I learned how to bake by watching my mother. Then helping her. Then by forcefully shoving her aside and insisting I could do it for myself.
I learned through trial and error. One legendary error occurred when I decided to skip the whole recipe step for chocolate chip cookies with the aspiration of creating one myself at the tender age of 11. Without parents at home to steer me toward the proper ingredients, the result was concrete dough that even the dog avoided.
I expanded my repertoire by selecting children's cookbooks from the book orders I excitedly brought home from school with my selections awkwardly circled in my unsteady hand.
I baked and baked and baked and watched the likes of Julia Child on tv and learned a real cook has her ingredients pre-measured in little bowls and lined up in order ready to be dumped in when required. Much to my mother's irritation, I copied what I saw and dirtied far more dishes than was ever necessary - so I could put on a good show for the younger siblings, stuffed animals and dolls I asked to pose as my audience. Little House on the Prairie made me realize that some people can crack eggs with one hand - a skill I practiced and practiced until I had it right.
By the time I was a teenager I could whip up my go-to brownies and chocolate chip cookies with only a peak at the recipe and I was fairly adept at making what would become my signature piece - red velvet cake. I ignored the challenging frosting for years and then failed to get the proper consistency a number of times before it too was perfected.As an adult, I started baking for the holidays on my own and before I knew it, I had a tradition on my hands of baking ridiculous quantities of cookies, cupcakes and other sweets and inviting everyone I knew to cram into my small apartment to sample them. I take great pride in my baking and have a number of recipes I feel could beat out most anything in a bake off (though I've never entered any sort of contest so I guess I'm just all talk).
And yet, I have never done anything beyond trial and error and reading books and blogs to improve my skills.
Unless you want to count the cake decorating class I took over the summer of 1985. Which I don't. I mean, I guess I learned how to pipe clown bodies and shove those plastic ruffle-necked pick-heads on them and theoretically I learned how to use a pastry bag to pipe roses and scalloped borders . . . but, in reality, I wasn't any good at the decorating part. My mom claims I was too impatient. I contend I am just not artistically inclined. Either way, it was at that point that I decided to concentrate on flavor above presentation. And since that was a decorating class for 10-year olds, it really doesn't count as a pastry class. Right?
The class I took was at the Institute for Culinary Education (ICE for short) - a place that trains people in the "culinary arts", people who go on to win awards and end up on the Food Network. A place where the woman teaching my class was on the Food Network even as she was teaching us how to make macarons!
And that was what my class was Classic French Macarons.
One of the most delicious cookies I have ever had the pleasure to taste (and taste and taste) but which despite having spent hours reading blog after blog full of tips on how to master this tasty little 4-ingredient cookie, I was too intimidated to try. Scratch that. It wasn't that I was too intimidated, I just didn't have any taste testers and if you comb through the blogs you will find all kinds of crazy tips and tricks to make these little beauties come out perfectly - domed top with a perfect little "foot". Tips like propping the oven door open part-way through the baking process, use "old" eggs and leave the egg whites sitting out on the counter for 3-4 days! I read blog after blog lamenting people's trials and errors.
And I was confused and slightly intimidated. The part where I had to make uniform circles with a piping bag was the most intimidating. And I was just confused as to what recipe to use and what tips I should actually follow - is it really safe to leave egg whites on the counter for days? (uh, no.)
So I decided it was time to seek out some professional help.
The class started with a brief semi-interactive lecture which I found completely intimidating. There were other people in the class who bake for a living! They knew fancy names for things and understood why x doesn't play well with y . . . my baking is far more uneducated and organic. I basically just feel my way through.
I was, however, comforted by the fact that while I was one of the few in the class who had never attempted to make these cookies on my own, I wasn't one of the two girls who had never tasted one and while I never knew any of the right answers to the teacher's (professor's? chef's?) questions, I had read about the old eggs thing and some of the other tricks and tips we discussed. (Thank you blogland!)
Also, apparently, the macaron is the most ridiculously difficult cookie to make known to man. It only has four basic ingredients: almond flour, powdered sugar, egg whites and granulated sugar. And yet, none of the fancy top pastry chefs in the world can agree on the best way to make them.
And during the process of combining these four simple ingredients, about 101 things can go wrong. Oh, and if it is raining, she said don't even bother trying because if it is humid at all, your cookies will not work.
She asked everyone what had gone wrong with their cookies and threw out tips to correct what went wrong with flat cookies, hollow cookies, crumbly cookies, etc. She talked us through every stage of the process and explained all the variations and offered anecdotes about what was done at this or that fancy restaurant where she had been a pastry chef.
Then she did a demonstration.
Then we paired up and ran our own little experiment. I stumbled onto a great partner who had a great sense of humor and a similar working style (uh, neither of us own scales at home, although both of us wondered if maybe we should). We dyed our first batch purple and despite the lovely hue, the batter was too runny and unsaveable and this made piping a disaster as the batter ran all over the baking sheet. Or rather, I should say sheets since we were instructed to use two sheets and three at home if we had them.
We laughed at our own folly and dove into preparations for our second batch. We agreed to fill the first batch with a simple buttercream frosting but for the second we had loftier ambitions - vanilla cookies filled with chocolate ganache. We tracked down some vanilla beans and got a quick how-to lesson from the chef.
As an aside, can I just mention how Top Chef it felt with everyone bustling around the large industrial teaching kitchen with all of its work stations and everyone wearing white aprons and calling our teacher "Chef". It was a four hour class but the time flew by in an instant which added to the must-hurry-and-get-through-this-all-very-quickly atmosphere. One guy (who I think is a chef of some sort) even called me chef as he rushed by me in search of fleur-de-sel.
We used a different recipe for our second batch and we knew before we even bag piping that it was going to turn out better - the texture was more like the demo batch. And when we piped - they actually did come out as nice quarter-sized dollops that held their shape! I cannot tell you how happy I was to pull off an entire sheet of mostly uniformly shaped off-white circles with dapples of vanilla.
I smugly did not use the recipe to make our ganache filling but I did pick up a trick of putting the bowl in an ice bath to stir it to the right consistency. And my partner made the buttercream filling and we proceeded to turn our ugly, purple mutant first batch into hodge-podge little sandwiches. They tasted good, just a little on the gooey side. And we anxiously awaited our second batch.
When they came out of the oven I nearly jumped for joy - they looked perfect! Like real macarons! They were so very pretty with their vanilla speckles and just the right foot. We cleaned up our station and filled our pastry bags with ganache as we impatiently waited for them to cool enough to fill. I may or may not have done little triumphant dances that hopefully did not come off as gloating each time I peaked at our cookies cooling on the giant wheeled rack.
Our happiness continued to grow as we piped ganache onto cookie after cookie finding even matches in abundance and stacking up a wealth of cookies resembling tiny minature hamburgers. We offered one to the teacher before either of us had sampled any as we were still in the process of filling the plentiful little guys.
To our vast disappointment, she took a bite and the whole cookie crumbled! Tragic! She said this was a result of overcooking. But the cooking portion was out of our control so we decided to continue to revel in the joy of their beauty and to hang onto the tiny morsel of hope that they would magically moisten up after a couple of days. You see, one of the tidbits offered in the lecture portion of class was that some bakeries purposefully overbake their cookies because they soften up after a couple of days into the perfect texture combination of crisp meringue-like shell, soft, velvety center.
I packed some home, left them for a couple of days and . . . . perfection!