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Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Secrets of Baking

If this looks familiar, this post is for you.
There are few things as truly satisfying as a cook, classic cookbook. A few cookbooks have emerged over the past 50 years that have established themselves as golden standards. Most homes probably have at least one of these volumes: “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” by Julia Child, James Beard’s “American Cookery,” and/or “Betty Crocker’s Picture Cookbook.” 

These volumes are passed down generation to generation and there is something comforting about making a recipe and seeing your grandmother’s (or, in my case, grandfather's) or mother’s handwriting in the margins, telling you to add more wine or cook it a few minutes longer than the recipe calls for.

Once I learn a recipe, I like to play with it (as in last month's pot roast posting). Being a creative cook is pretty easy, all things considered. But the scientific exactitude that underlies baking means that baking experiments do not always go well.

We've all been here at some point
Case in point, I make a delicious dark chocolate cupcake with a raspberry cheesecake center (my own recipe). One time I decided to change it up by using a lavender buttermilk cupcake and lemon curd cheesecake. Complete disaster! After 40 minutes in the oven they still hadn't set. Something about the curd and buttermilk substitutions threw off the chemical makeup of the cupcake. I made a mental note not to try that combination again and moved on.
For my birthday this year, my friend sent me a new baking book that promises to become a family staple. The book is “The Secrets of Baking,” a James Beard book award winner by pastry chef Sherry Yard. Unlike most baking books, the chapters are organized into master recipes followed by variations. For example, the first chapter is all about ganache. Yard shows you how to make perfect ganache, then shows you what you can do with it: truffles, parfaits, souffles, tortes, mousse, frosting, etc. Chapter five is  all about mastering pâte à choux, then moving on to cream puffs, cannoli, dumplings, beignets, gougères, etc. 

Along the way, Yard explains why recipes are written the way they are: HOW butter, eggs, sugar and flour work together on a chemical level, WHY some cookies are crunchy and some are chewy and HOW to fix a curdled or otherwise unsuccessful batter/sauce/dough. Once the reader can understand the science behind baking recipes, they have the tools to create their own recipes, rather than just copying someone else’s (for a cooking version of this concept, I recommend "What's a Cook to Do" by James's a lifesaver at my house).

This book has me realizing that experiments like my cupcake one do not have to remain mysterious failures. With a few tweaks, I may be able to create a perfectly delicious lavender buttermilk cupcake with lemon curd cheesecake center. A whole new world of baking has been opened up (my brother jokes that the mad scientist can return to her laboratory and my Mum sighs that we'll have to start buying butter and flour at Costco again...such comedians).

Frankly, the book is genius. If you are looking for a book of dessert recipes, this is not the one for you. However, if you want to learn, really learn and not just mimic, how to make the basics that almost all dessert recipes are based on, this is the perfect book. I look forward to cracking it open this weekend and making my own notes in the margins. I guarantee that this is a book I will want to pass on to my kids and grandkids.

1 comment:

  1. Do you remember the smoking cookie in the microwave??? I'm glad to see that you have come such a long way since blaming me for the flaming cookie :P