Before culinary school, I was never a champion baker. And although I'm fascinated by food science and have a cooking degree under my belt, I find I have no patience for the precise anal antics required for successful baking. I much prefer the free form creativity that savory cooking offers -- a pinch of this, a dash of that. This weekend was going to be different, though. This weekend, I was going to faithfully follow recipes, to a tee, to ensure that all of my baking turned out perfectly, and I could hold my floury face up high.
Instead, baking kicked my butt from one end of the kitchen to the other.
I'm sorry, Williams-Sonoma, but we're breaking up. It's not me, it's you. It's you and your hors d'oeuvres book, which I purchased on Thursday for one recipe, and one recipe only: Roquefort Popovers. The recipe was simple. The photo was stunning. The results were disappointing and left me wondering (1) what did I do wrong, because this looks nothing like the picture? and (2) did they even test the recipe? I ended up with deformed, eggy, cheesy, quiche-like discs.
Then, I had trouble making a bread recipe from Gourmet magazine. I'm usually good with breads -- yeast cooperates, dough rises, spongy goodness follows. But the dough let me down this weekend. My first rise was perfect and exciting, but my second was a deflated disappointment. I decided to bake it anyhow, and for whatever reason, it baked at record speed on the temp/time requested in the recipe, and I almost burned the poor bugger.
Cheesecake anyone? Yeah, me, too. But Giada's "Everyday Italian" mini-cheesecake recipe didn't come out as nicely as it did on TV. The crumb crust stuck, and the cheesecake didn't want to let go of the pan.
Variables? Sure, there are always variables. So many that it's easy to blame the cook when recipes don't always turn out right. Outside temperature, humidity, ingredients, procedure, cooking vessels, oven temperature fluctuations -- they all play in important role in the success or failure of baking.
It hurts, I know. But more often than not, the failure of most baking adventures has to do with one or more of the most common baking bungles below. Learn to spot that weak link, and your baking will have the best chance at making it past the garbage disposal:
- Buy a scale and weigh your ingredients. Weight measurement, especially for flour, is much more accurate than measuring cups and will ensure you're using the exact amount a recipe calls for every single time.
- Follow the recipe exactly. If the recipe calls for room temperature eggs, by golly, use room temperature eggs.
- Purchase an oven thermometer you can keep in the oven itself to monitor its temperature. It's sad but true, most ovens do not maintain an accurate temperature correlating with its nifty temperature knob or digital reading.
- Use fresh ingredients. If your flour is more than three months old, toss it. If spices are more than six months old, it's time to replace. Same with butter and milk and eggs -- buy local and fresh.
- Mise en place, (pronounced miz ɑ̃n plas) is a French phrase meaning "everything in place," and refers to the set-up of your kitchen and ingredients. Having your "mise" set up before you begin baking or cooking means that you've preheated your oven, prepared and measured your ingredients, gathered needed utensils and everything you may possibly need to make a recipe. Mise will help you stay organized and in control of your recipe.
- In the event you've followed the recipe exactly, with perfect execution, and it still turned out less than stellar, it could possibly be an untested recipe that was published for whatever reason. Do some research online, compare similar recipes and see where the ingredients went wrong and at what point the recipe led you astray. Give it a try again, and if successful, you should pat yourself on the back -- you just created your own recipe!
And what was the culprit of my Williams-Sonoma popover problem?
Number three -- oven temperature. The recipe called for a temperature too high for my dark, non-stick mini-muffin tins. The outside baked too quickly, crusted, and stuck to the pan, which then led to the bottom separating and moving to the sides as the middle puffed. I was left with a deflated disc with "is-this-burnt-or-just-really-dark" sides and no bottom. Oven temperature, in fact, contributed to the failure of all my baking attempts this weekend. Sigh. I'll be buying an oven thermometer today. And you should, too.
P.S. Williams-Sonoma ... can we get back together? I've changed, baby.
- Dawn Viola is a food writer, recipe developer, and the voice behind the award-winning food blog, Wicked Good Dinner.
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