For me, cooking and baking are both about discovery, rather than executing a recipe. As both a dedicated home cook and private chef, I find that they consist of a daily creative practice with benefits: There is a meal—or a paycheck—beckoning at the end of the game. But many people are convinced that cooking and baking are separate disciplines. How often have I heard someone declare that cooking is a freewheeling “art form,” whereas baking is a precise “science”? It always makes me wonder what kind of baking they are talking about.
Perhaps you have seen images of French pastry chef Cédric Grolet’s “Fruits,” a series of spectacular trompe l’oeil pastries—the stunningly convincing “Pomme Anèth” looks like a perfect Granny Smith apple but is in fact an edible, shellacked candy shell encasing a thin layer of apple-flavored white ganache and fennel-frond-and-apple confit set over a delicate pâte sucrée. Such haute-couture desserts, developed in state-of-the-art laboratories-cum-photo studios and executed with surgical precision, rightly deserve our awe. But categorizing all baking as a lofty science is missing the point of good old-fashioned home baking.
I learned how to bake the same way I learned how to cook: by simply doing it. I still remember my first attempt at making a cake. I was about 5 years old and had woken up early on a Sunday morning, before anyone else—a great opportunity to have the kitchen all for myself. I scooped some flour into a café au lait bowl (we were living in Paris then) and cracked an egg over it. The egg yolk split and the egg white ran down the heap of flour in a most unappetizing way. I took a spoon and hesitatingly began stirring, staring in disbelief at the mess. Something wasn’t quite right. I decided to postpone my ambition, pushed the bowl into the far corner of the kitchen counter and went back to bed. Later, when my father, a bit perplexed, inquired what this was all about, I defensively declared that this was “going to be a cake.” I do not recall what became of this botched beginning but am quite positive it did not magically turn into a chocolate éclair.
After that, I made a point of paying closer attention to what my mother and grandmothers were doing in the kitchen, eager to take part. By the time I was in my early teens and we had moved to Germany, baking had become a hobby that flourished into an annual frenzy during Christmas season, when competitive cookie baking dominated my social life. I became obsessed with one cookie in particular: the Vanillekipferl, a tender, hand-shaped little crescent made with finely ground nuts and rolled in vanilla-scented sugar. It took me years to master it and create my own version, which I have been making religiously every year ever since.
Last winter, I shared the recipe with a friend who wanted to try it out. A week later, I received an email from her in which she told me in no uncertain terms that it had “not worked for her” and that perhaps I should have my recipe professionally “tested” before including it in a cookbook I was writing. Having de facto tested and tasted my recipe ad infinitum over the course of some 35 years, I was amused. It brought to mind a delightful anecdote that cookbook author Judith Olney once told me about a conversation she overhead between her brother-in-law, the late culinary wunderkind Richard Olney, and British cookbook author Elizabeth David. Apparently, David had gamely reprimanded Olney because his recipe for Soufflés à la Suissesses had “not worked at all.” His reply? “Well, my dear, you must have been doing something wrong.”
Of course, traditional American baked goods, delicious in their own right, were never meant to require the same demanding level of attention to detail as their elaborate European counterparts. They are by nature much sturdier and simpler than the precious gâteaux, tartes, tortes, and petits fours of the great French and Austro-Hungarian baking traditions. Just compare a cranberry muffin to a hand-folded, multilayered croissant. Or a chocolate chip cookie to a cut-out, sandwiched and glazed Linzer. Or consider a classic American chocolate-and-vanilla cake from your local pastry shop, towering with its hefty, one-inch-thick cake layers and heavy frosting before looking up the Dobos torte, an old-world masterpiece from Hungary made of 14 ultra-thin alternating layers of exquisitely tender sponge cake and cooked buttercream, topped with brittle caramel icing as thin as a mirror.
American baking is about comfort, speed, and convenience. It makes up in a surplus of butter and sugar (signs of the New World’s wealth) what it lacks in refinement. This is why the forgiving, comparatively vague system of volume measurements makes perfect sense for American-style home baking. It’s a smart system that grew out of oral tradition and was in fact meant to help the novice baker grasp a recipe’s underlying principle and ingredient ratio and to not worry too much about precision.
When I moved to America, some 25 years ago, I duly switched my baking practice from the metric system I grew up with to volume measurements. It was not an easy adjustment: The cumbersome clusters of ring-bond measuring cups and spoons made me feel more like a dog walker fumbling with a huge set of keys than a cook. But it eventually opened the door toward liberation as it made me look at recipes differently. Grasping the intricacies of ratio rather than using a scale, I gradually learned to make informed adjustments and changes at my own discretion.
Nowadays, you will find only one designated measuring vessel in my kitchen: the single-cup unit. I am quite confident to know how to fill it up to a quarter, third, or halfway, if required. As to measuring spoons, my dining flatware has plenty of soup and dessert spoons that will do just fine. My point here is not so much that these micro-managing sets clutter your kitchen drawer but that they clutter your mind.
Let me inspire you to let go of the dictum that total adherence to a recipe and numeric precision is mandatory in all baking. Consider an approach that is more about being specific in your aim. Don’t let a recipe infantilize you. Gather experience and learn to rely on your instinct. Listen to your ingredients. Use recipes as mere guidelines and pay less attention to them than to what is happening right in front of you, on your cutting board, in your mixing bowl, in your oven—in real time. Develop a tactile sense of what a short crust, a cake batter, a puff paste, a buttercream, or a meringue should feel and look like. Allow yourself to make changes. Learn from your mistakes. Experiment. What bad thing could possibly happen? In fact, only being fully present and taking charge will lead to a lasting kind of satisfaction. Let me give you a couple of examples.
A short crust is roughly two parts of flour to one part of fat plus something liquid to bind the two together. Once you grasp this principle, you are free to add your own touch and observe what difference it makes. Leaving the fat suspended in the flour in coarse morsels yields a flaky crust; kneading the dough makes it sturdier. There is a time and place for both versions. Sugar crystalizes during the baking process and therefore adds not only sweetness but crunch to the crust. You decide how much of it you want. Is the pie or tart’s topping going to be sweet? Then cut back on the sugar in the crust—or leave it out altogether (but don’t forget the salt). Using a whole egg as a binder will give the crust elasticity, whereas an egg yolk mixed with heavy cream will make the dough richer and softer. Again, you decide.
Let’s say I want to make a plum tart. The plums I got at the market are very juicy. If I don’t add something to the tart that will soak up the juice that the plums are bound to ooze during the baking process, the bottom of the tart will get soggy, and no one likes a soggy bottom. So I might opt to parbake the crust and then top it with a thin layer of marzipan or homemade frangipane before adding the plums. Or the fruit I pick might actually lack juiciness and threaten to dry up during the baking process, in which case I might opt to spread a layer of homemade apple purée or vanilla custard onto the crust before adding the fresh fruit, and glaze the finished tart with rum-thinned apricot jam.
None of these suggestions can be found in a random recipe. And yet, they collectively form the indescribable nothing that is the everything in baking, in cooking, in art, and in life. Most of all, remember to relax. As long as you add a good dash of love, patience, and generosity to your baking (not to mention a sense of humor about human failure), there will always be dessert. And don’t buy into the restaurant industry’s credo that everything that comes out of your kitchen ought to come out exactly the same way each time you make it. Perhaps it won’t be perfect—all the better! As the legendary German actress Elisabeth Bergner once said about acting: “If it feels perfect, change it. It’s not meant to be.”
Daniel J. Isengart’s The Art of Gay Cooking: A Culinary Memoir is out now, from Outpost19.