Let’s start with a confession. I am not a baker.
Here’s a more positive spin: I am a wannabe baker. I love the result, hate the process. For me, baking is like taking a hike up a mountain in a straight jacket. Love the view, hate the climb.
Baking is everything that I am not: methodical, precise, sweet, scientific.
I have a few baking recipes that I’ve posted.
Half of these, I might add, have been adapted from cookbook geniuses like Crescent Dragonwagon and David Lebovitz. That’s why the recipes are good- because the adjustments I made are superficial – some extra spice or vanilla, a variation in process.
The truth is, I can open my refrigerator door, grab 10 random ingredients and have a 3 course meal, appetizer, salad, and entree ready in 45 minutes. But I become weak in the knees when it comes time to make dessert.
This is where my local library and its 2 aisle-long cookbook collection comes in handy. Recently I checked out Dorie Greenspan’s Baking: from my home to yours. It’s considered a classic. (Don’t worry I didn’t know that fact until a month ago and I didn’t know Dorie Greenspan from Dora the Explorer)
Let’s just say that learning to bake is like learning to drive a clutch, it’s punctuated with stalls and re-starts. Here are my two most recent baking disasters.
For baking attempt #1 I tried making, for the first time ever, a cake from scratch. Really they were cupcakes since I was taking them to a friend’s work site for her birthday. Some muffin paper cups with Snoopy holding Woodstock’s hand and “It’s good to have a friend” written on them may have also influenced my decision to make cupcakes.
The recipe called for 1 egg and 1 egg yolk. Eggs, God help me, are for binding all the ingredients as they cook; eggs are the glue of baking. I know this, but for some reason while I was mixing the ingredients, a bout of amnesia hit. Really, I was being cheap.
1 egg yolk? What am I going to do with the leftover egg white? I can’t just toss it. Throwing out food is sacrilegious. I ixnay the 2nd egg. Instead I substitute 1/4 cup of buttermilk, wrongfully thinking that the extra buttermilk, in addition to the already 1/2 cup the recipe called for, would make the cupcakes super moist. 1 egg, that’s equal to about 1/4 cup of buttermilk, right?
The result: A fragile batch of brown crumbs holding together like a pair of awkward, desperate teenagers caught kissing under the football stands. These cupcakes shattered at the slightest bite. We resorted to eating them over the sink because of how crumbly they were.
The lesson: I gotta learn the basics of baking before I go all mad scientist creating something else.
Also came from my measly attempts to emulate one of the cooking world’s matriarchs. This time I was making Dorie’s recipe for pastry cream. Kris’ uncle was in the Bay Area and came over for dinner. The plan was to macerate (fancy word for coax the juices out of) a few nectarines, bake up some puff pastry (obviously from a box), and top it off with some homemade pastry cream.
Pastry cream is the ambrosia they put inside chocolate eclairs. In order to get it out, people either (A) lap it out from the eclair-shell with their tongue, French-kissing style or (B) dig their finger into the eclair-shell, pull the cream out, and gratifyingly lick it off their fingers. I am part of the B-category of eclair eaters.
I halved the recipe since there was only 3 of us, and I didn’t want this custard-temptress hovering in my fridge. Still recovering from the previous baking disaster, I decide to follow the ingredient list and recipe scrupulously. This recipe, halved, called for 4 egg yolks. This time I heroically decided not to balk at all the extra egg whites. (At least with 4 I could make an omelet.) Even the tempering went well. (Tempering is when you SLOWLY mix hot milk into raw egg yolks, all in an effort to avoid scrambling the eggs) I have no trouble tempering because I paranoically do it 1/2 cup of milk at a time. Making homemade custard-based ice cream was how I learned a slow, patient tempering.
Here’s where I went wrong. I missed reading a sentence (or two…or three) in the recipe. I was supposed to return the liquid to the stove and cook it a little longer to ensure that the pastry cream would solidify into a luscious custard after a stint in the fridge.
Instead, as soon as I finished tempering the milk into the egg yolks and sugar, I let it cool slightly, then unwittingly covered it and put it in the fridge. Of course I took a taste of the liquid custard, and of course it tasted like heavenly bliss, and in an hour, it’d have the texture of pudding.
Except later, when I pulled it out of the fridge, it was still the liquid custard I had put in an hour prior. It had failed to thicken because I missed the crucial step of warming it all up one last time. Dessert was still fabulous, though next time, when I correctly make the pastry by reading and following every precise direction, it will be delectable rather than laughable.