One thing about me is that I never fear a challenge unless it involves live animals that have a tendency to bite…hard. This has worked both ways for me. Sometimes I do okay, even surprise myself with my accomplishments. Other times it’s total disaster. Baking is one such area in which I rarely score in the middle. The results of my baking are either worthy of a magazine cover or a hasty toss into the canal out back where the turtles will render an opinion.
In the past month I attempted three projects in the kitchen. So far, I’m battin’ zero. For the purpose of feeling sorry for myself, I’ll share two of the big fails with you. The third one? Don’t ask.
First, I set out to duplicate this tasty apple cake my neighbor baked and shared with us. I got the top-secret family recipe after promising to paint their house and install pavers in their driveway.
Everything was going so well as I lined up the ingredients on the kitchen counter. It was an easy recipe, just a lot of steps. One thing the recipe wasn’t clear on was the size of the pans. I took a guess, based on the finished product my neighbor had given me. Now, if you’ve ever heard the question, “Does size really matter?” the answer is “Yes!” The recipe simply said to pour the batter into two cake pans…didn’t mention what size. I used two 8” pans. Wrong decision. Eventually the batter spilled over in the oven and it took an extra 20 minutes before I was forced to take it out because it was burning around the edges…although it never finished baking in the gooey middle of the cake. So 8” was too small. Too much batter in too small a space and you wind up with the mess that I wound up with.
A few days later, after consulting with my neighbor, I discovered she used a spring pan for the cake—like that’s 2-3 inches more than the 8” pan I used. I decided to give the oven a rest for a couple of weeks while I reestablished some self-esteem. And then I spied a bread recipe in a magazine and the picture was irresistible. It was a recipe for Challah, formulated by TV chef, Ina Garten. Hey, I got a fancy mixer with one of the those dough hooks. Why making this Challah, I told myself, should be a piece of cake! The mention of cake should have been a hint.
Well, I measured things out beforehand and I got all the ingredients lined up and ready to go. The dough comes out perfect. It rises taller than the giraffe we keep in the basement. When I cut it and roll it out into long pieces which then get braided, it’s all good. It looks great when it goes into the oven. I’m already smackin’ my lips.
When the baking time is up, it’s still a little pale looking. I leave it in a little longer. I want that golden brown finish on top just like the picture in the magazine. Eventually I realize that’s not happening. I don’t know why. But I have to take the bread out of the oven or it’ll be Paper Mache if it cooks any longer. So it’s tan instead off golden brown. Who cares as long as it’s not overdone, dry and crumbly inside. Oh well, the ducks in the canal out back thought it was sensational.
Like anything else, baking is a skill. It takes a lot of practice to get it right. Plus, like all art—and I consider baking an art—there is the subtlety of the “it” factor, that inner intuitive skill set that makes things come naturally to some people. It is the thing I’m missing. I keep looking for it…can’t seem to find it. Maybe it is in the oven…no doubt longer than the recipe says it should be.