1. Writing a recipe is harder than I thought. Aside from baking, when I cook I have typically chucked things in until it smells and tastes good. When I’m writing a recipe that someone else might cook, I have to think about quantities, cooking times, techniques. Hats off to recipe writers – it’s not as easy as I thought it would be.
2. Cocoa can seize, the same as chocolate. I did not know that until I was making brownies and did not pay attention to the cocoa and butter mix in the pot. Whoopsies. Also, double whoopsies – I should have used a double boiler and didn’t because it was ‘only’ cocoa. Chunky mess in my pot. Wailing from kids enticed by the smell of chocolate. Explanation of First World Problems.
3. Some things you have a knack for straight away, others you have to learn. And learn. Yeast dough and I are sympatico. I understand how a yeast dough works; I can tell by sight and smell whether the dough will have a good texture once baked, or whether there has been too much liquid or not enough. Yeast is my bestie. I can curl up on the couch with a yeast dough and have a cup of tea and a natter.
Pastry on the other hand, is my high school bully. We are not friends. I go to a high school reunion with shortcrust pastry, you can bet we are on opposite sides of the room, and will not be friending each other on Facebook.
And yet – I still want her to like me. So I keep trying with pastry, because one day, my hands will be cool enough, and my pie crust will be flaky and delicious.
Why yes, I have been obsessing about pastry. How can you tell?
4. Follow the recipe. You can be creative with stews, casseroles, and almost any other recipe, but with baking, you have to follow the recipe – the measurements are there for a reason. This is particularly the case with yeast dough and pastry. Quickbreads – like muffins or banana bread – are more forgiving, but fiddle with them too much and you will have a soggy banana bread or a tough muffin. And no-one wants a tough muffin.
I use digital scales, and they are the best.
5. You can copy almost anything commercially sold in cafes or bakeries, by developing a good understanding of how flavours work together. I often look at the pastries and cakes being sold in my local cafe, usually for $6 or $7 each, and take a mental note of the flavour combinations. It’s not rocket science. Then I try and replicate them at home – and most of the time I can do it pretty easily, more cheaply, and certainly more healthily. Some things you bake at home yourself will not be as cheap, due to the cost of sourcing ingredients at lower quantities, but most of the time if they are ingredients you have on hand anyway, you will come out ahead. An example of something that will not be cheaper is a Christmas fruitcake – but I like to make it myself each year anyway because I love to make it, and then I love to eat it, each delicious slice tinged with wistfulness because I know that once it is gone, there will be no more for a whole year.
6. Even though it is ten times more efficient for me to bake by myself, I have to let the kids help. Sometimes I want some time and space to myself, but I try to give myself over to the mess and spend time teaching them to do it. My mother and both my Grandmothers did that for me, and it was a gift – to my independence, as well as of their time.
7. Unsalted butter is imperative. I always have it in the fridge, in case of baking emergency. There are many unexpected baking emergencies in our house.
‘Someone get that girl a chocolate chip cookie, stat!’
8. Preheat the oven.
9. Recipes often call for different kinds of sugar: dark brown, light brown, caster, Demerara, golden caster, etc. Sometimes, sugars can replace each other: for example, you could substitute Demerara for brown sugar. However, many times the recipe is calling for a specific sugar because it has a property or a flavour that is required for that recipe. For example, many dark fruit cake recipes call for dark brown sugar as opposed to the more easily available light brown sugar (which is the cheapest). I always have regular brown sugar in my house, but I buy the dark brown sugar when baking a fruit cake – because the extra molasses in the dark brown cake adds the extra colour and depth of flavour to the fruit cake. My cake would still turn out if I used the cheaper light brown sugar, but it just would not be as rich and luscious.
I usually keep the following sugars in my house:
– light brown sugar
– caster sugar
– raw sugar
I find that I am able to substitute golden organic raw sugar for white sugar, because it has a finer texture than regular raw sugar. The only time I buy white granulated sugar is when making jam, because it melts and boils most quickly and assists in the setting process best.
10. If you don’t enjoy cooking something, give up (paraphrasing that great philosopher, Homer Simpson). I hate making meringue. It’s sticky, messy, not that tasty, and basically exists only to use up egg whites. Even lemon tarts are just as nice without the meringue. Last time I made it, I ended up covered in meringue, and cranky as hell. So I made a vow never to make that stuff again. And life continues.
That is not contradicting my pastry obsession – I enjoy making the pastry, I am just not that good at it. Hence, I do not quit even though I have miles to go before the pastry flakes.
I can make meringue, I just want to take up another hobby by the time I am through. Underwater macrame, or Morris dancing.