Whether you’re a home cook or a professional cook, a vital component to a successful recipe is:  taste.

When a recipe says, “season with salt and pepper to taste,” this means you should actually taste what you are working on and let your taste buds help you decide if more seasoning is warranted or not.

Not only does this lead to seriously flavorful food, but it can help you detect mistakes as well.

For instance, last week at work, one of the cake decorators was cutting pounds of strawberries and mixing them with sugar to make the filling for our strawberry short-cake.  One of the ladies that works in the bakery kept asking if she could taste the strawberries, but the cake decorator was preoccupied with her work and said, “no”.  Being persistent, my coworker snuck a few strawberries, and to her surprise got a mouthful of salty strawberries.  So yes, this wasted a bunch of fruit, but saved a lot of customers from an unpleasant piece of cake.

Once, one of my fellow pastry cooks mistook lemon curd for pecan pie filling.  Fail. Lemony nuts?

I thought the vanilla buttercream was whipped cream.  Oops.  Buttery.

Someone didn’t read the label on the sheet of brownies they were cutting and accidentally cut brownies filled with hatch chiles instead of plain chocolate brownies.  Uh oh.  Spicy.

I don’t tell you these things in order to make all of us pastry cooks look stupid, but to show that 1. we all make mistakes and it usually ends with a funny story and 2. even if you are in a rush or you have made that recipe a million times, taking a few seconds to taste your work can save you from an embarrassing mistake or simply help you improve your dish.

This week I made carrot coffee cake…twice.  Twice, because I made a mistake the first time around.  I made the dreaded mistake of forgetting to add the sugar to the batter…blech.  I always give batter (yeah, yeah, I know there is raw eggs in it) a taste.  I believe that even batter, while somewhat different then the final product, can tell you if the sweetness and saltiness is balanced.  And, I think batter is just plain good.

This recipe was no exception, except I waited until after the cake, with streusel topping already applied, was happily baking in the oven before I tested the batter.  No good.  I decided to let it bake and see how it tasted without sugar.  No good.

Despite my disapointment, this mistake gave me time to contemplate the original recipe a little more and led me to change it up a bit on the second go.  Very good.

Today’s lessons: take a second to taste what you are cooking, double check your work, and don’t let mistakes get you down, laugh about it, learn, and make it even better the next time.

Spelt Carrot Coffee Cake

Makes 1 9-inch cake or 12 muffins

Adapted from Good to the Grain by Kim Boyce

Note:  First off, I promise this will be the last recipe from Good to the Grain for a while.  It’s just such a darn inspiring cookbook and if you like baking, whole grains, and good photography, you should probably go buy it already.

This cake is made with spelt flour.  Spelt is and ancient whole-grain that was commonly used in medieval Europe and is now touted as a health food due to it’s relatively high fiber and protein content. I like spelt for it’s grassy and earthy flavors that works well the the sweet carrots in the recipe.  Spelt flour can be found in most grocery stores in the “healthy living” section.

In the original recipe, these are muffins, not cake and would make 12 muffins if you decide to adapt this recipe.  Distribute struesel topping evenly over muffins.

I upped the butter and eggs in the recipe, which I think improves the crumb.  Instead of melting the butter, as directed in the recipe, I creamed it with the sugar.

Streusel topping:

1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons spelt flour

2 tablespoons oat bran

2 tablespoons dark brown sugar

1 tablespoon sugar

1/8 teaspoon kosher salt

4 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/4 inch pieces

For cake:

1 cup spelt flour

3/4 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 cup oat bran

1 teaspoon allspice

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature

1/3 cup dark brown sugar

1/4 cup sugar

2 large eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup buttermilk

1 1/2 cups coarsely grated carrots

Preheat the oven to 350°F.  Grease a 9-inch cake pan with butter.

For the streusel topping, measure the flour, oat bran, sugars, and salt into a mixing bowl.  Add the butter and rub between fingers, breaking it into smaller bits.  Continue rubbing until the mixture feels coarse, like cornmeal.  The more quickly you do this, the more the butter will stay solid, which is important for the success of the recipe.

Combine flours, oat bran, allspice, salt, baking powder, baking soda, and cinnamon in a medium bowl and set aside.

In a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream butter and sugars until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes.  Add the eggs and vanilla extract, continue to beat until well combined. In three batches, alternate adding dry ingredients with buttermilk until well combined.  Fold in carrots until evenly distributed.

Spread batter evenly in cake pan.  Top with streusel, lightly pressing into surface of batter.  Bake for 25-30 minutes, until a toothpick stuck in the middle comes out clean.

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