Preheat The Oven, It’s Baking Season!
Recipes and tips for coping with cookies.
I never understood the appeal of “baking season” until I moved to the East Coast. Isn’t any time a good time for a brownie? The answer, of course, is yes. Baked goods are always welcome—but feeling the urge to bake is another story.
The Great British Bake Off is evidence that some people will whip up double-crust pies on the hottest, most humid days and pass off their sweat as salt. But I’m a wimp without central AC who thinks fruit compote over ice cream is the ultimate summer dessert anyways, so my oven gets the most activity from November–May.
Mostly, I stick to cookies, brownies, ricotta cakes….things that require one bowl and no special equipment (because I don’t have any). I did have an intense sourdough phase from December 2020-May 2021, where I consistently baked two loaves a week. It was efficiently torpedoed by workplace turmoil that left me unable to sustain practically anything in my personal life, much less a sourdough starter.
A big reason why I don’t love baking is that, honestly, it scares me! My favorite thing about cooking is how you can riff off recipes once you have a basic understanding of technique. Disasters happen, but most of the time you can taste and tweak as you go and it’ll turn out okay—sometimes even great. Beyond adding cinnamon or chocolate chips to a batter, all my baking experiments have ended in chaos. So this week on Amateur Hours, I talked to Bon Appetit cooking editor—and my personal baking icon—Sarah Jampel about how to mess with recipes without messing them up.
Read on for her thoughts, plus a list of the baking recipes at the top of my list.
Bake Outside The Lines (Within Reason)
Let’s get one thing straight: I love recipes! But whether you’re trying to satisfy an extremely specific craving or just want to use up some rye flour before it goes bad, sometimes it pays to bake outside the lines. Here’s Sarah’s guidance on the matter:
When did you make the jump from following baking recipes to making your own?
Sarah Jampel: A lot of it happens from necessity—say I have ½ cup of spelt flour hanging around my house for three years and I want to use it up. Or I don't have everything I need for a recipe and I still want to make it.
Once you realize you don't need every single ingredient in a recipe it becomes a lot easier to bake spontaneously as a creative endeavor. But if you’re changing a recipe, you need to change your expectations for it. If the version you make comes out dry or undercooked or you’re not happy with the flavor, it’s likely because you’ve changed something.
So if I want to start experimenting, where is a safe place to start?
SJ: The more you understand what each element of your recipe does, the easier you can anticipate what your change will affect. To start out, change things you know won't make a chemical difference. Adding extracts, spices, and dry mix-ins really shouldn’t change the chemical makeup of what you're baking.
It’s really fun to start experimenting with different flours and realizing how they affect the flavor and texture of the dish. I start with swapping 30% of flour to see how it goes and if it works well then you can do more next time. You can also reduce the sugar by 30% and see how it is, but any more than that you’ll throw off the texture.
Yes, baking is a chemistry, but you can use your common sense a bit. I wouldn’t mess with a sponge cake or a meringue—anything with eggs or ratios and chemistry that are super essential to how the thing turns out. Also, it’s best to experiment when the stakes are pretty low. I wouldn’t experiment with a layered birthday cake for someone’s party if you’ve never made it before.
What is a baking experiment of yours that went wrong?
SJ: I got some ube kaya and thought it would be really good in cinnamon buns. But I wasn't sure what would happen to the ube. Would it run? Would it gelatinize? I think I added a little cornstarch to it as a thickening agent, but it just ran out of the buns in the oven. Sometimes you just have to try and see what happens. I guess I could have heated it on the stove to see how it reacted to heat and I did them free form on a baking sheet as individual free form buns, if they had been in a baking pan for stuff to flow that would have been a bit more successful.
And what about one that went really well?
I do a lot of using up by necessity. I had some black sesame paste mixed with sugar sitting around in the fridge recently and I decided to add it to a loaf cake. I reduced the flour a little bit because black sesame has a drying effect, and it turned out really well with a nice subtle sweet black sesame flavor. It was something I never would have done if I hadn't had black sesame in the fridge. I feel so satisfied when I use up the last of an obscure flour and I get that pantry space back again.
Recipes to Bake With Wild Abandon
Just Bread (King Arthur Flour)
No disrespect to crusty sourdough batards, but sometimes the situation calls for bread that’s simple and squishy. This uncomplicated loaf works with fed starter or instant yeast, the latter of which I used with good results several times last winter. King Arthur is a reliable source of high-quality flour and recipes, and the addition of honey in this recipe creates a slightly sweet slice that’s perfect for a comforting grilled cheese or PB&J.
Pumpkin Cookie Butter Cheesecake (Mehreen Karim)
I’ve been daydreaming about this cheesecake ever since I devoured it at Mehreen’s friendsgiving a few weeks ago. The combination of creamy spiced pumpkin cheesecake, toasty Biscoff cookie butter, chocolate ganache, and little pops of pomegranate seeds is *chef’s kiss*
Granola Scones (Roxana Jullapat)
Are you ready to go in at the bulk bins? These scones from Roxana Jullapat, head baker at Friends and Family and author of the alt-grain bible Mother Grains, are truly fully loaded. I’m slowly starting to pick up the ingredients so I’ll have everything on hand when the first snow hits.
Butter Mochi (Genevieve Ko)
Squishy, chewy butter mochi is truly comfort food. Genevieve Ko’s take on the marshallowy Hawaiian classic uses coconut milk and passion fruit puree for maximum tropical vibes.
And if you’re feeling ambitious: Basically Guide to Better Baking
I saw first-hand how hard Sarah Jampel, Sohla El Waylly, and Molly Baz worked on this ten-part baking package. The recipes—which increase in difficulty from buckwheat chocolate chip cookies to cinnamon-date sticky buns—have been cross-tested thoroughly for maximum cookability and deliciousness.
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