It is said, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” To that I say, “Horse hockey!” We are never too old to learn something new. It is never a bad time to take up a new challenge, whether it be learning a musical instrument, expressing your creative self through writing, painting or sculpture, or even learning a new skill in the kitchen.
For decades, I have studied food. It is of great interest to me to learn about the origin and evolution of foods that we enjoy today. I have studied the cuisines of the world. It is intriguing to see how the people of the world take similar ingredients and create distinctive dishes. I have studied and practiced various cooking techniques, flavor combinations and knife skills.
There is, however, one gaping hole in my cooking repertoire. I have never tackled the science of baking. During this new year, that is going to change. I hope that some will join me on this journey. I hope that some will share their expertise with me. There are some incredible bakers in our community.
It is rare that a chef or good cook is equally adept at baking. Maybe it is a left-brain, right-brain sort of thing. On one hand, you have the artist. Just like a musician knows which notes go together to create beautiful music, chefs know the ingredients that complement each other. They experiment and seldom cook the dish the same way twice. They measure ingredients by feel and change the flavor profiles of a dish in midstream. Good cooks are often freewheeling and serendipitous.
Bakers, not so much. Bakers are scientists. They are chemists. They measure ingredients precisely. They take humidity into account. Often, they are required to execute many steps with a lot of time between each step. They know every inch of their ovens. They know which area of the oven is the hottest. They strive for the perfect even temperature.
It is not that I have never baked. It is more accurate to say that I have never baked well. The few times I tried to bake bread, it was so hard my dogs could not chew it. I have learned during the process that baking recipes are not just suggestions but are prescriptions that should be followed to the letter. Following a recipe will be a totally new adventure for me.
I have mapped out a curriculum, of sorts, for my journey. My plan is to progress through little successes. Tasks like cutting in chilled butter or lard, mixing and proofing yeast, kneading, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot, will be left for chapter two.
My research has started by securing and reading two cookbooks specifically for baking. One is Martha Stewart’s baking cookbook, the other is the textbook for baking from the CIA. That is the Culinary Institute of America, not the spy agency. I intend to also take a few classes.
To begin, my focus will be on breads that should be easy to make. I looked for recipes where all the ingredients can be dumped together, mixed, poured and baked. There are a bunch of these types of recipes. I decided on a recipe for apricot bread that was Louise’s mother’s recipe.
That recipe is included with this column.
For all of you non-bakers out there, you should try this one. It is quick, easy, fool proof and delicious.
The hardest thing was chopping the dried apricots and letting them soak for 30 minutes. You will exercise your mixing skills which could help build up your arms. You will also develop the skill of greasing and flouring loaf pans. How have I lived this long without this skill?
My next foray will be into Irish soda bread, various crackers, biscuits, scones and short breads. I am excited and committed to learning and developing this skill.
An old dog really can learn new tricks.
Happy new year. Be safe.