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.
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.