Steering novice baker in the right direction

September 30, 1998|By Rob Kasper

TEACHING A NEW cook how to follow a recipe is like teaching a new driver how to steer a car. You preach the proper procedures. You announce that good cooks are supposed to read the recipe all the way to its conclusion before they start. You declaim that good drivers should always keep both hands on the steering wheel. But in the heat of action, you often break the very standards you have just touted.

This can be embarrassing when neophyte cooks and drivers - usually your kids - catch you breaking the rules. For instance, shortly after our older son turned 16 and got his driver's license, he would regularly chastise me for driving one-handed and for traveling above the speed limit. This was the kind of indecorous expressway behavior that his driver's education instructor had railed against. When confronted with evidence of my bad habits, I claimed that my years of experience entitled me to bend the rules. But in reality I knew that what I should have done was to slow down and shut up.

The slow, silent approach is also a good one to use on a new recipe. I get in trouble when I cook in a hurry. More than once I have failed to read the entire recipe and have been elbow-deep in the preparation of a dish only to discover I was lacking a key ingredient.

More than once I have started fixing an entree that I thought I was going to serve for supper that night, only to discover that there were two stages to its preparation, and the dish wouldn't be ready until the next day. I don't know what feels worse in these situations - the panicky sensation that comes from scrambling around trying to find a substitute, or the feeling of stupidity that comes from reminding myself that this problem could have been avoided had I simply taken the time to read the entire recipe.

Even though I regularly break recipe rules, I nonetheless can quickly get up on my soapbox and proclaim the precepts that are vital to success in the kitchen. That is what I did on a recent night when our younger son, 13, announced to my wife and me that he wanted to bake his first cake.

Before you could say "Betty Crocker," we were giving the kid advice. "Read the recipe, make sure it makes sense to you. Assemble all the ingredients and utensils you need on the kitchen counter, then turn the oven to preheat," we urged.

I didn't get to give the kid the next part of my usual sermon - I wanted to tell him to be sure to use the ingredients in the order that they are presented in the recipe. I wanted to remind him that this is especially important when baking, because baking is like a chemistry experiment. If you mess around with the sequence of events, you'll probably fail. And as both a beginning bread baker and someone who sat in high school science classes hoping the teacher wouldn't call on him, I've had plenty of experience with failures in chemistry.

I also wanted to let the kid know that according to restaurant lore, bakers behave like surgeons. They set up a procedure and follow it exactly. The restaurant cooks, on the other hand, tend to be like artists. They bridle under the restraint of cooking a fish the same way each time. They want to create, to improvise, to add a new touch.

I didn't get to tell the kid this for two reasons. First, he was making the cake from a cake mix. When you use a cake mix, almost all of the ingredients have already been measured and assembled. Secondly, the kid wasn't paying any attention to my pontificating because he had assembled all his ingredients and utensils and was busy pouring the batter into a pan.

I was, however, able to pass along to the kid a vital piece of advice, one that is central to all types of cooking. I told him, "Be sure to turn the oven from "preheat" to "bake." Again, this advice came from experience.

The kid followed our suggestions and baked his first cake, a chocolate cake with (canned) chocolate icing. The kid was pleased with this effort, even though he complained that the cake was not as "tall" as it should be.

By critiquing his finished product, the kid was engaging in a time-honored practice of cooks. He was looking for ways to make a recipe better the next time he cooked it. Often this process involves rereading the list of ingredients, making sure that a teaspoon of sugar was not mistaken for a tablespoon of sugar, being certain that no ingredient was left out.

But in this case, the diagnosis was easy. The cake wasn't as tall as expected because it had been cooked in a shallow pan, not the recommended deeper pan. A deeper pan yields a taller cake.

The novice's adventure in cake baking had been a success. As he pulled the cake from the oven he felt a sense of accomplishment. The feeling of pride is one of the reasons cooks keep cooking, and keep exchanging recipes.

Another is that cooking often offers a delicious payoff. For instance, shortly after his cake emerged from the oven, the baker began devouring his work. He had help. Ordinarily I avoid cakes made from mixes. One of my rules of eating is that I only consume cakes and icings made from scratch. But like many cooks, I don't follow all of the rules all of the time.

Pub Date: 9/30/98

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