The Thin White Duke: on baking a coconut cake in a white stoneware pan while mourning David Bowie

Two days ago, a friend of mine who bakes a little sent me a sad email. She explained to me that she owns a Bundt pan and has never baked a successful cake in it. She was wondering if the fault was hers or the pan’s. I said, “huh, I don’t know. How about I try to bake a cake in it and we’ll see how it comes out?”
So yesterday she dropped it off at my house. She left it on the front stoop, where my husband found it. “Uh, someone’s left a Bundt pan here,” he said. “Oh, right! That’s for me!” I said. “Naturally,” he said, handing it to me.

The first thing I realized was that this was not a metal pan, which is what I’d expected. N had sent me a photo of the pan, and I could see it had a white interior, but I’d assumed it was some kind of white enamel over a metal pan. No: this was a stoneware pan, an entirely different kind of thing. “Gosh,” I said. “I wonder if you have to use this differently from a metal pan.” I spent a while Googling about Bundt pans, and stoneware, and didn’t find any conclusive information to help me out. I sent messages to a handful of the best bakers I know; no one had anything to say, really, except “good luck!”

N had theorized that the cakes she’d made had failed possibly because of weak baking powder, possibly because of improper handling of the batter, or possibly out of just not being very skilled as a baker. I guessed that the baking powder might be a culprit – old baking powder is definitely a problem for the peripatetic baker — but had told her my own experience was that when there was trouble with a Bundt pan, it was almost always  to do with pan preparation (i.e., not enough of it)  and then rushing too fast to get the cake out of the pan. Bundt cakes can take forever  to cool to a temperature where you can safely get them out of the pans.

This morning, staring at the pan while I drank my coffee, I said to my daughter, “You know, this is kind of a small pan.” She said, “It looks big to me.” I said, “No, look. Compare it to the pan I usually use to bake cakes like this.” I pulled my Bundt pan out — it’s a metal one we got as a wedding gift, a Calphalon pan. Very heavy. I measured water into the pans and discovered that my Calphalon pan is a 10 cup pan and the stoneware pan a juvenile 8 cup. “So I can’t use a regular Bundt cake recipe in this unless I somehow scale it down,” I thought. Since I am not so great at math, that struck me as a dicey proposition. I was confident that I could fake my way through scaling down, but… I wanted to be a little more precise, under these circumstances.

So when I got my daughter off to school, I came home and hunted around for a cake that called for an 8-cup pan (like a loaf cake) and for which the ingredients were all at hand and none very expensive. While I’d normally do a pound cake in a Bundt pan, the fact is, I didn’t want to use that many eggs in something I knew might fail. I found in a book a recipe for a chocolate whiskey cake that called for an 8 cup pan, and thought, “Perfect!” but realized that if I made a chocolate cake, I wouldn’t be able to gauge how the batter browned as it baked, so I went back to the hunt. After a little hunting online, I settled on an Epicurious recipe for coconut cake that would only use a few eggs, a scant amount of flour (2 cups), and a couple of sticks of butter.

I prepped the stoneware pan very thoroughly, with butter and flour. I toasted the coconut carefully, I creamed the butter perfectly before adding the sugar; I did not fiddle with the recipe at all. The batter was very thick and it didn’t fill the pan even halfway; I thought, “Well, this will be a sad little cake, won’t it,” as I evened the batter and put the pan in the oven.

I had to bake it for 30 minutes longer than the recipe said to bake it, but after 90 minutes the cake was done. I let it cool and then apprehensively moved to shake it out of the pan. What I learned is that while I will be quite vicious in whacking the bottom of a metal Bundt pan, it’s hard to feel you can really let loose on a stoneware pan. Fortunately, the cake released after only a moment or two of smacking the pan with the palm of my hand. The cake wasn’t very tall or impressively grooved — the pan just isn’t designed to make the kind of sharp shapes we usually like to see in a Bundt — but the cake had come out correctly.

So I will report to N that the problem isn’t the pan, it’s her, basically. I feel kind of bad about this, but the truth is I bet that if she were meticulous about pan prep, and sure of her baking powder, she’d pull off a cake no problem. I don’t want to put her at fault, obviously, but it’s clear that one CAN bake a decent cake in this.

The next question, though, is, Do you really want a stoneware Bundt pan? I mean, if you had to buy a cake pan, would you want it to be made of stoneware? N had bought this pan because she thought it was pretty and because she, like me, is wary of non-stick coated pans. (I don’t like them; they make me nervous, and I don’t trust them.) She figured stoneware was a safe-ish bet. I suppose in terms of food safety it is, but I think, given the very pale browning on this cake, and the way the pan feels so delicate, anyone looking for a cake pan is much better off going with metal. And if you are skeeved out by buying a new pan because all you can find is non-stick, then go to the junk shop or the local vintage stuff store and find an old one that doesn’t have the coating. I know where I live, there’s a store downtown that specializes in vintage furniture and housewares and their baking supplies are amazing. You can get good cake tins for $3-7 a pan, depending on the size and the brand. I realize that a lot of people worry about aluminum and health issues; for the purposes of baking, I don’t view it as a big problem. (If anyone wants to pick a fight with me and explain why I’m nuts, go ahead.)

Bundt cakes have a reputation for being difficult. I’m reluctant to admit this, but I think the reputation is earned. It’s one of those cooking challenges where it’s not that any aspect of it is actually particularly hard, but that so many recipes for Bundt cakes involve many steps and large quantities. Pound cakes, which make beautiful Bundt cakes, require vast quantities of eggs, and usually you have to separate the eggs and process them separately. You have to do this separately from the creaming-the-butter-and-sugar together step. Which also takes a long time, because so much butter and sugar are involved. And if you have only one mixer bowl (good luck to you if you’re doing all of this whipping and creaming by hand), you have to do the egg white whipping first, because that way you save yourself the agony of creaming the butter and sugar and then transferring them into another bowl and  then washing the bowl to do the egg whites in, because you can’t whip egg whites in a bowl that has any fat or grease in it. It’s aa process, in other words, a long, painstaking process, and it requires real physical strength even if you’re using a stand mixer.

So it’s all the more important that the equipment you use not give you tsuris. This stoneware pan is handsome. It worked. But in the end, it’s only going to make my friend’s life harder. Because it’s white, it’s hard to see whether or not the pan has been properly prepped. Because it’s a weird size, it’s hard to find pound cake recipes that will fit in it. Because it’s stoneware, it’s not really going to conduct heat for baking the best cakes. In the end, I’m going to return this to N along with a hunk of cake and a note saying, “Keep this pan to use to make a pretty table centerpiece, or to use as a novelty baking dish, but don’t use it to bake Bundt cakes. Get a metal Bundt pan, if you must, and be done with it.”
The finished cake today is a shallow cake, not the high, handsome, dramatic cake many of us have in mind when we think “Bundt cake.” But it’s a tasty, light coconut cake. A Thin White Duke. I don’t know if David Bowie particularly liked coconut cake, but this one goes out to him.

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