I can’t bake. This is something I already wrote many times here in the blog, and I have said it out loud so many times that I’ve lost count. It is a strange machine our brain, isn’t it? We store a piece of information and it just lives there, rent free, no questions asked.
I don’t really remember when I decided that I can’t bake, I have been thinking about it recently (lockdown is really gifting me with lots of spare time) and I haven’t been able to recall a specific episode that made me think: “That’s it, I am done. From tomorrow I am only having shop bought biscuits and cake.” Whenever I thought about it, it became more and more of a mystery when I planted this seed in my mind – that yeast was my sworn enemy, biscuits an impossible tasks, cakes an obscure art. Over the years, I attempted some recipes (I would say 10, 15), with different degrees of success: some resulted in something not edible, some were kind of acceptable, in a few cases I was happy with the result.
Was that enough to sustain the claim that I can’t bake? It seems a little bit of an overreaction to me. It is very rare that I get disappointed when I cook, I quite like my pasta and risotto, so I wondered if maybe I am comparing the success I have when I cook against the “kind of acceptable” results I got when I bake? Is that enough to rule out against any further attempts at baking, or even worse, at patisserie? What does it really mean that I can’t bake? That I don’t enjoy doing it? That’s unlikely, as I didn’t make enough attempts to decide it is not something I like my spend my time on. Does it mean that whatever I bake is disgusting? From looking at my previous experiences, that is not entirely true either – and I would also point out that in some cases it might have been the recipe’s fault, not entirely mine.
As you can see I had lots of time to think about this entire cooking vs baking feud going on in my mind, and I know that obviously there are bigger problems in the world, but this one can be solved once and for all.
This won’t be a story of how, on a Saturday afternoon of a cold November of a very strange year, I questioned everything I believed and decided to open a bakery; and it won’t be an episode of “things that never happened” where I make a stunning dessert just putting together a few ingredients, effortless and graciously. This is the true story of my personal war against a mysterious seed I planted years ago, not knowing why or how.
It is a Saturday afternoon of a cold November of a very strange year, and I want to bake something. I have plenty of books and magazines, so it won’t be hard to find something to make. I also have some trusted websites that I always rely on, and from which I got the inspiration of my next recipe: choux pastry. Not easy, I know, but if I am going to fail, I better do it on something spectacular.
Note – You might think: “You struggle with baking, and what you decide to make is something super hard that even experienced bakers can do wrong? Why don’t you make something more achievable?”. Well, that’s the kind of irrational person I am. You know the word pragmatic? I am the opposite of that.
Starting from the dough, I encounter my first bump on the road: I don’t know what to do with it. It looks quite liquid, but it is kind of similar to the one I see on the website – so it probably is ok. What I don’t understand is how it is meant to be placed on the tray: the instructions only say to put two tablespoons on a tray and let them bake for 15 minutes. Now, it might be that I am not very experienced in this kind of field, but what does it mean to just put two tablespoons? Do you mean one near the other to get a flat disc that is then going to rise? What if it doesn’t rise? Maybe it means to put the tablespoons one on top of the other to form a ball – but what if it becomes too much and it just stays raw on the inside?
Well, the consistency of the dough decides for me: it is so liquid there is no way that the two tablespoons would stay together in a ball, so I just go with the first option and make some discs on the tray, hoping for the best:
I wish I could show you the photo after the oven, but unfortunately I put everything in the bin, where it belonged to. Obviously my discs didn’t rise at all, they were like chewy inedible pancakes that I couldn’t even look at – without mentioning the waste of ingredients, that really makes me fuming.
Ok, time to give up and order a pizza, I will probably have a capricciosa: loads of topping but some of them are veggies so I feel less guilty.
I am looking at the online menu, pretending I don’t know already what I am going to order, and I am thinking: “What if the dough was not so liquid? Is it still meant to be baked as a disc?”. Time to ask Mr Google. I have a look at different websites, my books, some YouTube videos: it looks like most recipes suggest the same ingredients I just used, but in a different ratio. Some bakers suggest to use a wooden spoon rather than the electric whisk, at least for the first times you make the choux. And the pastry is meant to look silky and smooth, dense enough to make a ball. To summarise: so far I used the wrong ratio of ingredients, an electric whisk and lots of discouragement. Is it really worth trying again? The entire baking process wasn’t too bad until I realised I made the inedible pancakes, and at the end of the day it is only a Saturday afternoon of a cold November of a very strange year, so it is not like I have many things to do.
Time to try again. This time I follow a mixture of different recipes quite similar to each other, the dough this time looks firm and glossy, steady enough to make some sort of ball. It is now showtime. The little balls I left on the tray are starting to look golden and crispy, and they are actually looking bigger and bigger. While I start to think that this time it might have worked, I realise I haven’t thought on what do fill my choux pastry with: I was so convinced that I would stop at step 1, that I never thought what to do after it. The timer goes on: time to take the tray out of the oven. The little lumps of dough now look like proper choux pastry: they are golden, crispy, with that irregular surface that I always wondered how it was achieved.
Still in disbelief of what I just made, it is now time to think what to do with this pastry. I have cream, fruit and sugar – to me, that sounds enough for a nice filling. Actually, I have some Marsala wine that gives a nice kick to the cream. So that’s the plan: I whip together the cream, some Marsala wine and some icing sugar, until I get a fluffy filling I can pipe in the choux pastry (check me out, piping the cream in the choux pastry I just made).
So I could be perfectly content with my creation, I can just put the cream in the choux, put some fruit on top and that’s it.
But now the demon of baking possesses me, and I decide to do more. If I just made choux pastry, I can make almost everything, correct? It sounds a little bit too much, but I now feel like I can do everything. And what is that thing that I always see bakers struggling with? Caramel sauce. This is something I always do on everything: if I just achieved something, I need to do more and more, until I inevitably fail. I could blame my star sign, or I could say this is a self-sabotage mechanism, but what I believe happens in my little head is that I want to know how much I can push, how long will last my sense of self-contentedness until I unlock a new task to accomplish. Like a video game, always looking for a new level of difficulty. What I find particularly interesting about this trait of my personality is that, despite what I just described as a constant challenge against myself, I am totally the opposite with other people: I am not competitive whatsoever, I am happy for the successes of the people I love, and I don’t really care about the people I don’t like. As I said earlier, it is a strange machine our brain, isn’t it?
Back to our caramel. Mr Google is my friend, and once again I ask for help. While I am typing “caramel sauce simple recipe”, I am thinking how many times I have seen bakers having a meltdown over caramel sauce on TV. “Maybe they don’t know how to make choux either”, suggests a little, not so humble voice in my head. That is enough to keep me going, I mean I typed “simple recipe”, so it can’t be that hard. So the simple recipe says: “put brown sugar, butter and cream in a pan. Let it cook for 5 minutes”. It is not that hard, is it? Just put everything in the pan and scroll twitter for 5 minutes. Easy peasy. What is all this fuss about then? In those 5 minutes, I can keep myself busy reading the latest news about the Italian Celebrity Big Brother, the British Politics and the climate change (I am a lady of many facets, I know). If the reality I just read about wasn’t awful enough, what I was going to lay my eyes on wasn’t a better spectacle: a beige, dense and lumpy substance surrounded by butter, that looked nothing like caramel.
Ok so maybe it is not that simple. Actually, if there was a simple way to make it, nobody would struggle with caramel sauce.
Time for more research. Remember, I just made choux pastry so I can literally do anything. I ran out of cream in the meantime, so I now need a recipe with minimal ingredients.
I can see a couple of them only list sugar. I have plenty of sugar, so I have a plan. I read all the recipes listing only sugar as ingredient, and apparently what I am meant to do is just to let it melt, and start stirring once the edges of the pan are golden. Definitely doable. While I am stirring, I can still see some sugar crystals, so even if it has the right colour, I can’t really take the pan off the heat, can I? As it turns out, this is what I was meant to do, as I burnt my caramel – photographic evidence below:
Well, it is burnt but I got the gist of it, so it is now a matter to just not burn it. Still fuming about the ingredients already wasted for the choux, and the sugar that I cremated/drowned in butter for my 2 caramel batches, I make a vow to not use sugar for the next month.
I promise to myself that this will be the last attempt with caramel and will do my best to appreciate the fact that I made choux pastry.
I pour again the sugar in the pan, the edges starts to melt. I keep stirring until I get a nice, golden colour. I take the pan off the heat, add two tablespoons of tap water, it is done. It is over, I made caramel. It wasn’t that hard, pfff.
Unlocking two new levels of difficult tasks in one day, not bad at all. I leave the caramel to cool and I start thinking how to fill the choux. After 30 minutes, I check the caramel is cold enough, so I can assemble all my ingredients together. It is interesting what happens when you know so little about things, but feel confident after reading a couple of recipes on Google. What I didn’t think about was that the sugar wasn’t going to stay liquid just because I melted it, and as soon as it cooled down it would go back to a solid-ish form. What to do now? That pizza capricciosa doesn’t sound a bad idea now. Even if I melted it again, it wouldn’t solve my issue later on, so I just acted what the Italians describe as “a sentimento“, so I followed my gut so I added some warm water and butter, hoping for the best. As it turns out, things done a sentimento do really work, because this time I had my caramel sauce:
So happy with my creations, I assemble everything and I get a result I would have never dreamed of, especially before this Saturday afternoon of a cold November of a very strange year:
And I mean, it wasn’t simple, and I did swear quite a lot during the process, but today I can say that I can bake after all. For years I kept saying that I am not able to, and I still don’t know why. But truth is, and I am telling you but I also wish I could tell this to my younger self convinced that I am not good enough at this, or talented enough to do that, there is nothing that we can’t do, we really need to stop listening to people saying that something is impossible to achieve, even if those people are actually ourselves. Nobody, not even yourself, can tell you if you can or can not do something. Give it a go first, see how it feels like, but don’t discourage yourself without even trying. There will always be something you don’t enjoy doing, or something that you don’t find interesting – but if you are curious to experiment a new hobby, a new challenge or even just a new recipe, please go for it: try, make mistakes, swear during the process – but at least try. Don’t close your doors because somebody said it is too complicated, or because you think it is too hard: you owe yourself a chance to give it a go, and you never know, you might have fun along the way.