Sunday, March 2, 2008

A Bit of Baking Philosophy

Now that I've come down from my Daring Bakers high, I thought I might give you a little window into how I like to bake when I don't have a 15-page recipe staring me in the face. As you might imagine, most of my baking occurs sans 15-page recipe (like my French?).

For me, baking is one of those things that I can get really, really into. As in, if I make any more scones/cookies/bread/muffins/granola, I'm going to barf. But then I do it anyway. Like most people, I started baking before I started cooking, mostly because when you're 10 years old, making a chocolate cake is much more enticing than dicing up onions or browning chicken breasts. Baking is a comfort, an indulgence, and something I like to do when I feel the creative juices flowing but can only afford a brief diversion from some more serious endeavor or another.

Now that I'm responsible for crafting my own meals - not just my own desserts and treats - I have come to love cooking as much I love baking. But still, there is an element of surprise in baking that doesn't quite surface in the faster-paced, more evolutionary art of cooking. When I cook, I test, adjust, season, taste, and repeat until I'm done. Baking doesn't allow you the luxury of adjustment, though. Once it's out of the oven, that's it.

Of course, that doesn't mean that baking doesn't allow for experimentation. It just makes the experimentation that much more exciting. People always say that baking is a "science," which, in the chemical sense, it is. There seems to be a misplaced loyalty to following a recipe in baking, though, which I don't quite understand. I agree that when replicating a dish - from a restaurant, cookbook, etc. - it's essential to follow the recipe to the letter. An extra dash of salt or a misplaced 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda can make or break a fickle batch of popovers or a fussy little cake.

But baking doesn't always have to be about replicating, and for me, it's often about creating. In the past year or so I've started creating my own baking recipes, often drawing from other sources and applying my own modifications, but sometimes also starting from scratch. An idea pops into mind and I take it to the kitchen, where, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, it gets whipped, beaten, crumbled, folded, and kneaded into shape.

Even more recently I've started baking without a recipe at all. I start with an ingredient and keep adding until I think I've got something tasty. That's how my ricotta-veggie muffins were born, and they turned out pretty well.

But, in an effort not to bore you to pieces with my baking philosophy, I'll leave you with a quick recipe for some scone/biscuit hybrid specimens that I made this morning. I've spent a lot of time working recently in an adorable little cafe, and although I don't usually indulge in their baked goods, the sight of them (and my lonely coffee mug, with nothing dunked into it), has been making me crave something sweet and scone-like.

These little scones are a cross between rolls, scones, and biscuits - and they are full of whole grains. I had some leftover chai-poached prunes which I chopped up and mixed into the dough, but any dried fruit, frozen fruit, or nuts would also taste lovely. Enjoy these, or better yet, use them to inspire your own original recipe!

Improvisation Breakfast Scones

1/2 c. Bob's Red Mill 8-Grain Cereal (or substitute other cereal)
1/4 c. wheat bran
1/2 c. buttermilk
1/2 c. skim milk
1/2 c. barley flour (or use regular flour)
1/2 c. whole wheat pastry flour
1-2 tbs. brown sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. baking soda
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
pinch of cardamom
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 tsp. caraway seeds (optional, but so delicious!)
handful of prunes or dried fruit, chopped if large

Combine cereal and bran and add buttermilk and milk. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit until softened, about half an hour. Add vanilla and dry ingredients, and stir to combine. Add dried fruit and stir until evenly distributed. Drop heaping spoonfuls of dough onto parchment-lined baking sheet (you'll get about 9 scones), and bake at 375 degrees for 15-18 min., until lightly browned on top and bottom. These will be softer than traditional scones, and are perfect dunked in coffee or tea.


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JennDZ - The Leftover Queen said...

See... you are a REAL baker, Mia! I can't improvise - YET, when it comes to baking. I may add a nut, or dried fruit or a dash of nutmeg, maybe cocoa powder, but in terms of dealing with the chemical side of things - I'm not so good - BUT being a DB has helped a bit.

However, what I am really trying to say is that you ROCK! :)