When asked, I usually admit that I am more of a cook of savory dishes rather than baked sweets. My tastes do gravitate towards the savory first, but upon researching this article, I now realize the truth. Baking scares me. We have been told that in life there are no do-overs, and experience has taught me, albeit the hard way, that if this phrase was applied to baking, the same sentiment would ring true.
In cooking, tasting the recipe along the way can be just as integral a step as closely following the list of ingredients. Using the proper method of tasting, the two-spoon method with one spoon for removing the food from the pot, and placing it in the tasting spoon, can yield valuable information when adjusting ingredients in the cooking process.
This method, however, is not an option in baking. One may not think of the kitchen as a science lab as they are mixing flour, baking powder, salt, and other ingredients into a batter, but the chemical reaction that occurs in the oven follows the rules of science in producing a new product which cannot be reverted to its original state. I learned this lesson years ago when making oatmeal cookies. After carefully spooning out the cookies, attempting to make some with nuts and some without, I found the cookies melting into one large blob on the cookie sheet. Having mistakenly left out the flour, I now had a new dish, granola.
Understanding the function of ingredients used in baking can ensure a more successful outcome. Flour is a powder made from ground up cereal grains, and as I learned from my oatmeal cookie disaster, provides structure to the recipe. Heat from an oven causes the proteins found in flour to bond, giving the desert its shape. Fats, such as butter and oils, are used to tenderize a mixture, while at the same time trapping air bubbles giving cakes their light and airy texture. Sugar not only sweetens, but also tenderizes food by making the mixture softer. The Maillard reaction occurs when sugar is heated above 160 degrees, and results in the browning and golden crust on baked goods. Eggs can also undergo this reaction, creating a glaze on breads, puff pastry and pies. Yeast, which is a leavening agent, and derived from a single-celled fungus, combines with the starches in a batter to produce gasses which cause dough to expand and rise. Baking soda, which is sodium bicarbonate, and baking powder, or sodium carbonate, release air bubbles when heated causing batters to rise. Eggs have multitasker properties when used in baking. The yolk, which is composed of fats and amino acids, including the protein lecithin, acts as a binder to hold deserts together, and the egg whites, containing albumin, produces the light and airy texture of baked goods as the lecithin in the yolks line the surface of the air bubbles, keeping them from collapsing during baking. Milk or water is also found in the list of ingredients to add moisture to the recipe.
As important as it is to have the freshest ingredients for baking, the process of incorporating those ingredients in the correct order can also be a determining factor in the success of the pastry. Dry ingredients are added while alternating with liquid ingredients to prevent clumping of batter, while overmixing can disrupt the delicate balance of reactions of the ingredients. The same holds true for overmixing heavy cream for a whipped topping, another lesson learned the hard way.
Though there are no do-overs in baking, there are second chances. The following recipe is one which fills the house with the fragrant smells of baking bread, and its ease of preparation will limit any need for second chances.