Follow the Recipe, and Other Ways to Beat a Fear of Baking

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Courtesy of Joanne Chang


This is the second piece in Joanne's series about demystifying pastry for home cooks. To read her first piece, on why pastry isn't scary, click here, or click here to try her recipe for roasted pear and cranberry crostata.

My husband, Christopher, is a golf fanatic, and if he's not playing golf he's watching it on the Golf Channel (yes there's an entire TV channel devoted to golf). When I tease him that the Golf Channel simply replays the same match over and over with different commentary, with viewers none the wiser, he motions to the myriad baking books that fill our bookshelves, claiming that I keep ordering the same book over and over, each with a different cover.

I learned how to bake through books. I hear the voices of Rose Levy Berenbaum, David Lebovitz, Dorie Greenspan, and Flo Braker (to name a few) in my head explaining the differences between baking soda and baking powder or the ideal temperature at which to cream butter. Reading the same explanation of a certain technique by different pastry chefs allowed me to learn from various perspectives. Why does oven temperature matter? What happens if you forget to add salt? Every "what if" was a mystery waiting to be solved. And each book offered a new solution.

When I decided to add to the conversation by writing my own baking book, I knew I did not want to reinvent the wheel. Rather what I hoped to do with Flour was to see if I could help take some of the intimidation out of baking—and replace it with excitement, delight, joy.

I've been doing pastry demonstrations and attending book signings almost every day since it came out last month. People are unfailingly enthusiastic and welcoming wherever I go, peppering me with questions about how to bake better. Here is what I've learned.

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Courtesy of Joanne Chang

First of all, it sounds obvious, but you have to read the recipe. My reaction to the student who admitted to me after one demo, "I never follow directions!", was to try to smile understandingly while inside I resisted the temptation to bop him on the head. In baking, the neat thing is that someone has done the heavy lifting for you. You don't have to guess how much sugar or flour to put into the bowl. The recipe has it all figured out. It's like a GPS for your kitchen! Take the directions, read them, and follow them.

However, while the GPS lady plaintively informs you she is "recalculating" if you make a wrong turn, in baking it's not possible to un-whisk the sugar into the eggs if you put in too much or un-bake the cake if it stays in the oven too long. To become a better baker, you really do have to focus. But that's not that difficult when the reward is a luscious marshmallow meringue pie or a gooey caramel nut tart right? Most recipes require you to focus for about the same amount of time that your favorite sitcom is running, at most. Trust me, it's worth it.

Remember as well that one of the great things about baking is that if you make a mistake the result is usually still edible and even quite good. Unless you've totally burnt your cookies or added salt instead of sugar into your cake—which you wouldn't do because you stayed focused while following your recipe, right?—you will likely end up with something that be fashioned into a new dessert that you can serve proudly to unsuspecting friends and family.

How do I know this? When you have 21 different bakers all at varying levels you're bound to have some mistakes in production. Rarely do we simply throw away a mistake—we've made some pretty scrumptious treats by being creative with our baking errors. Peanut butter cookie dough that has too much flour mixed in becomes a base for a peanut butter-coconut-chocolate-dream bar. Lemon cake that's a bit tough because it was overbeaten gets cut into little squares and layered with fluffy lemon cream and raspberries to become lemon trifle. Overbaked chocolate cookies get a scoop of ice cream in between them and rolled around in chocolate chips for decadent ice cream sandwiches. The possibilities are endless ... which I know from experience.

I've learned that people often feel nervous when baking because they don't really understand the language. No wonder they are daunted by a recipe that instructs them to gently fold this and temper that. When you travel to a foreign country you learn how to say "thank you" and "please" and "where's the bathroom?". In baking there are some key instructions like scald, cream, and proof that you want to familiarize yourself with before you start so you know what you're doing.

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Courtesy of Joanne Chang

Recently I was teaching a reporter how she could make a fabulous Roasted Pear and Cranberry Crostata at home. All of the ingredients for my crostata shell, almond cream filling, and ginger roasted pears were meticulously pre-measured in separate containers for me, allowing me to effortlessly flow through the recipe. She wondered if it was somewhat contrived to have everything prepped so conveniently for us. The truth is that this is how I always bake, and so should you. Take the time to gather all of your ingredients and measure them out in advance and then you'll avoid unnecessarily stumbling around trying to melt and cool your butter in time to fold into your whipped egg-sugar mixture. Those TV chefs who have everything laid out in front of them so they can talk and chat while they make a cake? They've got the right idea for those of us baking at home.

Finally, when all else fail for those who shy away from the pastry kitchen, I offer an approach that I learned in art class in the 6th grade. Change your perspective. My art teacher taught us to not think about drawing a person's face for example, but instead to focus on one part of the face and draw the angles and lines and shapes of just that section. It was amazing—once you got your mind away from thinking, "I can't draw! And I certainly can't draw a person's face!", you really could break down the process and draw the angles and pieces that made up each part until you got the whole. Baking is like that. You might not think you can make a Midnight Chocolate Cake with Milk Chocolate Buttercream. But can you measure out flour and butter? And turn on a mixer? And spread batter in a pan? And so on.... Once you break down a recipe into manageable steps, all of which are completely doable, you start to see how you might be more intimidated by the thought of baking than actually baking.

Christopher just recently botched at attempt to make pancakes. Out of a box. "How in the world could I have messed that up?" he moaned. Turns out he didn't use a measuring cup and added way too much liquid; he was watching (surprise) the Golf Channel as he was mixing and rather than fold gently he whipped that batter into submission; he didn't heat the pan enough so the butter sort of melted but didn't sizzle; when he cooked the pancakes they steamed rather than crisped up. I took the floppy, thin, chewy crepes that resulted; slathered them with butter, heavy cream, and a little jam; layered them on top of each other; sprinkled it with sugar; and heated the whole thing in the broiler. The top got crisp and the insides melted together a bit, and we had ourselves a delightful breakfast.

Recipe: Roasted Pear and Cranberry Crostata
Recipe: Pâte Brisée

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Joanne Chang is the chef/owner Boston’s Flour Bakery + Cafe. She has a degree in applied mathematics and economics from Harvard University and was a pastry chef at Payard Patisserie and Mistral. Her book, Flour: Spectacular Recipes from Boston's Flour Bakery + Cafe, was released this October.

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