Beyond cake…

So far, you may have gotten the impression that I only make cakes, and you would be totally justified in thinking so because that’s been pretty much the sole subject of this blog up to now.  However, let me tell you now that this is actually not the case at all!  No, indeed.  I like to think that I am a very varied and experimental baker, unafraid to try out new recipes and ideas as and when I discover them.

I’ve always been one of those cooks who can pick up a recipe book, flick through it, find something I like and just make it.  Of course, I’m not saying that every attempt has been successful – I’ve had my fair share of kitchen disasters over the years, though nothing too dramatic, thankfully.  What I’m really trying to say is that when I’m in the kitchen, I am fearless.  I am willing to try new methods and techniques, always ready to expand my knowledge and skill.  I am not afraid of making mistakes, because I think that’s the best way to learn; if you do it wrong, try again and next time you’ll know better.  Of course, it upsets me to get things wrong but at the end of the day, you ultimately have to take a step back and remember that it’s only a cake/pie/roast chicken and it’s not the end of the world.  (That’s not to say that I haven’t been known to sulk for days over a batch of failed macarons or an imperfectly iced cake!  But you know how the saying goes, do as I say, not as I do…!)

I’ve had a lot of successes and enjoyed good reactions to my food during my time as an amateur baker/cook, and it’s always nice to receive that compliment, a confirmation that I can actually do this well.  However, I’ve also been frustrated by recipes that don’t seem to work as they should, no matter what I try.  Sometimes, it only takes a few attempts to put things right; I nailed my first souffles third time around.  (That’s just one example, I’m not trying to boast – it took me many more tries to get the chocolate fondant right, with its cake-like exterior and liquid centre. In both cases, it turns out it was my technique that was at fault and a little more practice put things right.)

However, something which has caused me endless problems over the years is meringue. I think it took me two years to perfect my meringue method; they would turn out differently every time I made them, much to my frustration.  My first batch didn’t hold their shape and collapsed in the oven.  They also didn’t retain that snowy-white colour, instead turning a deeper and deeper golden-brown right before my eyes.  It took me many, many goes and many different methods before I finally got it.  Then I enjoyed several years of meringue success, until one day, completely unexpectedly, my recipe failed me.  I don’t know what happened, but they just didn’t turn out right – they browned and didn’t crisp during baking, not even after an extra few minutes in the oven as encouragement.  So I tried again.  Next time, another failure.  I was baffled – I was using the same technique, the same recipe, the same ingredients.  What was going wrong?!  Frustration took hold and I decided that it would be best to put it aside for a while and forget about it.

Then I came back to university and, having made custard for a peach crumble, found myself with two spare egg whites.  What to do with them?  Meringues were the obvious answer.  (The other one was an egg-white omelette, which seemed far more boring.)  I employed my usual method and lo and behold, they were perfect.  Crispy outside, chewy inside, just as they should be.

Meringues – 29/09/2011

I still don’t know what happened with my previous two batches – perhaps they were overmixed, or my sugar quantity was incorrectly measured out.  I’m still trying to work it out. But the satisfaction of finally succeeding once more was great; I may even have been more pleased with these ones than with my very first successful batch!

Of course, it’s nice to be challenged in the kitchen – I don’t think I would enjoy cooking and baking so much if everything I did went just as planned.  The uncertainty adds a little something, but maybe that’s just me.  My next challenge now is to perfect my French macarons.  Temperamental and elusive, every attempt so far has turned out looking different, despite my using the same method – mostly, they end up as deflated little heaps of almond-flavoured meringue-like things, but one single successful batch continues to drive me on to try again.  If I can do it once, surely I can manage it again…even if it takes me another ten years!  After all, they do say that practice makes perfect…


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