Monday, January 08, 2007

Cook's Illustrated NY-Style Crumb Cake

ny crumbcake

I’ve been a loyal Cook's Illustrated magazine reader for almost a decade now. There are no advertisements and the pictures are mostly illustrated (although there are some small photographs on the inside back cover). I love their scientific approach to cooking and the over-the-top attention to detail, but sometimes they can take it a bit too far.

For instance, they complained about using the typical creaming method when making an applesauce cake. According to the author, creaming the butter and sugar, adding eggs and then alternatively adding the dry ingredients and applesauce resulted in an elegant refined crumb but was "an awful lot of fuss for such a simple cake". So they preferred to mix the batter using the muffin method of mixing the wet ingredients by hand before adding the dry ingredients also by hand which produced "a more casual crumb that was better suited to a rustic snack cake". Okay, I don't really have a problem with choosing the most appropriate mixing method that gives the desired texture. But I did have a problem with their solution to increase the apple flavor of the cake. The author decided to simmer dried apple chunks in some apple cider until the liquid evaporates, allow the mixture to cool, put the now re-hydrated apples with the concentrated cider along with some applesauce into a food processor, whirl to make a smooth puree, and then add that puree to the cake batter. Apparently this was not too much fuss for this simple rustic apple cake. I understand that the point was to make the cake more apple-y but this solution was a bit mad.

So that is one of the reasons for my love-hate relationship with CI. Another is the restrictive nature of their recipes. As a baker and a scientist, I understand the need for precision. And because their recipes are designed with such scientific precision, the seemingly tiny details are actually not so tiny. A sauce recipe called for 2 tablespoons of tomato paste per 3 pounds of beef. According to CI, that tiny addition caused their tasters to exclaim "Wow, what did you do?" and made the beefy flavor more intense. However, using 3 tablespoons made my sauce taste of nothing but tomatoes. All my years of cooking told me that the extra amount of tomato paste shouldn’t have severely affected the outcome, but somehow it did. The normal rules just don’t apply when using a CI recipe. I’ve found that there is no wiggle room even with the non-pastry / non-baking recipes.

In any case, the article that accompanies each recipe is almost as, and in some case more, important than the recipe itself. The article gives the author a chance to explain the method to the madness. This is the issue I have with testing their recipes as a "Friend of Cook's". (For those who don't already know, anyone can sign up to be a "Friend" and try out CI recipes before they are published in their magazine. All they ask is that you try the recipe and provide some feedback before the deadline.) The mad methods that end up in many of their recipes need more explanation than what is provided with the test recipe. I guess I’ve gotten so used to knowing all the reasons behind the recipe that I don't want to just follow a CI recipe blindly. I am bursting with questions like a child who has to know why before doing anything. With the test recipes, I have no choice but to forge ahead blindly, putting my faith in the recipe.

I have no idea if this test recipe for New York style crumb cake was a successful "recreation of the crumb cakes of New York’s past" but it was a delicious and simple cake. And y’all know how I adore simple. I only had one question when testing this recipe. Why use cake flour instead of all-purpose flour in the crumb topping? I could make an educated guess but I would like some confirmation from CI. I guess I’ll have to wait until the magazine comes out in a few months.

EDITED (February 17, 2007): I removed the Cook's Illustrated recipe from my post per the CI magazine's request. I apologize for any inconvenience. -Mary


Culinarily Curious said...

I have a similar love/hate relationship with CI -- for many of the same reasons you list. They're great for finding recipe I know I can count on, as long as I've got another outlet for my own creativity on the menu.

Ellie said...

I can't say I know what CI is like as we don't get it here in Australia, and the cooking mags that we do have don't sound anything like this! The bit about increasing apple-y flavour does sound a bit mental, though perhaps it's worthwhile if it results in such a beautiful and delicious looking cake?

I don't know if I could make it myself though - I'm a bit of a haphazard cook and not disciplined enough to follow recipes exactly :P

Anonymous said...

Mary, your crumb cake looks delicious.

We don't have CI here in Brazil, but I do have the books, "The Best Recipe" and "The Best Light Recipe" and I like the way they explain all the ingredients, substitutions and methods.

But I agree with you, there are cases when they tend to exaggerate.

My grandmother was German and she used to bake a cake that looked similar to the crumb cakes you have in America. We call it "cuca" here in Brazil. It's divine.

Anonymous said...

I have the same thoughts about CI, they are so fussy, yet lax about some things without any rhyme or reason. I remember making their "ultimate" mac and cheese and it was creamy and gooey (which they said was best) but completely flavorless.

clarice said...

Well I agree with you. My big pet-peeve is do not make a recipe harder if you do not need to. It can all get to convoluted. But having an article about why the author choose to do what they did helps a lot. Some times I am okay, I can see were you are going but others times, I am no, no. Make it simple (but still good0) Oh that fine balance. Clarice

Anonymous said...

I totally understand your frustration- CI can be so pedantic sometimes. I actually find their oh-so-picky attitude turns me off from making their recipes.
However, the cake looks gorgeous, bon appetit!

Anonymous said...

What an interesting post, I enjoyed reading about that. The crumb cake looks perfect!

Anonymous said...

CI is my second fave, as is America's Test Kitchen - second only to Martha. (I can't help myself.) I've had good luck so far with everything I've tried, but I've definitely avoided some recipes because of just what you mention. I would NEVER do that to the apples!

I read a recipe today - simply recipes, I think - that said to use cake flour in a pizza-crust dough because it will make the texture crisper, I believe.

Maybe there's a connection to that for CI's crumble topping?

peabody said...

CI does seem to ge a little over analitical from time to time.

Anonymous said...

I tested this cake too! (In November:

Yours looks better though...

Anonymous said...

I feel the same way about Cooks Illustrated. Sometimes all those extra steps and precise details just don't seem worth the bother. And if what comes out isn't perfect, I'm always very let down. Oh well, that crumb cake looks delicious!

Anne said...

I read CI when I can but I don't subscribe to it since I live in France now. The articles are entertaining but I've never crossed the line from reading recipe to cooking recipe. Probably my subconscious said the same thing as you elegant post just did, "Who has to time for this cooking method?" This crumb cake looks good enough to give it a try.

Anonymous said...

I'm not a big CI fan myself. It just doesn't do anything for me, unlike your blog, which is wonderful! I just found you today!

Quellia said...

This cake looks good, so I'm bookmarking it in my to try pile.
My issues with cooking light started with an article where I finished it and went: holy cow! He seriously made over 100 meatloafs before he got to what he liked? Is he nuts! I haven't read anything yet that has changed my mind, they are nuts who occassionally have a recipe or two I want to make. Like this one.

Anonymous said...

I work at Cook's Illustrated magazine.
We noticed that you have posted one of our recipes on your blog.
We are extremely thankful to have testers like you and I do appreciate the time it takes, but unfortunately, I have to ask you to remove this recipe from your blog. The issue is this, its not final and its not for reprint.
We would have to give you permission to use this recipe or any recipe.
Please remove this promptly.
Again, thanks for being a tester and apologies for the confusion.
Thanks, and have a great weekend.
Melissa Baldino

Signe said...

I am a great fan of CI and have read every issue cover to cover for years. I have tried many of their recipes and have usually been very impressed with the results. Reading the different approaches they have taken to get to the best recipe is usually very educational and entertaining!