Making Baking My Own By Teaching Another

December 21, 2010 § 6 Comments

I never used to like baking. When I lived in Japan my first year out of college, I had no oven, so it wasn’t even an option (although my 85-year-old great-aunt “baked” apple turnovers wrapped in foil in her microwave, sending out a shower of sparks, much to her son’s chagrin). When I tried baking banana bread at the age of 23, it came out blackened on all sides. Seven years later, nearly recovered from that incident, I tried making a tray of chocolate chip cookies, but they too came out charred. These were outcomes that I attributed to my complete inability to bake.

But most of all, baking seemed restrictive. I enjoyed cooking because you could improvise, but I saw baking as an activity where you had to follow directions exactly lest you end up with a disaster. So I stowed away the one loaf pan I owned, and for years, we used the cookie sheet only to heat up leftover pizza.

Then, due in part to a desire to eat better by making more food from scratch, a glimmer of interest in baking emerged. I started out slowly, with cookies. (Click here for my favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe.)

Favorite chocolate chip cookies

Those turned out decently, so then I got excited about trying more. And, I got an oven thermometer. When I learned that our oven runs 25 degrees hot, I realized I probably shouldn’t have been so judgmental about my prior baking snafus.

Soon, my husband would come home from work to find me dusted in flour, a big bowl of apples from our backyard tree sitting in sugar to be made into a cake…

Apples melting into sugar

…a new pie made with that week’s freshest fruit…

Pluot tart

…and plates of cubed butter chilling in the freezer, to be combined with flour and water into the latest pie crust recipe I’d read, intent on finding our favorite.

Butter!

The old adage goes that if you can teach it, you must know it. So, this past weekend, I did a one-eighty on baking: I went from burning everything I baked to teaching someone else how to create confections.

My friend, E, wanted homemade goodies for his holiday party. He’s a talented guy, able to do anything he sets his mind to, including things others deem impossible. So even though the only implements I found in his kitchen drawers were a screwdriver set and an air pistol, I had faith he could bake cookies.

As I was coaching E to make chocolate chip cookies, snickerdoodles and gingerbread, it suddenly hit me how much I’d learned about baking, despite having intensely disliked it just a year ago.

E baking

I now know to sift flour to incorporate air, evenly distribute baking soda and cream butter and sugar well to yield lighter, fluffier goods. (Baking soda reacts with your wet ingredients to create small air pockets, and creaming butter and sugar maximize air bubbles, all of which lead to “light and fluffy”; if you have a glob of soda, you’ll have a giant air hole).

I’ve been taught to break eggs one at a time into a small bowl separate from the dough or batter. It’s easier to fish out shell shards that way, and if you have a bad egg, you won’t ruin your batch.

E breaking eggs into a bowl

But the best lesson of all for me? You can improvise in baking. You can’t screw around with the science of it too much, but you can adjust spices, sugar volumes, even cooking times. By teaching E these recipes, I realized that I’d refined them to my liking each time I’d made them.

In other words, once you build a strong foundation, you can make it your own.

My hope is that this baking lesson was step one in E building a strong foundation; that he’ll move from eating every meal out to making some of his food at home. And I like to think that our afternoon of baking might be the foundation for creating a new tradition: having fun making good food together.

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Tomorrow’s post: The gingerbread recipe — perfect for Christmas!

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