I am not a baker. Bakers are ultra-organized, super neat freaks and patient as Moses, as my grandmother used to say. Baking is methodical and consistent. And, contrary to the ongoing debate, it is an exact science. Yes, yeasts and leaveners do have their own ideas about how and when they'll work, if at all. But, the learned baker keeps this and any other factors under control by observation and accounts for any rogue ingredients. A great baker doesn't get any "surprises". And, for what it's worth, the most talented bakers I know are either Virgos or Geminis. *Just sayin'*
Yet, for all that apparent rigidity and discipline, there is something very calming and therapeutic about baking. If you're in the kitchen all day with your onions, garlic and other non-pastry ingredients, the chance to cook outside the box is a welcomed and delightful change. It's like picking up a guitar; each time you play, it's always fun. You pick up where you left off, tinker here and there. And, the more you play, each time you learn a little more, and before you know it, you've got a list of songs you're good at. That's baking, in a pie shell.
Just the sheer aromatherapy of baking can transform you. I realize I'm preaching to the choir here; I mean, who doesn't swoon over smells of caramelizing sugar, fresh vanilla, warm chocolate, cinnamon and butter? Baking is a treat for all the senses. For me, the less gadgets, the better. I want to get my hands dirty. Give me a good set of mixing bowls, a killer scale and durable measuring cups and spoons, a Kitchen Aid, a sil-pat, great pans- and I'm good, yo.
The second tenet of successful baking, after good equipment, is great ingredients. Use good butter. Please. Know which flour a recipe calls for- and get it. Farm fresh eggs are always going to be better than supermarket. Period. I could write a whole post on vanilla- just know that all vanilla is NOT created equal. Cream and milk? Fat is important. And a little known fact, cream that is out of "date", is actually better for baking (It whips up faster). Use fruits that are in season. And finally, there is a reason why there are hundreds of types of chocolate. Read a little about chocolate and educate yourself.
I'm not talking just sweet baking, either. Bread baking can soothe the savage beast. Kneading dough with the sleeves rolled up is like a good workout. And, the toasty, yeasty aromas that emanate from your oven on a Sunday morning or winter's afternoon can transform the moodiest, crankiest cook into the most blissed out baker.
If there is one thing that baking has taught me, it's the importance of method, method, method. If you follow a well-written recipe to the letter, you're gonna rock the house every time. I think one of the reasons people fail when baking is because a recipe is too vague. For example, the #1 reason cookies turn out flat and not fluffy is because people skip the step of chilling the cookie dough before baking. It's like we can't wait another blessed second to get a steaming, gooey chocolate chip cookie off the sheet and into our mouth; if the recipe or chef explained why it's so crucial, we'd never skip the chilling process again.
The liquifiers, other wise known as eggs and butter, require congealing with the other ingredients, the stabilizers. When that little dab of dough hits the oven, the first thing to happen is the steaming of the butter and eggs. If the dough is too warm, they go flat- instantly. The colder it is, the longer it takes to liquify the eggs and butter, thereby allowing the cookie to retain its desired lumpy, chunky shape. The steam released from the butter causes the dough to rise, aided by the eggs, and in just a short 9-14 minutes, depending on the recipe, you've got an enviable cookie.
Don't stop there. Follow that recipe! When it says "cream the butter and sugar", know what you're doing and why. By combining the two until they are one isn't enough. You're incorporating volume that is equally crucial to the height of a killer cookie. I've seen cookie recipes that call for using a paddle on the mixer, and some that call for the whip. At this point, it's up to you. Do you want a dense cookie, or a light, fluffy one? This is the difference. How about a c.c. cookie recipe that calls for all brown sugar? Again, different sugars behave differently; brown sugar has moisture- whip it into butter and you're trapping air- which will work to your advantage for a fluffy cookie. Double the amount of vanilla and your cookie tastes just a little more decadent than the ordinary. Mix the chips (the last step) until just incorporated so you aren't activating the gluten in the flour further, and your "crumb" is larger. "Overmix" and you have a chewier cookie. Old baking soda? Not nearly as effective as new. Or, sift your flour, and your cookie is fluffier. Do you see the numerous factors that contribute to the outcome of your cookie? Yet, no one exlpains why.
These are concepts. Once you've experimented with them and ultimately obey them, they apply to all of cooking and baking.
Freeze your tart shell like your cookie dough for a flakier crust. Experiment with fat- do I use lard or butter? Shortening or a combination? Play with it until you find a recipe you really dig. Experiment with moisture in your oven when baking bread. Own a convection oven? Whoa! That's a whole other post, Bubbalouie! But, know that heat source is a HUGE determining factor in the outcome of a baking product.
And so, as is common, my foodie nerd side gets carried away, and I approach a TMI phase. If you follow this blog, you'll know that a common theme is "concepts and fundamentals". Once you've grasped them, you have more control over what you're cooking. No one is trying to make a scientist out of you, but when some of these tidbits are taken into consideration, it may help demystify cooking. And that alone is worth the virtual paper this is written on.
The following is a straight-off-the-wrapper recipe for Nestle Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookies. And it happens to be the only one I use.
DirectionsPREHEAT oven to 375° F.
COMBINE flour, baking soda and salt in small bowl. Beat butter, granulated sugar, brown sugar and vanilla extract in large mixer bowl until creamy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Gradually beat in flour mixture. Stir in morsels and nuts. Chill batter until firm, about 45 minutes. Drop by rounded tablespoon onto ungreased baking sheets.
BAKE for 9 to 11 minutes or until golden brown. Cool on baking sheets for 2 minutes; remove to wire racks to cool completely.