Things can go terribly wrong in the kitchen. I don’t mean starting a fire by a poorly executed flambe. I’m talking about baking. I was trained in the ways of the hot and cold kitchen but my first kitchen duty was in the Pastry section of a rather over-rated cafeteria of a 5-star international business school. I really didn’t have any choice back then and yes, the saying ‘beggars cannot be choosers’ is so true. As you can probably tell, baking rates very poorly in my book. It’s an exact science and a little mistake can cause massive utterance of expletives in different languages. It can come from your own mouth or from the pastry gods and goddesses.
My first in a long list of baking catastrophes started in a professional kitchen. On our first day in the kitchen, my partner and I were asked to make crepes, 100 pieces to be exact. We know the basics so even though we have the first day jitters, we knew we can accomplish a simple task. What’s so difficult about mixing flour, eggs, water, oil, and vanilla? It’s just a piece of cake…really. So, we proceeded without any problem. On the 58th crepe (yes, I counted!), the pastry god came over and examined the first batch. He didn’t say anything but the look on his face told us there was something wrong. After a few more seconds of the “look”, he asked, “Where did you get the flour?”. It was a trick question. So, we had a trick answer, “From the flour container”. It was a delaying tactic on our part so we can further process the question in our minds. In my mind, I was picturing Gordon Ramsay mutilating the crepes and making us eat all 58 of them – with no filling. That was a scary thought.
Amazingly, the pastry god didn’t go into a fit and just told us to carry on. He also said matter of factly, “You don’t use bread flour on crepes. Use all-purpose flour.” That was it! Silly of us to use bread flour when it should be all purpose flour. My kitchen partner then asked me, should we use “bleach or unbleached?” It was a question that deserved a smack in the face, but I understood him completely.
Recommended reading: Best Crepe Makers for your Kitchen
In baking, the success of a pastry or cake lies in the proper measurement of ingredients, the right bakeware tools to use, the correct temperature and baking time, and the technique. When you make a mistake, it cannot be undone. When that happens, prepare to pack up your knives and leave the kitchen.
While you cannot undo a mistake, you can always avoid baking nightmares by following these tips:
1. Know your baking tools.
You don’t need to own every single baking gadget available in the market, the important thing is to recognize these baking tools and learn how to use them. If you know what they are for, chances are you will be able to survive a baking session even if you don’t have the tools. It’s easy to improvise if you are familiar with the tools of the trade. Common baking tools include measuring cups and spoons, cake pan, spatula, rolling pin, cookie cutters, and piping bag,
2. Know your flour.
Flour is important in baking because it gives baked goods their structure and form. Different types of flour have different uses. Substituting one for another will result in different texture. All-purpose flour are used for general baking, but if you intend to make cakes, you need to use cake flour. To make pie crusts and biscuits, it’s best to use pastry flour . Whole-wheat flour are used in making breads. Always consult an expert or a book before you start baking. It makes a big difference.
3. Know your ingredients.
In baking, the ingredients can be divided in groups: Flour, Sweeteners, Fats, Flavorings, Thickeners, and Nuts
Sugar is not the only sweetening ingredient in baking. There’s also honey, corn syrup, molasses and maple syrup. You need to know their unique characteristics so you can decide which one goes better with your recipe.
Fats give flavor and moisture. It is also the ingredient which helps prolong the shelf life of the product. You can use butter, oil, lard, shortening or margarine.
Thickeners can be gelatin or cornstarch.
Nuts provide texture and crunch in the baked goodies. The commonly used nuts are almonds, cashews, peanuts, pecans, and pistachios.Flavorings can be flavored oils, fruit extracts, vanilla beans, and chocolates. They give additional taste and pleasant aroma to the product.
4. Measure, measure, measure.
Did I say measure? Accurate measurement of ingredients is key to the success of your final product, whether it be a cake, a bread or a pie. Liquids are measured using measuring cups and solids or dry ingredients by using a measuring spoon.
5. Know the mixing techniques.
6. Know the temperature and time.
There are recipes that would require a certain temperature. Going below or beyond the required temperature can make a difference in the final product. You also need to know how long the cake or pastry should be baked. Overcooking will make your product dry and on the extreme situations, they can actually burn. If there’s one thing I learned about ovens, it’s the fact that no ovens are the same. You need to familiarize yourself with the oven you use and see how it works. If you are using a strange or new oven and the recipe says 30 minutes, do check once in a while. The make and type of the oven may contribute to the success (or failure) of your baked product.
Knowing is half the battle.