Saturday, June 4, 2011

Pantser Cake

by Sheila Connolly

In case you’re wondering, these are terms that get kicked around a lot among writers.  Writers who are Plotters like to lay out their books before they ever start writing.  You know—detailed outlines, biographies for their characters, even pictures for inspiration.  Pantsers have no patience for planning:  they just jump right into their story and see where it leads them.  Sometimes they paint themselves into a (plot) corner, but that’s what makes it interesting, right?

It hadn’t occurred to me until recently that the same philosophies can be applied to cooking.  I mean, we give you recipes here, and recipes assume that there are some measurements for ingredients, and an order in which to use them.  You don’t just say, take a chicken and cook it until done.  Throw in some herbs and such, and maybe a bunch of mushrooms if they’re just sitting around.  (And watch the gastric upsets begin!)

My husband and I have been more or less alternating cooking responsibilities since we were first married.  You’ll notice I don’t say cooking together.  He has his nights, and I have mine, and never the twain shall meet.  We don't exactly share the experience because he says he can't cook and talk at the same time because then he gets confused and forgets to add things.  He has a clutch of favorite recipes, many of which he has been making for decades, and HE…STICKS…TO…THE…RECIPE.  Every time.  If it says one-half teaspoon of salt, that’s what he puts in.  It would never occur to him to pick up a jar of herbs, take a sniff, and throw in a dash, just for the heck of it. 

When I started cooking, I did follow recipes (at least the first time), and was always amazed that they turned out tasting like they were supposed to.  But I've been cooking for a long time, so somewhere along the way I began experimenting.  I started by adding more herbs and spices to some recipes, because American cookbooks used to be too conservative (I mean, really—can you taste a half-teaspoon of thyme in a stew that serves eight?).  Gradually I liberated myself, to the point that I invent recipes on the spot, based on whatever I have in my fridge and larder, and what I feel like at the moment—that recent asparagus dish was one example.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but it sure is fun.

Only one caveat:  it doesn’t work for baked goods, because you need specific proportions and chemical interactions to make cakes and cookies come out right.  There are good reasons why some of those ingredients are in there.

That having been said, today I’m giving you a recipe that has been passed down in a friend’s family.  It’s simple, with few ingredients.  And it tastes good.  What more do you want? 

Carol's Nutmeg Cake

2 cups brown sugar
2 cups flour
1/2 cup butter or margarine
8 oz. sour cream
1 egg
1 tsp. nutmeg
1 tsp. baking soda

Combine the brown sugar, flour and butter or margarine to form crumbly mix.

Grease a 9x13 inch pan. Take 1-1/4 cups of crumb mixture and press onto bottom of prepared pan.  (This shouldn't be a real crust, just enough to keep the bottom firm and add a little crunch--see the cross-section below.)

In a separate bowl, combine the rest of ingredients.  Add the mixture to the remaining crumb mixture, mix well and then spread over crust in pan. Top with chopped nuts, if desired.

Bake at 350 F. for 35 minutes.

To serve, you can slice the top off of a piece and spread some cream cheese (whipped cream cheese spreads easily), or spread butter on it, an alternate way to serve. But it's quite tasty without any additions.

The first time I made this cake, I didn't realize that it lent itself very well to the plotter vs. pantser debate.  Made according to the recipe, it's a lovely light and flavorful coffee cake.  But…you can vary the thickness of the bottom crust (using more of the crumbly mixture) which in turn changes the texture of the top portion.  Or you can leave out the nuts, or use different kinds.  Or if you want a dessert, you can add frosting—I used a simple cream cheese frosting (you'd never guess I was a sucker for frosting, would you?).

In other words, don't be afraid to experiment. 

Wendy Lyn Watson's A PARFAIT MURDER...don't forget about her giveaway

In honor of the June 7 release of A Parfait Murder (the third Mystery a la Mode), which features a story line about the Lantana Round-Up Rodeo Queen Pageant, Wendy is giving away a little cowboy couture: a leather and rhinestone cuff, and a “rodeo queen” keychain. Eligibility: This contest is open to everyone living in the U.S. and Canada. One entry per person, please.

How to Enter: Send proof of purchase of A Parfait Murder (either a receipt, or a picture of you holding the book, by e-mail to Put the words “Parfait Giveaway” in the subject line.

Entries must be received by 5:00 PM Central Standard Time on Friday, June 17. Wendy will randomly select one entry, announce the winner on MLK on Saturday, June 18, and contact that person via e-mail. If she doesn't get a response within 7 days, she will draw another name.


  1. Wow, that really is a simple cake. I love the flavor of nutmeg. Got to try this (gluten-free).

    BTW, I'm a plotter until the end, and then I'm a pantser. LOL


  2. Pass a piece of the cake right now -- and nobody gets hurt . . .

    ~ Krista

  3. I'm still laughing at the quote "You don’t just say, take a chicken and cook it until done." I wanted to share a recipe I created, but was having a hard time writing a recipe others could really use. "You cut up some chicken breasts. How much? I don't know-as much as you're going to eat. Then you start cooking it in a pan on a stove, then toss in some chopped parsley. How much? I don't know-enough that it looks right..." and so on.

  4. Mmmm! When I first started cooking I didn't follow recipes either. Some major disasters happened that way. :P

  5. This recipe surprised me because you don't often find one that uses nutmeg without its constant companion cinnamon. Which reminds me: I have four kinds of cinnamon at the moment. How do I do a cinnamon tasting?

    Katreader, now you have me laughing. That sounds like some of the conversations my husband and I have when we cross paths in the kitchen. He: "how long do I cook it?" Me: "Until it's cooked." He: "How do I know if it's cooked?" Me: "Well, you could poke it." He: "How much parsley?" Me: "Just chop it until you get bored." And so on.

  6. Oh, I enjoyed this post *and* the comments. Mystery writing and recipe writing do indeed have much in common. Like Avery, I'm a plotter and a pantser. A little bit of this, a little bit of that (woops, too much of that, try again…okay, *now* we’re cookin’… :))

    This cake is lovely, perfect for a coffee or tea break. I agree, you don't often see cakes or cookies with nutmeg alone, and I'm looking forward to baking this up. Thank you, Sheila (and Carol)!

    ~ Cleo Coffeehouse
    Cleo Coyle on Twitter

  7. Just found you ladies. OMG, just gained five pounds getting to the comment section. I'm a pantser with plotting tendencies. I plot three chapters at a time, then write them, because if I plot any more than that, it's a waste of time. The story zigs instead of zags.

    Hope Clark

  8. Oh Yum! I just found this. I'm writing a cookbook called "When the Smoke Alarm Goes Off, It's Done!" because sadly, that's the type of cook I am. I can, occasionally, focus long enough to follow a recipe, though.

    Thank heavens I'm a much better writer than chef.