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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.

Presented by

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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