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Zen and the art of baking

Posted: April 15, 2012 - 12:06am

Recipes are so confining. I guess I like to be a bit of a mad scientist with baking. I want to try different methods and test new ingredients. Sometimes I try to make things healthier, sometimes just more interesting. Sometimes, because I don’t always have a lot of money in the bank account, I experiment because I need to work with what I have. Breathe in. Breathe out. Bake.

I also get the urge to bake, or make art (or anything creative or productive) between the hours of 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. Midnight snack, anyone?

Thursday night I decided to bake some brownies, since they are really quite simple. I had made them before and, yes, I have used recipes in the past. I know the necessary ingredients for moist, fudgy brownies.

You need cocoa powder (I used Dutched), flour, sugar, an egg (or is it two?), oil, vanilla, baking powder, salt. Pretty sure that’s it.

I preheated the oven to 350. That’s the right baking temperature. Or, at least, it’s my go-to-temperature for most oven cooking.

Baking is like chemistry in that you combine ingredients that react with one another and the proportions are there to achieve the correct consistency and the right reactions. Baking soda and salt helps it rise. Eggs and oil help it stick together. And you cook it at 350 so it cooks fairly evenly through in an 8x8 inch pan.

Just starting out, I think following recipes is important. It helps you to learn about the necessary ingredients, proportions and timing or temperature. It helps you learn about what your batter should look like, smell like, and — eggs be damned — what it should taste like.

Once you get a feel for things like that, you can relax a little and do what I like to call “Zen baking.”

Maybe you measure, maybe you don’t. Maybe you experiment with new ingredients. You certainly don’t bother looking at a recipe and you also don’t worry about a thing. Breathe in. Breathe out. Bake.

The problem with Zen baking — the only problem, as far as I can tell — is, if your recipe is amazing, you may not be able to recreate it.

In October and November, after buying a Costco helping of canned pumpkin, I made a lot of muffins and cupcakes with pumpkin and spice and a lot of other ingredients I can’t quite recall. I brought in a boot-box full of pumpkin spice muffins with a vanilla spice glaze to work and distributed them throughout.

Michael Penn said, “You have to give me that recipe!”

But it hit me. There wasn’t really a recipe to give. I could try as well as I could to recreate it, but there was no guarantee I’d make the muffins exactly the same or that they’d be as successful as that particular batch.

But this is Zen baking and that same sort of peace should apply to the rest of life.

Thursday I grabbed a metal mixing bowl and I thought about using a recipe, but I had made brownies so many times I wasn’t worried.

I grabbed my ingredients one at a time from the shelf or cupboard they inhabit and added them to the bowl.

After making the brownies, I tried to recreate the recipe, which is what will be described.

• Dutched cocoa powder – ¾ cup

• All-purpose flour – ½ cup

• Baking powder – ¼ tsp

• Salt – ¼ tsp

• 1 egg

• 1/3 cup oil

• 1 tsp Vanilla extract

Wait, don’t forget the sugar!

• ¾ cup white sugar

Why is this so dry?

Not wanting to add more oil, I went to the refrigerator and grabbed the yogurt. For smoothie making purposes, I had the kefir.

• Kefir – enough to make the consistency right for brownie batter

I did pretty well making up measurements for most of the ingredients, but the yogurt was up in the air. Probably at least half a cup.

I didn’t have an 8x8 inch pan handy (immediately visible and clean) so I grabbed a bread pan, which I greased (butter or shortening or oil will work).

I poured in the brownie batter and realized it would make some thick brownies. Though my roommate and I appreciate an under-cooked and gooey brownie, some people like theirs cooked through. I adjusted the temperature to about 300 on my oven, which is probably around 305 or 310, and popped the dish in the oven and turned on an episode of Mad Men.

The other thing about Zen baking is that I don’t want to be startled by any alarms. More likely, I forgot to turn on a timer when I put it in the oven and I don’t want to guess at the time left, so I just wait for the smell of fresh-baked whatever-I’m-making to overwhelm the kitchen and living room.

I think it was at least 20 minutes.

When I pulled the brownies from the oven, there was a rich smell of chocolate but it wasn’t overly sweet. I let it cool just enough to avoid third degree burns to the tongue and tried a small piece.

It could best be described as semi-sweet chocolate velvet on the tongue.

I think I finally understood wine connoisseurs, talking about different flavors and aromas, and rolling it around on their wine connoisseur tongues.

This brownie had depth. It was full-bodied. It was velvety. It started out almost bitter but finished sweet.

And it’s possible that I’ll never be able to make that brownie ever again.

I shared it with friends and some co-workers and maybe I’m the only one who felt I had created the perfect brownie, but it was the piéce de résistance of brownies.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Let go. Maybe the next batch will be even better?

• Contact Neighbors editor Melissa Griffiths at 523-2272 or at melissa.griffiths@juneauempire.com.

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