04 Apr Bittersweet Baking
It’s been about a year since I wrote my last article about my baking adventures, and wow, what a journey it has been. In a weird way, the act of baking has been my companion over the course of quarantine. In a year where everything has been out of my control and in constant motion, being able to tune out the world and pound out some pie dough has been a source of comfort for me. I have always been drawn to the kitchen, particularly baking, and as a kid I would make concoctions for my parents that I called ‘peppershakes,’ which were mixes of random ingredients that I had found in the pantry. Now I have upgraded to pies, biscuits, pastries, and galettes, and that same love for being in the kitchen and sharing food with my friends and family, remains.
I first discovered Claire Saffitz about 2 years ago when I started watching Bon Appetit videos on YoutTube. I was initially really drawn to her series, Gourmet Makes, and found it so comforting to see someone recreating my favourite childhood sweets and baked goods. As a doughnut fanatic my favourite episode is when she recreates Krispy Kreme doughnuts. I also followed along with all of her baking 101 videos, attempting to soak up as much knowledge as possible. Over the Spring of 2020, during the beginning of the pandemic, I decided to start really getting into baking. I obsessively mastered Claire Saffitz’s pie crust, her three-tiered cake, and her buttercream. I was then addicted to baking and wanted to learn more. When I found out that Claire was releasing a cookbook, I immediately pre-ordered it and not-so patiently waited for it to arrive (I even ordered it from Amazon so that it would arrive quicker…I’m so sorry). When I finally received Claire’s cookbook, Dessert Person, I knew that I wanted to immediately dive in and try everything. As someone who loves to make things difficult for myself, I decided to attempt making 21 of Claire’s recipes in 21 days, choosing an array of recipes from its seven sections. Now, before I hop into this messy journey and walk you through the hits and misses of my experience, I must warn you that I failed this challenge.
When I started my baking adventure, I was so positive about it. I knew that I had been improving my baking skills at a rapid pace, and was confident that I could tackle this project, but unfortunately life and reality proved me wrong. In total I completed about 17 recipes in the span of about a month, which to be completely honest, was so much harder than I anticipated. I am not a professional baker, and so making a cake, pie, or pastry every single day is not exactly the most feasible endeavour. While I did not bake every day for three weeks as I had planned, I still learned so much about the science of baking and about myself. Over the course of this article, I am going to walk you through the two most successful and the two least successful recipes that I attempted over the course of this challenge, and then offer some advice to any prospective bakers out there.
Let’s start off with my personal favourite recipe from the book, pecan carrot cake with brown butter cream cheese frosting. Making a layered cake can feel quite daunting and I used to avoid seemingly complex cakes as if my life depended on it, always opting to use my same boring, one tier, Hershey’s chocolate cake recipe for every occasion. Eventually, after many of these dry and underwhelming cakes, I decided to break out of my comfort zone. Tiered cakes are honestly a thing of beauty and should not be feared, as they are much easier to make than one might think. This carrot cake might be one of the most delicious desserts I have ever made, as the pecans (I have also substituted walnuts and those work nicely as well) add a lovely nutty flavour, which offsets the sweetness of the frosting. I never used to be a big carrot cake lover, and unfortunately, it is not the most popular cake, but next time you have any sort of event, bring this cake and you will be a very popular guest. While the carrot cake itself is a delight, the brown butter cream cheese frosting is the real winner. It is the perfect mix of tangy cream cheese, nutty brown butter, and sweet icing. I sometimes find buttercream and other frostings difficult to make, as the smooth and fluffy texture can be tricky to get right, but this buttercream recipe is foolproof and absolutely delectable. A final note on Claire Saffitz’s carrot cake is that it can easily be turned into carrot muffins. I love a good cake, but sometimes it can be a bit impractical, and so I would suggest making the muffins if you aren’t up for making a full cake. The ingredients and proportions are the same for the muffins, just transfer the batter into a muffin tin as opposed to cake pans.
Another success that I had when working through Dessert Person were the chewy molasses spice cookies. Any type of ginger cookie instantly has my attention. I do have a sweet tooth, but I will always opt for a more savoury tasting cookie, probably because I’m able to eat more of them without feeling ill. Before attempting Claire’s ginger molasses cookies, I thought that I had the perfect ginger cookie recipe from Martha Stewart’s cookbook: Martha Stewart’s Cookies The Very Best Treats to Bake and to Share. Now, no shade to miss Martha, but if you are in the mood for a chewy ginger cookie, bake Claire’s version. They look so pretty, as they are rolled in demerara sugar, and are spiced perfectly with a mouth-watering combination of allspice, cloves, black pepper, ginger, and molasses. The ingredient that surprised me the most is apple cider vinegar, but after some googling, I learned that it can further activate the baking powder and help baked goods achieve a moist and fluffy texture. What makes these cookies even better is that they are ridiculously simple to make but still taste complex and look quite impressive.
While I did have a number of successes (some honourable mentions include the almond butter banana bread, the miso buttermilk biscuits, and the chocolate hazelnut galette du rois) I also had some pretty epic failures, the first of which was the mushroom galette. A galette is a pastry crust that holds a filling, and this specific galette is filled with mushrooms and leeks, topped with garlic breadcrumbs and parmesan. I assumed that this would be an extremely simple recipe, since it’s a savoury dish, and I have always found savoury baking easier since the flavours are less likely to go wrong. Mushrooms, cheese, breadcrumbs, leeks – all of those ingredients taste great, especially together, so I went into this dish with a lot of confidence. The galette dough is fairly straightforward and during this challenge I became very accustomed to making various crusts for pies and galettes, so the actual baking portion of this dish succeeded (for the most part). I really enjoyed making the galette filling as I had begun to miss savoury cooking, so I loved being able to cook the leeks and the mushrooms, it was a nice change of pace; however, while making the galette I made one fatal mistake, and as a perfectionist this mistake haunted me for days. Once I had finished cooking the mushrooms, I stupidly did not drain the oily liquid that they had cooked in, resulting in a surplus of liquid in the filling. If you are ever making a pie or a galette, do not forget to drain the excess liquid, or else your crust will get a soggy bottom. There is nothing worse than attempting to serve your galette and realizing that the entire bottom crust has decomposed into a soupy mess. So please, if you attempt this recipe, keep your crust as dry as possible to ensure a lovely crispy galette.
Now, the least successful dish I made during this experience is the croquembouche. A croquembouche is a pyramid of cream puffs filled with chocolate pastry cream, which are then dipped in caramel and wrapped in caramel threads. Sadly, the croquembouche was the biggest failure of the baking challenge, which is not really a surprise given its immense difficulty and infamy amongst the baking community. Before attempting the croquembouche I had made Claire’s gougères, which require the same pâte à choux recipe. The gougères successfully puffed and tasted amazingly fluffy and cheesy, but I was still very nervous (rightfully so) about embarking on the croquembouche. In Claire’s book, she warns her bakers about the difficulty of the croquembouche and how it is an extremely finicky and complex recipe. I was even warned by my friends, parents, and grandmother that the croquembouche would be immensely challenging.
After baking every couple of days for a little over three weeks, I was so ready to be done and the croquembouche was my last hurtle. I started off by setting out all of my ingredients, I made sure the kitchen was clean and the counters were clear, and then I began to make the pâte à choux. The pâte à choux might be the most satisfying thing in the world to make. You start with your ingredients in a saucepan and stir rapidly until the dough comes together, leaving you with a clean saucepan. It takes a couple of minutes for the dough to form, but when it does – oh boy! I squeal with joy every time I make it. The next step was the craquelin and I thought this would be much easier than it actually was. It’s essentially a thin cookie, so you would assume that it wouldn’t be difficult to make; however, due to the extreme thinness of the dough, it is tricky to roll out and cut the circles without it sticking to your parchment paper. Before I even baked my puffs, I knew that they were going to be questionable, as I had made the craquelin thicker than called for in order to be able to cut it. I had also accidentally made the dollops of dough a little bit too big, so when they were in the oven I watched in horror as they puffed to the size of tennis balls. Unfortunately, when I had cracked the oven door open to allow the puffs to cool for 15 minutes, my father removed them prematurely, thinking that I had left them in the oven by accident. This resulted in some very sad looking deflated puffs, which were too flat to be filled with pastry cream. I made the chocolate pastry cream anyway (mostly because I love pastry cream), but I also wanted to at least attempt to fill the puffs. I used my pastry bag with the correct attachment to inject the puffs with cream. This proved to be impossible due to the flatness of the puffs, and so I ended up cursing loudly while covered in pastry cream, angrily stabbing at the puffs. I decided instead to create strange pastry cream sandwiches, putting a dollop of the cream in between two of the flattened pastries, which ended up looking surprisingly cute. While these were no croquembouche, I now know what I can do better next time, so hopefully one day I can give it another try.
During this experience I learned a lot about baking, as well as myself. Throughout this two month long process a lot has changed and I feel as though Claire Saffitz and the act of baking got me through a lot of those changes. Some specific lessons that I learned are as follows:
- You can never buy enough butter. You might not think you need that much but trust me you do. Every week I had to buy about 3 packages of butter and I would use it all up without fail, causing my dad to yell: “Rachel what the hell did you do with all the butter?” It was slightly concerning to realize not only how much butter I ingested over the course of the baking challenge, but also how much money I spent on butter alone.
- Don’t make palmiers right after a breakup. I went through a breakup while baking through the cookie section of Dessert Person, and although baking took my mind off of things and made the whole process easier, it did also result in a lot of nights stuffing my face with warm palmiers, crying while watching Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I also found that, since cooking and baking were activities that I associated with my significant other, I started to resent it and put off baking certain recipes. This resentment was probably also due to the fact that it was midterm season and as much as I love baking, I love passing my classes more. Eventually I snapped out of my funk, made a stunning birthday cake for my cousin, and pressed on.
- Not everyone likes desserts. Unfortunately, not everyone has as big of a sweet tooth as I do. I could never imagine hating desserts, but those sweet-hating monsters do indeed exist. I would bake pies, cakes, and chocolate filled galettes, and my parents would both turn up their noses. This resulted in me having to do a lot of the eating myself as well as biking various baked goods over to my friend Matthew’s house. I need to give a big shoutout to Matthew and his family for taking many desserts off of my hands. One piece of advice I have to anyone who decides to go on a baking spree: find friends who love desserts, like REALLY love desserts, or else you will be forced to eat them all.
- Go easy on yourself. When I initially started this project, I made a very elaborate spreadsheet for myself and set a lot of high expectations. Baking is something that I enjoy doing and it will always be one of my most beloved hobbies; however, I have a tendency to turn my hobbies into stress-inducing projects. For some reason I’m incapable of doing anything casually or ‘just for fun’ as I want everything to be on a large scale and meticulously planned out. Oftentimes I set myself up for failure by having these crazy expectations for myself, but throughout this challenge I learned that it’s okay to do things just for fun and relax, and that sometimes life is overwhelming and can get in the way of big plans. Therefore, my big piece of wisdom to students, bakers, creative individuals, and anyone who tends to ask too much of themselves, is: it’s okay to lower those expectations sometimes, and in the words of Hannah Montana “nobody’s perfect.”
I always listen to music while baking, so here are some Baking Bops: