A couple of weeks ago, I decided to let my imagination run away with me and get creative in the kitchen. Armed with only a stand mixer and my imagination, I soon created what I thought would be a masterpiece – individual pear drop meringue tarts. As I photographed my handiwork, confident that I had something brilliant to share the world, I felt like I had cracked this baking lark. And then I sliced it up. The insides oozed out like a bad cold, the meringue wasn’t crispy enough, and my laziness in procuring butter meant my shortcut of stork made my pastry taste like oil. The word disappointment didn’t even begin to describe my heartache and my so-called masterpiece went in the compost bin. If I had a dog, the poor thing would have probably turned its nose up at it as well.
Baking, in many ways, can be a science. Ever heard Paul Hollywood on Great British Bake Off talk about stretching the gluten or complicated crumb structure? As complicated and crazy as it sounds, it’s practically the same as creating an experiment in a chemistry lab. What will happen if I add more liquid? What if I overwork the dough? Who will I punch when my soufflé collapses? The whos, whats and whys of baking are largely down to someone throwing a load of ingredients together and praying for the best. Which I suppose was what I was trying to do when I created my pear mishap. Sometimes experiments work really well, like my white peach scones, but other times, it will just be a disaster. Of course for a lot of people, following a recipe can be complicated enough, so it can be ten times as frustrating when a dish still doesn’t work. I suppose cooking and baking experimentation isn’t for everyone, but I do like the idea of coming across a great combination by chance. I am by no means a professional and have no desire to get ‘cheffy’ and learn to love all these Paul Hollywood terms. I love to bake. And what’s more, the disasters will always be a plenty.
There is very little you can do to avoid a baking disaster. But, more often than not, problems will arise by simply not following the recipe. This is any baker’s main pitfall. Using the correct depth, width and size of tin will make all the difference between a cakey brownie and a soft, fudgy one. Too much or too little sugar and you’ll either be left with diabetes or a tasteless Victoria sponge. The temptation to open the oven is perhaps the biggest problem to be faced with, especially if your oven door has no window, or the light has blown. ALWAYS wait until at least halfway through baking to check, otherwise your creation will head south, collapsing like your sinking heart. And checking your oven is set to the correct temperature will be key to your success.
But what about those times when it all just GOES WRONG? That time you (sorry, I) made a tart au citron, forgetting to place the pastry case in the oven first, and then filling with the lemon mix. Then the moment you over filled it. The gung-ho optimism of “I’ll make it work!”, and the subsequent spillage all over the clean floor. Throwing it in the oven with desperation, then turning, sliding in the lemon filling that’s all over the floor, and, in a moment You’ve Been Framed would be proud of, falling straight on your arse. And then there’s that internal dilemma. Do you cry, the past three hours of rubbing butter through your fingertips, juicing lemons and whisking eggs now smeared across your skinnies? Of course, I felt like it but instead, I howled with laughter. The tart was now soaked and the pastry was raw. And what did I learn? NEVER FILL THE CASE BEFORE PUTTING IN THE OVEN!
That’s the thing about baking. You can devour cooking books and be a literary expert, but if you’ve never experienced a scrambled custard, yolk in your meringues and a chocolate sponge the same height and texture as a Frisbee (me again), you’ll never learn. And when you do, keep a smile on your face. And a camera ready for your You’ve Been Framed £200.