Courtesy of Joanne Chang
To try Joanne's recipe for maple-buttermilk cake with caramelized apples, click here.
My husband, Christopher, loves to tease me that I grew up in a bubble. It seems the only temperature at which I'm perfectly comfortable is a temperate 70 degrees Fahrenheit. I'm still uncomfortable riding around in a car with the windows down in the summer (you have AC, why not use it?), and for most of the harsh Boston winter I live in layers from hat to triple layers of socks, huddled by the nearest heater.
Go right ahead and call me fussy; I prefer to think I am simply not accustomed to either cold or heat. Likewise, when people say that baking is tricky, they may not realize that in so many different ways, temperature plays a huge role in success or failure. It helps to understand when and why something needs to be ice-cold, chilled, room temperature, hot, or caramelized. Seeing things from the ingredients' point of view takes the mystery out of baking—so you can march confidently into the kitchen and make something sweet.
Let's start at the cold end of the spectrum. The most common example of the importance of chilling ingredients is making flaky pie dough. Most recipes instruct you to start with butter that is straight from the refrigerator. Be honest now: Do you do that? You will once you understand why. To make pie dough, you mix butter into flour and then add liquid. If the butter is from-the-fridge-cold, it won't completely mix into the flour and some will remain in pieces, ideally the size of grapes. As you roll out your dough, these grape-sized pieces of butter get elongated by the rolling pin and you end up with long flat sheets of butter within your dough.