Saturday, April 7, 2012

How to Bake (bread and pastry)

Karel often says that I'm the baker and he's the cook--even though I do most of the "everyday" cooking. You know, the simple soups and pastas you can throw together using nothing but random leftovers in the fridge and a can of beans. It took a surprisingly long time to get to that point, actually--and poor Karel had to eat a lot of crow before I got there. Crow, or badly-cooked chicken...I'm not sure which.

But baking, for whatever reason, has never struck me as being particularly difficult. I liken it to running PCR: you mix everything together, flick the tube (DO NOT VORTEX), put it in the machine, and two hours later, you have data. Something like that, anyway. It's the mixing together part--the "vortex briefly" or "flick the tube" or "mix with inversion"--that gets people, I think. And to that end, there are two key factors to determining the success of your baking adventure.

The first is getting a good recipe, and by a "good recipe" I mean a recipe from someone who was or still is a pastry chef. I've made no secret of my adoration for Dorie Greenspan; her book Baking: From My Home to Yours is quite visibly a well-used treasure in our cookbook collection. In following her recipes, things have rarely gone wrong--if they have, it was solely because I didn't read the recipe carefully and "Oops, I thought it only needed a half stick of butter". A good recipe will give you meaningful direction on making your confection well--how to tell when you've cut butter into a pie dough properly, when to stop mixing a muffin batter, etc. Karel, for one, has even made a delicious rugelach using her recipe.

The second is understanding flour. Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking contains a most enlightening discussion on the molecular properties of flour. I'd quote from my version, but it's almost as old as I am, and later versions are probably more up-to-date in culinary geekery. But basically, knowing what's going on when you mix flour can really open your eyes as to why you shouldn't stir pancake batter until smooth, or how to judge when bread is kneaded properly.

These days I don't really use a recipe for anything any more--I check my proportions sometimes, but generally I go by feel when I'm making bread and pie crusts. They say that baking is a science and cooking is an art, but really, it all comes down to how well you know your food.

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