Homemade cake too much for you? Don’t feel guilty — here’s why it’s all right to leave some things to the professionals.
Mark Bittman’s “How to Bake Everything” came out in October, and it’s been sitting on my desk, looking at me balefully, ever since. It’s a tome — 703 pages long, with recipes from Afghan snowshoe naan (“somewhere between a flatbread and a fully risen loaf”) to zuppa Inglese (an Italian version of trifle), and, indeed, everything in between.
I kept thinking: I should bake more. I love baked goods — my first job was behind the counter at Seattle’s late, great Boulangerie (under its original ownership), where I ate my teenage weight in leftover French bread and pastries after closing every shift. I became a successful, if not especially ambitious, home baker: cookies, cake, pie or quiche with decent, from-scratch crust.
Then my baking went bad. Everything started turning out terribly: dry, tasteless, wrong. I kept trying, intermittently, until I baked a cake and decided to even out the top with a serrated knife before icing it. The scraps I’d sliced off tasted like sand. I threw the two layers, one after the other, out the kitchen window; they landed with audible thuds in the driveway of the apartment building. Not even pigeons or raccoons would touch this cake; it lay there until I threw it away a day or two later.
Finally, in a belated stroke of deduction, I realized the oven in the apartment’s old electric range was running hot by about 25 degrees, overbaking everything — easy enough to adjust for, it turned out.
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But ever since, I bake just a few things: The New York Times’ miraculous No-Knead Bread (from Jim Lahey of Sullivan Street Bakery, but published by Bittman, thankfully); my mom’s apple crisp (so simple, it probably doesn’t count); at the holidays, my dear departed great-aunt Edith’s dinner rolls (“Good + easy,” her cursive encourages across the top of the index card). I don’t want to bake more than this; I definitely don’t want to bake everything. The idea of making croissants (pages 480-482 in “How to Bake Everything”) seems tantamount to performing surgery: There are experts in these matters, and I am very, very far from one of them. Baking is a real skill, and a science, and arguably an art. Professional bakers can bake everything, and then I can eat it. And it will be far, far better than my best effort.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the masterful Seattle bakers I consulted tend to agree. Admitting that it might sound “self-serving,” Neil Robertson of the great Crumble & Flake says, “If you don’t enjoy baking, don’t force — or guilt — yourself into doing it. I have no desire to play a musical instrument and I’m a terrible singer, so I pay other people whose skill and talent I admire to do it for me.”
Rachael Coyle of the excellent Coyle’s Bakeshop reassures us all that “unless you’re a very serious home baker,” croissants can be taken off the table. In fact, she notes, “a lot of the French baking is really not very approachable at home.” (More rustic, traditional English baking is easier, she notes: “Not surprisingly, people do tend to bake at home in the U.K., whereas in France, they’re much more likely to go to the bakery.”) Baking professionals, she sensibly contends, have “what any professional has: a higher familiarity with the minute differences that will make something great versus okay, an ability to fix problems, and a sense of how to adapt the process to varying circumstances.” (The latter, she says, includes adjusting baking times for different ovens. Sigh.)
Baking practice makes baking perfection, or at least gets you closer to it, Clare Gordon agrees. She’s the pastry chef behind the gorgeous filled doughnuts at General Porpoise, as well as the breads, rolls and desserts at Bar Melusine and Bateau. She suggests “a more useful, educational approach than the overwhelming, all-inclusive ‘Everything’ that Bittman invites you to tackle” — be a dilettante if you like, but be a selective one, choosing a handful of things. “I truly believe you have to make something three to five times to really master it,” she counsels. Beware baking hubris: “You could accidentally make it perfectly the first time, but then … you don’t really know your pastry.”
As a practical matter, “Ditch the measuring cups,” Gordon advises. “Invest in a scale … They don’t cost much, and they are infinitely more accurate.” And use good eggs, butter and flour: “These ingredients matter. You can taste the difference,” she says.
Gordon also offered to take “How to Bake Everything” off my hands — an endorsement of the potential utility of its encyclopedic approach. Neil Robertson offered a more specific recommendation for “simple, basic recipes” for the home baker: “the old ‘Chez Panisse Desserts’ book.” Rachael Coyle suggests finding a good, reliable crust recipe that works for you, because that “opens up lots of doors for the home baker — pies, galettes, savory tarts.”
Maybe I’ll bake a cake or try a pie crust (or three, or five) again one of these days. And if you make your own croissants, I salute you! Your level of commitment is truly admirable. For that, for me, there’s always Crumble & Flake.