Like many of you, inferred by the lack of flour on the grocery shelves, I have been doing more baking recently.
I had planned on doing this after I left store proprietorship in an effort to improve my baking skills, since I am not a great baker. I love to cook and am rather fearless, and I think pretty good at it.
When I was in high school I felt like cooking something one day, so looked through my mom’s well-worn copy of Betty Crocker to see what I could try given which ingredients were on hand. I found cheese soufflé and promptly got started. When my mother came home, she was astounded – she had always been too intimidated to try a soufflé. Since I knew nothing of a souffle’s finicky character, I had proceeded without concern and was completely successful. Cheese soufflé became a pillar of my arsenal of recipes. In fact, still while in high school, I had two friends over for a “nice” lunch. I used my mother’s cream bone china plates and the good silverware. And what a beauty my lunch was – ripe, Michigan tomato slices, steamed broccoli and my cheese soufflé! A feast for the eyes! Unfortunately, Debby didn’t like tomatoes (which I knew and had forgotten) and Mary Kay didn’t like broccoli. But no matter – after I made them appreciate how pretty my “plating” was, I swapped Debby’s tomatoes out for Mary Kay’s broccoli and everyone was happy. I don’t remember what I served for dessert. Perhaps ice cream.
Baking, despite an earlier friend’s interest, didn’t really grab me. Maybe because this friend always wanted to bake a cake when I was at her house, and I didn’t particularly care one way or another, and so would agree. She’d greet me at the door, asking “do you want to bake a cake? I’ll ask my mom!” And off she’d go to return a minute later with permission granted along with the caveat that we clean up our mess. Years later when my mom told me she was puzzled that Mrs. Clancey thought I must be a good baker since I’d always wanted to bake when I came over to see Marilyn, I realized I had been used! And I don’t have any recollection of even eating any of that cake!
Of course, I made cookies, and fudge and boxed mix cakes. But there was always something of a struggle – the first batch of cookies was underdone, the last was always burned. I think I was so happy to be done rolling, or scooping, or cutting, I invariably forgot that last sheet in the oven until I began to smell them burning. It was complicated by the fact that while I own several cookie sheets, each is a different size and material. I will look at them in the stores, but get confused over which might be best, and not wanting to waste my money on something that won’t give stellar results, walk away empty-handed only to be frustrated next time I decide to make cookies.
Cakes weren’t much better. I remember a sheet cake I made – twice – for my son’s birthday. It was even from a box, but didn’t quite rise even though I’d followed the directions carefully. Or the scones I made from a mix that turned out a batter that was more like cake batter. Luckily I had a second mix, so kept adding until it was the right consistency, and was able to turn out some scones. Later, I reviewed where I had gone wrong, and ended up discovering that my American made Pyrex 2 cup measuring cup was not calibrated correctly! I still have it, because it’s handy, although I don’t use it for measuring. Just recently, amazed that this really could be true, I checked again, using measures I know to be accurate. Sure enough – at the two-cup mark, viewed correctly, at eye level, it contains three ounces too much. No wonder my scone batter was so thin!
I have managed some successes. Flourless chocolate decadence, a to-die-for lemon cake, a spectacular pear/cranberry tart with almond flavored filling that I would show my guests in its pre-cut beauty before serving. My mother-in-law’s brownie recipe I now avoid due to indigestion! I would make Christmas bread with my son every year from an old friend’s Swedish family recipe. It used yeast, which was a big deal to me, and was braided, and we’d top it with slivered almonds and colored sugars. So pretty, and so fragrant with cardamom, it made nice gifts if we could part with a few loaves!
Usually, I would bake as part of a menu I was putting together, or as a celebratory stand-alone treat. It wasn’t something I had time for or particular interest in.
On the other hand, I love cooking and trying new recipes. It is something I do every day, after all, and I get tired of my repertoire. So I love cookbooks, especially those with pretty, inspiring pictures!
I have confidence as a cook. I feel as though I understand the science behind it, so I can alter a recipe, or move ahead with confidence, knowing that throwing more or less carrot in, for example, will not throw off the whole thing. I know to make a sauce I need a fat, a starch and a liquid, so can play with what I have. No chicken broth? How about some wine? I find cooking to be very creative, and I savor that.
I felt less confident grilling, and over the past few years have improved immensely. Yet again, my tools frustrated me. We had a charcoal grill and I could never get the timing of the coals just right. Chicken would come off the grill either raw inside or burned on the outside. Or both! Since I was the one with the interest, my husband gifted me with a gas grill several years ago for our anniversary and voila! I can grill!! I have even spatch-cocked chicken, thank you very much!
So baking is my next hurdle. I know it’s the careful measuring, the mixing of dry, and then the wet. The whipping of egg whites to the proper consistency. Less slap dash than cooking – more of a science, but still an art. Hmmmm.
I fell in love with one of the cookbooks I ordered for the shop – Hannah Queen’s Honey and Jam. It’s subtitled Seasonal Baking from My Kitchen in the Mountains. I love the look of this book – the old-fashioned tea towel looking binding, reminiscent of one your grandmother would have owned. It’s organized seasonally in order to take advantage of what is fresh and peak, and she includes tips for buying and storing fruit and vegetables used in her recipes. A food photographer by trade, Hannah’s photos are surely inspirational, and make this book a pleasure to read. She is from the Appalachian Mountain area of Georgia and there are many photos of the area’s fruits, flowers and other rural details.
It was my intention to delve into the approachable recipes in this book, but have only fairly recently done so. Several weeks ago I made the Spiced Parsnip Cake with toasted Walnut-Brown Sugar Glaze. It was pretty amazing! I like parsnips anyway, and this was like a carrot cake with a bit less sweetness. Especially warm, I could pick out the flavor of the parsnips, and we decided a nice dollop of freshly whipped cream would be an over-the-top addition!
I am learning some things, which is the idea, right? I was making the Lemon-Rosemary Custard Cake, which works like those Bisquick Impossible Pies. Remember those?
What I learned:
- “Room Temperature” is subjective. The recipe called for two cups room temperature milk (I did NOT use my Pyrex 2-cup measure!) to be mixed with a combination of egg yolks and melted butter that had cooled a bit. Well, on that day, my room temperature was only about 64 degrees. So even though I had warmed the milk a bit, it was not what most people would call room temperature, which I’m guessing would be closer to 70 degrees. As a result my butter/egg yolk mixture sort of lumped up when I began adding the milk. So I heated the remaining milk some more, and beat out the butter lumps as best I could.
- Finely Chopped does not mean finely minced I think I over minced my rosemary and it sort of disappeared in the batter. I will try this again and make sure my rosemary and lemon are more flavorful.
Last week I tried a Spring recipe using rhubarb, as I have some sprouting up in the yard. It is Rhubarb Kuchen, and I was making it early (I thought) because I was going to have it as a dessert after a braised red cabbage and pork loin dinner.
I had double-checked my ingredient list, and found it called for yeast. Checked in the refrigerator – I had two envelopes – yay! But the expiration date on both was a year ago. So I planned to buy more yeast in case what I had really was no good. Also more flour, since I’m baking now! Well, you know. I went to the store, where our desire is to “grab and go right now”, and the whole baking section was pathetic. Not only was there no flour, which I was okay on, there was no yeast! So we spent way longer in that aisle than I would have liked, looking for yeast.
I decided I would try the yeast I had. Dissolving the yeast in warm water was the first step in the recipe, so I figured I would see how it went. If neither envelope worked, I would look for another recipe. And during the five minutes I waited to see if the yeast responded, I could measure out my flour, get the eggs out and warm them in warm water (see, I’m learning) and find all the spices I’d need.
What I learned about yeast:
- The Use By Date on the package is probably a decent indicator of whether the yeast will work. I carefully took the temperature of my water, mixed the correct amount with the yeast in a cup and added a pinch of sugar, as suggested on the packet. Then I worked on getting the other ingredients prepped. Five minutes later the mixture looked pretty much as it had when I first mixed it.
- But sometimes it will still be good! While I waited to see if my second envelope would perform, I looked through another cookbook for a kuchen recipe that did not require yeast. By the time I had found one, I checked my cup of yeast, and it was nice and foamy – yay!
- Yeast takes longer to rise in a cool room. As I mentioned earlier, we keep our house quite cool, and when my batter didn’t seem to be rising, I remembered my grandmother had a rising box that was heated just by a light bulb. So I turned my oven on for a minute, then off, and placed the bowl of batter in the warmed oven, and it did the trick!
- When it says “punch down the dough”, but it’s really more of a batter, I could use a spoon instead of my fist….
The Rhubarb Kuchen was great. It was finally finished with the rest of my dinner (so much for starting early!). My only complaint is that it didn’t last long enough!
I have recently created a section on our website called The Bookshelf . It’s in the pull-down menu under For Home, and I will be putting books here that I have left. Of some I have only one or two copies. I have five copies of Honey and Jam, I believe. It would make a great Mother’s Day gift for someone who likes to bake, or for someone who would like to learn – I think the recipes are not daunting, and do not have too many steps.