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Archive for December, 2009

Why I love Baking…

Tuesday, December 1st, 2009

If there is anything better than cookies, it’s making your own cookies. Or cupcakes. Or cream puffs.

Cream puffs, you say?

Yes. You see, my mother had the unmitigated gaul to not have any daughters, so my grandmother was forced to teach me the ancient family cream puff recipe. A recipe passed from generation to generation through its daughters.

Well my mom was a liberated woman. She had faith that I could learn to bake. 🙂

My sweet Irish grandmother was the Jedi master of cream puffs. The making of one batch required changing the temperature of the oven, rotating the pans, and on a more impressive note, brushing them half way through the process with butter.

Cream puffs are like teeny little soufflés, looking for any opportunity to collapse.

I never figured out how she did it, but half way through the baking, my grandma could pull out the trays, brush all the cream puffs down with melted butter, rotate them and close the oven without collapsing a single puff.

The Force was strong in my grandma.

Both my mother and grandmother patiently walked me through the process over and over until I could produce a vaguely similar yumminess. It was never quite the same, but each generation brought something new to the recipe.

Of course, being both an engineer and a fan of Alton Brown, I’ve spent several years optimizing the recipe. Would anyone notice the difference between cream puffs baked an hour at 375, versus ones cooked for 20 minutes at 425 then 30 more minutes at 325?

Okay, grandma would. But no one else did.

Cream puffs always brought together the best parts of my nature. My love of tradition, an appreciation of a warm kitchen wafting with the aroma of baked goodness, and applying hard earned knowledge (like the difference between using butter and margarine in baking, or why Irish butter tastes richer).

It’s also one of the most social things you can do.

Social? Baking? Of course!

When you bake dozens of cookies, what do you do with them? Share of course. And doesn’t everyone love tasty, home made baked goods?

It’s also social in the respect that its fun to do with friends.

Years ago, my San Diego adoptive family, the Hackers, had bought a house with the greatest kitchen, ever! It was huge, with counters on three sides, and an island in the middle. In an apartment, it can take hours to make a batch of cream puffs since you have to do a step, clean up, and then do the next step. With that much space, you can do all the steps sequentially, and then off to the oven.

The most crucial step in cream puff making is the ritual “perfectly circular cap of chocolate” that you put on each puff. My grandma used to draw perfect circles on each one with a teaspoon of chocolate, ladled gently from a double-boiler. This time, I would share the experience with Paul Hacker and his son Dustin.

I showed them how grandma did it. Slowly, gingerly, carefully, putting on just the right amount of chocolate. She had taught me well.

I will never forget what happened next. Paul and Dustin turned to each other, silently exchanging a single thought. Seconds later, each one was dunking an entire cream puff directly in the chocolate, glazing each one like a chocolate donut.

It may have been messy, but they sure looked good!

Around the time of my cookie blog posting, my San Diego roomie Tim and I went and got all the goodies required to make chocolate chip cookies. Since then, I’ve had the uncontrollable need to keep the condo immersed in the scent of freshly baked cookies. With the assistance of a couple of silicone cooking mats, I’ve made dozens of chocolate chip cookies, to both Tim and my delight.

By the way, whoever invented the silicone cooking mat, needs to be canonized as a saint! Crispy cookies without burning? Where have these things been my entire life?

Baking is relaxing, makes me and those around me happy, and takes just enough concentration to keep your mind off your troubles. And when you’re all done, you have a pile of delicious treats!

It doesn’t get much better than that.