Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Lemon Loaf Challenge

I called it The Lemon Loaf Challenge, and wrote a few friends accordingly:

Would you like to be my guinea pigs Friday afternoon around 2? I’m going to be baking three lemon loaves - one, a complicated loaf from France; the others, simple loaves we’ve choked down for years. You won’t know which is which, but will be asked to rate both. I’d love you to partake in the joys of joining my Anonymous Taste-Testing Panel! 

I accompanied the invitation with photos of three taste-testers who were already on the panel: 

And so it was that Ann, Scott, Karin, and Dan joined the Anonymous Taste-Testing Panel and took The Lemon Loaf Challenge!

The panel had to rate each loaf. As you can see, they weren’t in the least bit shy:

It all began innocently enough, and all in the spirit of fun (Which loaf do you prefer?) But things soon spiraled out of control. I could never have guessed how complicated this simple Challenge would become, and where it would lead, and how it would happen that I would face the greatest Lemon Loaf Challenge of all!

*   *   *

There are times when mere curiosity isn’t enough, and when only  scientific investigation will do. This is the 
Let the investigation begin!
story of a recipe in shambles. It begins in a world-famous bakery in Paris, and ends in the Time Zone and at the Latitude Where I Live. I’ll try not be be melodramatic about this, Dollinks, but let me tell you, it won’t be easy to keep this short.

When I first read the French recipe, I felt nervous about its chance of success. It was jumbled and confusing, falling far, far short of my expectations for any recipe - let alone one from a fine French patisserie.

How can I put this delicately? The recipe from France was a disaster. 

Much of the recipe described the end result as a “cake” and much as a “loaf.” The method wasn’t the usual method for either a loaf or cake. The oven temperature called for was higher than the normal temperature for either. Many of the measurements were non-standard, possibly from their conversion from a system of weights to a metric volume measure and then to an Imperial measure. The recipe called for ingredients not normally found in North American cupboards. 

The recipe was yeast-raised and didn’t specify a pan size, noting only that the “cake” should be baked in a “moule” - literally, a “mold.” After Googling what bakers who had gone before me had done, I baked this “cake” or “loaf” in a standard-sized loaf pan. It would have been nice if the recipe had provided a clue. 

The recipe called for “lemon jelly, with no explanation of what that was. Lemon gelatin (as in Jell-O thinned with water)? Lemon curd? Something else? The recipe called for “rum.” White? Amber? Dark? Not a whisper. 

The French version of the recipe called for “half a sachet of yeast powder”; the English version called for “active dry yeast,” but made no mention of the instructions for using it, as recipes routinely do. I’m unfamiliar with the term “yeast powder,” and wasn’t sure how much “half a sachet” was, but when I did some later research, I learned that the pastry kitchens of Paris use a completely different type of yeast than generally used in North America. 

I’d already announced the Lemon Loaf Challenge. I could hardly back out now. I was in trouble. I baked the “cake”/“loaf” exactly as the recipe had said. It looked pretty, but it didn’t rise. It was also heavy and gummy. The testers weren’t so keen on it.

Lazarus may have risen; this gummy loaf did not.

The other two loaves in the Challenge? I’d made a sad-looking nut loaf drizzled with lemon frosting. It didn’t rise, either. The testers thought it was great, mostly because of its nutty flavor and crunch.

Nut loaf: Bleee-ach! Nonetheless, one tester loved it best.

I’d also made a lemon cake mix. I baked it in a loaf pan, adding a few poppy seeds to fool the testers into thinking it was homemade. For the same reason, I decorated it with a flurry of confectioner’s sugar. Believing I’d made it myself, the testers praised its “light texture.” 

Your basic lemon cake mix: The testers praised its “light texture.”

Not surprisingly, the nut loaf’s biggest fan didn’t think much of this light, lemony concoction. Instead, he had seconds of the nut loaf, as well as taking some home. 

The French loaf had taken hours, at a cost of about $7. The nut loaf was dry and over-baked (one of my testers called it “a real people pleaser”). As for the cake mix? It was $1.29 on sale. Everyone loved it.

I found this quite depressing. I couldn’t get the French Lemon Loaf out of my mind. I set out to make it again. And again, after that. One looked like it would be perfect - before I left it in the oven too long and burnt it. And so I made the loaf again and again and again.  

By then, I’d abandoned the French recipe, growing bolder with each improvisation. In all, I made the loaf six times. And finally got it right. I adopted a standard loaf method. I lowered the oven temperature. I changed the recipe’s measurements - sometimes drastically - rounding them up or down. I threw in some new ingredients, and threw out some of the originals. I scrapped the yeast and let the loaf rise with baking powder and baking soda. I drank the rum. I melted lemon marmalade in place of the mysterious lemon jelly.

What resulted from all my testing was one of the very best lemon loaves I’ve ever tasted - one you’ll be proud to present to your family and friends. I think I’ve earned the right to call this recipe what it now is: Nicole Parton’s Lemon Loaf Supreme. The recipe follows.

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