It took me a while to get into baking. I do not know why because my natural curiosity for anything scientific suggests perhaps that this is where I should have started when I got into cooking. More than any other type of cooking, baking requires accuracy and precision, the sort of thing that scientifically minded people are drawn to.
Maybe it is because I did not grow up around bakers. Or maybe it is because I had my fill of below par, bazaar cakes, cookies and biscuits when I was still quite young. Be it as it may, over the past few years I have been drawn to baking like bull to a cow in estrus. Nothing is going to stop me now. If you’re anything like me, here’s how you get into baking.
Step 1: Prepare yourself emotionally. Get to know the rules of the game, and then apply them better than anyone else (Einstein said that, not me). During this step, prepare yourself by asking yourself just this one question: “Why, for the love of Cyamites, the demi-god of the bean – do you want to do this?” For baking has many rules and is quite an unforgiving mistress, so be prepared for regular failure. If you, at this point, have any doubt, quit immediately. Do not proceed to Step 2.
Step 2: Gather, collect or steal information. Once you descent from your contemplative cloud, you will realize that there are many more cakes, biscuits, tarts, cookies and the like, than there are people on this earth. That is intimidating – take my word for it. And it gets worse. For soon you’ll realize that of each single baked item of the sort mentioned above, there are multiple recipes for each and every one. For if the world is divided, it is over how to bake a cake, or shape a cookie or twirl a biscuit. To compound the problem, a lot of recipes out there are no good. Pathetic even. I learned that the hard way.
Soon after I completed Step 1, I bought a very expensive book “The Art of French Baking” by Ginette Mathiot. With “French” in the title and a big red circle on the cover that states “The definitive guide to home baking by France’s favourite cookbook author”, I was sure this was my head start. Boy, was this a come down. I am nowhere near done with Mr. Ginette’s book, but thus far I have discovered that his Clavoutis recipe contains no sugar, and that his Flan à la Parisienne does not cook in the time specified. If I can give you good advice it is this: gather, collect and steal only from trustworthy sources, and if possible, taste before your steal.
Step 3: Be prepared to learn the real basics. I am not talking about preheating an oven. I am not referring to your ability to tell a non-stick pan from an ordinary metal one. No, I am talking about getting to know the protein and gluten contents of different types of flour. There are many more sweeteners than you think and they all behave differently when heated: sucrose, isomalt, fructose, glucose, maltodrextin, stevia and so forth. They all have different effects on your teeth and hips and you should know about that too. You need to be able to tell a fresh egg from an old one (when added to a bowl of water, fresh eggs sink to the bottom and stay there, old and bad ones stand upright or float). And, if all this is not enough, you need to learn about ovens and temperature. Like humans, no two ovens are the same or equal. Many recipe books these days assume you have a convection oven (i.e. one with a little fan that circulates the hot air inside the oven blowing cool air off the food). When cooking in a conventional oven, the suggested temperature might be too cold and the cooking time too short. Conventional ovens also have hot and cold spots that over-cook some parts and under-cook others giving your biscuits a camouflaged look which you might like, but that would not win you any prizes at the local baking fête. Embrace thermometers as your new best friends.
4. Be prepared to spend money and make a mess. If you want to be a serious home baker, you’re going to spend money. Accept it. Baking is not cheap, for most of what you need you can’t grow at home or buy at below-market-prices from your uncle’s farm. But, baking is the best excuse for buying new gadgets that I can think of. First, there are the pans and molds: for brioche, financiers, madeleins, sables, tarts and tartlets. Face it: if you go French, you go fancy. Buying non-stick helps; silicone might even be better. There is an unexpected upside to the cost issue however. Taking up baking provides loved ones with new, near limitless ideas and options for gift for birthday and Christmas presents for your dear self. Get them to buy you a pastry cloth, a good rolling pin, a few thermometers, good quality silicone spatulas and a few pallet knifes. Cake and tart pans is a must. So is a good quality mixer and, if there is any spare change left, a food processor.
With all this equipment you make an awful mess. Especially if you start adding ingredients … flour, sugar, butter, cake mix (God forbid), baking powder. These are all things that tend to fly all over the kitchen ceiling and floor if not properly cared for. I do not know why, but most baking recipes require ingredients to be moved from one bowl to next, to the next and so on. Many times. In no time the kitchen sink is filled to capacity and the family have all disappeared. Poof! Gone until the cake or biscuits are cold enough to eat, and you have finished the washing up. Personally, I found that early warnings of the coming mess are best issued quite early on. If at all possible, during Step 1. At the latest during Step 2.
5. Stay away from the elderly, especially of the female kind. By the time you have reached Step 5 you are baking with more confidence. You have managed this far without giving up and you have addressed some of your family’s worst fears: no one has died. Well not yet anyway. You feel ready and capable to bring your baking to an audience much broader then the immediate family. So you invite your aunties. BIG, BIG mistake!
For these seemly timid, loving and kind old folk who do supposedly little more than kissing babies and knitting sweaters undergoe that most formidable transformation I have ever seen when they get even the slightest whiff of a heating oven. They will start a war, and you will be left to fight and die. For despite all their innocence, these are the true mistresses of baking and they will let you know it. They have done it all: you name it – they fed thousands with it. Many times, over many years. And, they will have you know, they did so without the help of silicone, non-stick spray, KitchenAid or spring-form pans and all other modern conveniences. . What they now do to their hair, they used to do to fondant. They twist it, they curl it and they stretch it and they braid it. They colour it.
All possible shades of all the colours of the rainbow, and a few more you wish you never knew about. They will take charge of your kitchen and spread you thin like too little butter on too much bread. And although at some point you’ll feel that the only cure for grey or fondant-coloured hair is the guillotine, you won’t say it. For shortly, it will dawn upon you that you’re in the middle of your first, proper baking class.
I now love baking, both the science and creative part. Sweet or savory, I am up for the challenge, because I get to play with my food a lot and there is little to peel and chop.
To get you going past Step 1, here is a very easy recipe for delicious, somewhat wacky biscuits. Where else will you be encouraged to combine chocolate, cranberries and fennel seeds and receive praise for it?