When I attended the Cordon Bleu School of Cookery in London in the late 1970s, I learned the foundations of French cuisine. But even as Ms. Cadbury was teaching us the proper way to fold butter into puff pastry, I made a silent vow to myself: I would follow the rules, and then I would break them.
I would be a jazz musician, riffing on the classics, creating my own dissonant, experimental compositions in the kitchen. For years, that has been my approach to cooking.
For the most part, it has worked. Except when I bake.
I've always believed that great bakers are good at following rules. And so, for someone who prides herself on being a bit of a rebel in the kitchen, baking has been a challenge. Being a really good baker requires understanding what makes bread dough rise and why some cakes are light and fluffy, and that is a matter of working within the lines. Isn't it?
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Then, a few years ago, I was asked to judge a prestigious cookbook competition – in the baking category.
No more eyeballing it
I spent 10 days baking pies and fancy pastry, icing cakes and generally feeling bad about myself. Honestly, who likes spending time doing something they're not good at? I started having nightmares about my tyrannical fifth-grade math teacher, who insisted we write our math equations in ink.
Instead of calling my therapist, though, I dug in deeper. I started weighing everything.
I learned there’s a big difference between 1 1/2 packed cups of brown sugar and the generally accepted 330 grams that 1 1/2 cups of packed brown sugar is supposed to weigh. Expert bakers could have predicted that: My eyeball-it approach was a big part of the problem. When I scooped out 1 cup of flour that should have weighed 128 grams, my scale showed close to a 20-gram discrepancy. When I actually measured the spices called for in a gingerbread cake, I was amazed: My practice of filling the spice cap up to what I'd assumed was 1/2 teaspoon was way off.
I had a major “aha!” moment. From then on, when a recipe told me to take the eggs or butter out of the refrigerator an hour before I used them, I did what I was told. If a recipe called for a 9-inch cake pan, that's what I used. If it said to whip eggs and sugar at high speed in a mixer for a full 10 minutes, until light and fluffy, I didn't quit after 5. I was a soldier, following the commands of my superior.
When my three-layer chocolate cake with mocha-chocolate buttercream came out looking like it could be sold in a real bakery (or at least would be the first thing to go at a bake sale), I felt victorious. I'd gone into the experiment kicking and screaming, and many cakes, cookies, puddings and pastries later, I'd emerged a much better baker.
Did that mean I never broke the rules again? Of course not. But once I learned to follow the rules, it was easier to figure out what kind of changes I could make, like swirling tablespoons of pumpkin puree into cheesecake. I just make sure I nestled the cake in a water bath to bake and let it rest and cool before refrigerating. The result: A perfectly creamy cheesecake with a stunning marbled effect. I followed the rules for a dark chocolate tart, but sprinkled it with sea salt and toasted unsweetened coconut while it was warm.
My biscuits had never hit the mark, until I remembered that the baking books advise folding finished dough over several times to create layers without overworking it. The results were light, layered and truly spectacular.
If you follow the rules and understand why they are there, you can go ahead and start to break them, a little at a time. My crash course in baking taught me plenty of techniques, and it taught me something about myself: I needn't fight my urge to experiment. I just needed to learn how to do it right.
Gunst is the author of 14 cookbooks, including "Notes From a Maine Kitchen" (Down East, 2011), and is the resident chef on NPR's “Here and Now.”
8 tips for better baking
▪ Read through recipes thoroughly before starting. Does the dough need to rest in the refrigerator overnight? Do the strawberries need to macerate in the sugar for an hour? Plan your time accordingly.
▪ If you want to get wildly creative with a recipe, first try to understand the technique behind it. Consult a few other recipes for the same dish, and see what ingredients and techniques they share. Think about why you are changing an ingredient and what the consequences might be.
▪ Try to change only one ingredient at a time. If a recipe calls for lemon zest, it's OK to substitute orange zest. But don't try to change three or four ingredients at a time, or you may throw off the science. You need to understand how the ingredients interact before you start messing with them.
▪ A kitchen scale is your friend. To measure ingredients precisely, weigh them. A Many American cookbooks, particularly baking books, now offer measurements in ounces and in grams.
▪ Measure out all the ingredients in advance and set them in small bowls. If you lose focus, or if the phone rings, you'll see which ingredients you've already added and won’t duplicate or miss one.
▪ Make sure your oven temperature is accurate. Buy an inexpensive oven thermometer to make sure you're on the mark. If you're not, adjust the oven to compensate. If it's way off, consider getting the oven professionally calibrated.
▪ Be patient. Baking takes time, and cakes and tarts often need to cool before you can get to the next step. Don't take shortcuts; that leads to trouble.
▪ Have fun. Be willing to “fail.” After all, it's only sugar, butter and flour. Even the flops usually taste good.
Buttermilk Biscuits With Double Ginger Butter
Two tricks: The first is that the butter is grated (using the widest opening on a box grater), which allows its fat to be incorporated into the flour mixture very easily. The second involves folding the dough over several times to create flaky layers and height.
2 cups (240 grams) all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling
1 cup (120 grams) cake flour
1 tablespoon plus 3/4 teaspoon (17 grams) baking powder
1 1/2 tablespoons (12 grams) sugar
1/2 teaspoon (2 1/2 grams) ground ginger (optional)
1 teaspoon (5 grams) sea salt
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) chilled unsalted butter
3/4 cup cold regular or low-fat buttermilk, or more as needed
For the ginger butter:
6 tablespoons unsalted butter (3 ounces), room temperature
3 tablespoons (24 grams) finely chopped crystallized ginger
Generous pinch ground ginger (about 1/8 teaspoon)
Pinch coarse sea salt
Whisk together the all-purpose and cake flours, baking powder, sugar, ground ginger, if using, and salt in a large bowl.
Use the widest opening on a box grater to grate the butter into the flour mixture, adding it a bit at a time and gently mixing it into the flour so it doesn't clump up. Use your hands to make sure the butter is fully incorporated into the flour. Add the buttermilk; use a flexible spatula to mix until the dough holds together. If the mixture's still too crumbly, add up to 2 more tablespoons buttermilk.
Lightly flour a rolling pin and a clean work surface. Transfer the dough there; use a light touch to shape it into a rectangle, then pull the far end of the rectangle up toward you and fold the dough over in half. Press down on the dough and repeat this step 6 more times.
Roll out the folded dough to a 1-inch thickness. Use the biscuit cutter to form a total of 10 to 12 biscuits; you can reroll the dough once, but you might notice less height on those rerolled biscuits after baking. Place the biscuits on a baking sheet.
Cover the biscuits with plastic wrap; freeze for 1 hour or up to overnight.
Meanwhile, make the ginger butter: Use a flexible spatula to further soften the butter. Add the crystallized ginger, ground ginger and salt, stirring until the ginger is fully incorporated. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use; bring to room temperature before serving.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone liner. Remove the biscuits from the freezer and unwrap. Place on the middle rack and bake 12 minutes, then reduce the oven temperature to 375 degrees and bake 8 minutes or until the tops are golden brown.
Serve hot with the ginger butter.
Yield: 10 to 12 servings.
Chocolate Tart With Sea Salt and Toasted Coconut
The tart filling has no sugar; it's all about honoring the chocolate and the balance of the salt. If you serve it the day you bake it, it's like chocolate pie. But if you refrigerate it overnight, the filling becomes dense and almost fudgy.
For the crust and topping:
1 cup (120 grams) all-purpose flour
1/2 cup (60 grams) almond flour
Pinch sea salt, plus more for sprinkling
2 tablespoons (28 grams) sugar
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, well chilled, cut into small pieces
About 1/4 cup ice-cold water, or as needed
1/3 cup (20 grams) unsweetened flaked coconut
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
9 ounces (255 grams) bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped (or 5 ounces 65% bittersweet chocolate plus 4 ounces milk chocolate)
2 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon (3 grams) good sea salt
Whisk together the all-purpose and almond flours, the salt and sugar in a large bowl. Add the butter; use your hands and a light touch to work in the butter until the dough resembles coarse cornmeal. Add a few tablespoons of water and mix, using a soft spatula or wooden spoon, until the mixture just comes together. Add more water as needed, using only enough to keep the dough together.
(Or pulse the flours, salt and sugar in a food processor just until blended. Add the butter and pulse about 15 times, until the mixture resembles coarse cornmeal. Add only enough water so that the dough begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl.)
Place the dough in a sheet of plastic wrap and form it into a ball. Refrigerate at least 1 hour and up to overnight.
Unwrap the dough and roll it out on a clean work surface into a 10-inch round. Drape the dough into the tart pan, covering the bottom and up the sides of the pan; trim the edges (you'll have scraps left over), but make sure there's enough to fit just over the rim. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 20 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Remove the tart shell from the refrigerator; use a fork to dock the pastry in several spots to keep the pastry from puffing up. Place the tart pan on a baking sheet; bake (middle rack) for 10 minutes, then cool on a rack for 10 minutes. Keep the oven on; spread the coconut on the baking sheet and bake about 5 minutes, watching closely, until the coconut begins to turn golden brown. Cool; keep the oven on.
Heat the cream in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat until it is gently bubbling at the edges.
Place the chocolate in a large mixing bowl. Pour the hot cream on top and stir steadily until the chocolate is completely melted and the mixture is smooth.
Whisk together the eggs, vanilla extract and 1/2 teaspoon sea salt in a separate mixing bowl until frothy. Add the egg mixture to the chocolate mixture and stir until fully incorporated and smooth. Pour the filling into the cooled crust and bake (middle rack) for 25 to 28 minutes. To test for doneness, gently shake the tart; if the middle wobbles just a little (and still appears undercooked) but the sides seem solid, it is done. The tart will continue to cook once it's removed from the oven, and it will firm up when cooling.
Sprinkle the warm tart with the coconut and about 1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt; press salt and coconut very gently into the tart to make sure they adhere. Cool for 1 hour before serving, or refrigerate up to 12 hours (it will get more fudgy when chilled).
Yield: 8 to 10 servings