakes. Imagine my surprise when the thermometer didn’t corroborate my suspicion; on the contrary, it showed that my oven temperature was accurate down to the last degree! I had nothing left to blame the sunken cake on because I didn’t have the slightest notion of what had gone wrong!
That afternoon, as I sat down for my online lesson on clay chemistry with Matt Katz, the lecture happened to be on “Firing in Ceramics”. Matt kept reiterating the fact that more often than not, firing takes the blame for the failure of a ceramic piece, when the problem was probably already in the piece long before it entered the kiln. He explained that the flaw could arise anywhere from a bad clay formula to improper mixing of clay to sloppy studio practices. Over the weeks of taking his course, I have developed a strong foundation towards understanding clay chemistry. I now know the role of each ingredient in my clay body, of what makes it strong or weak and how to tweak it to my needs. I feel so much more comfortable with the ceramic materials that I had been working with for nearly 20 years. It’s like Matt has helped me get well acquainted with my neighbors who have lived near me for two decades but with whom I had never exchanged more than a nod.
With Matt’s words still resounding in my head– because believe me, when he makes a point, he does an amazing job of hammering it home– I went back to the problem of the sinking cake. I knew I could not blame the oven, and my recipe has been spot on for years so it couldn’t suddenly be that, especially because my good friend, who uses that same recipe regularly hasn’t been having any issues, so where was the problem coming from? That was the moment I had to face the truth…I knew nothing about the chemistry of baking. Why do we do what we do? What is the relevance of each step? My first real baking failure appraised me of the fact that so far I had been a lucky baker who had chanced upon great recipes and had gotten excellent results. But my luck had run out. Empowered with the information about clay chemistry and Matt’s constant mantra of “understand the chemistry and you can figure out the problem,” I was inspired to study the reasons for the various steps in baking a cake. To understand why we cream butter and sugar, what beating in the egg does for the structure of the cake, and why the flour needs to be barely incorporated into the batter. Learning about the relevance of each process made me realize where I was going wrong. The failure hadn’t sprung from bad ingredients or firing issue but from the sloppiness of my baking practices. Over the years, having had repeated success, unbeknownst to myself I had slowly let my strict methodology slide, introducing shortcuts, throwing out steps which I deemed redundant till the fateful sunken cake.
Armed with the understanding of the process I set out once again to bake the cake last weekend. I paid close attention to every step, mindfully incorporating what I had learnt and it was no surprise that the cake came out PERFECTLY! It wasn’t a miracle it was just chemistry. Thank you MATT KATZ and the CERAMICS MATERIALS WORKSHOP for teaching me much more than clay chemistry. I owe you a chocolate cake. I can’t wait to start my glaze chemistry class this winter.