This is my favorite time of year. I love the break in the heat and the humidity, the weight of the first wool blanket on the bed, the first fire in the wood-stove. And when I became a homeowner, the season found new meanings and responsibilities. The cleaning of the chimney. The clearing up of the garden and planting of bulbs. The sealing of the wood floors as everything dries out after summer. The stacking of the firewood. I always buy the Martha Stewart Living magazines this time of year, and I love reading Martha’s calendar. This year, this October, Martha is planting garlic on the 1st, packing away summer clothes in canvas storage bags on the 9th, cleaning terra-cotta planters and storing them indoors on the 15th, having the firewood stacked on the 23rd and then storing the outdoor furniture on the 27th and wrapping shrubs in burlap to protect them from winter wind on the 28th.
Even though I am not Martha and do not have the gorgeous houses and the bevy of grounds-keepers and staff, I still appreciate the gits of the seasons and changes.
This year has been a little different. I worked at a bakery for a few weeks in the late summer, getting elbow-deep into pies and scones, cakes and brownies. And a funny thing happened. I fell in love with pastry. It’s definitely a Romeo and Juliet love, very forbidden and based entirely on the seduction of the ingredients, the white flour and white sugar that I almost never use at home. At home, baking has usually been a) something fun to do with James and b) something utilitarian to do with those overripe bananas or limp carrots. It’s been fun but I’ve never taken it seriously. Until now. As pastry chef Sebastian Rouxel observes of his own love-fall: “Pastry intertwined science, craftsmanship, and precision in ways that made savory cooking seem almost primitive by comparison.” Yes! Combined with the desire to fire up the oven in the cool fall weather, and to dive into the apples and pumpkins of the season, I’m seriously smitten and excited.
Being at the bakery offered me a chance to improve my skills, which I would define as talented yet careless. I rarely followed recipes and hated to be precise in my measurements or practices, yet what I produced was always edible and tasty. But the repetition of crimping pie crust after quiche crust after pie crust after quiche crust made me appreciate the calm of focusing on small details and feeling the crust against my fingertips. The chance to screw up again and again (I won’t bore you with the details of Riva and the Berry Coffeecake, sufficient to say there is something ridiculously undignified in having a coffeecake for a nemesis) made me appreciate the value of following a recipe, or at least paying attention to it. And the opportunity to work alongside a skilled baker made me appreciate the need for good technique.
So here are some of my do’s and don’t’s for a successful fall of baking:
- Don’t skimp on the finish. Brush butter on the scones. Sprinkle just a bit of coarse sugar on the muffins. Rub butter over your pie crust and then do an egg wash so the crust browns perfectly.
- Do utilize your freezer. Baking is not just about the oven. Most anything from the world of pastry can be frozen, and actually you want most things chilled anyways before baking. So if you make a huge batch of something you can put cookies all ready-to-bake in the freezer, or pie shells, or whatever. You can also make up a bunch of pumpkin pie filling and freeze it, or even fill up the crust and freeze the whole pie ready for the oven. That way you a) don’t waste anything and b) always have something ready to bake or thaw in the freezer in case of emergency. And if you can’t conceive of a cookie or pie emergency then something is probably wrong with you.
- Don’t just skim the recipe. Even if you’re not planning on following it, understand the process or what your process will be. I like to get everything organized and ready in various bowls and then read the recipe or my plan one last time to confirm that I have the order and technique down. This is especially useful when making something that is time-sensitive, like muffins that need to go into the oven shortly after the baking powder hits the liquid so you can get maximum loft (see, here’s the bit about technique!). If you spend time measuring everything out but then get distracted by a 5-year old, you can come back and quickly assemble and go.
- Read the recipe but don’t trust the recipe. Pay attention. Notice your fingertips. Get into the dough and see what it feels like. Stop thinking about your next email, about the laundry that needs to be folded, about watching the next episode of Outlander. Learn what dough feels like when it is too crumbly and dry, when it is too wet and and sticky, when it is actually perfect. Go slowly (except when you have to go fast) and notice the tiny details that end up having a large impact.
- Do remember that baking is as much about the oven as the ingredients. Especially because every oven temperature is slightly different, and because weather factors such as humidity make a difference, it’s important to not simply set the timer and call it good. One day at the bakery I undercooked two chocolate cakes, which ruined them as the leavening reaction can only happen the once. Learn to feel for when baked goods still have a jiggle, when the filling looks liquidy but will certainly set up. Practice using a bit of foil to cover the top and prevent browning while the inside cooks through.
- Don’t be afraid to get fancy. I’ve always been intimidated by decorating cakes, by letting the appearance of something matter a lot. My friend Melissa gave me some tips and I’m slowly getting over my fear. It’s remarkable how a little leaf cookie-cutter can dress up a pie crust, or how a syrup glaze and dusting of confectioner’s sugar can improve a plain bundt cake. Let appearances matter and put a bit of yourself into your pastry.
- Do bake for everyone. In a consumer-driven world I think baking takes us back to the essence of seasonality and hospitality. Embrace it. Instead of giving someone a thing for a birthday gift, spend time making a small batch of ridiculously elaborate cookies. Rather than handing out Starbucks gift cards to friends or co-workers at the holidays, make several batches of excellent cookies and take a small paper plate to everyone chock full of labor and love. Bring a loaf of fresh bread to a new neighbor. There’s a reason “breaking bread” is a gesture of love and respect. In our house, we love to plan out our baking gifts. James and I are already preparing for our holiday treats!
Whether you bake a pie, clean your gutters, or rake some leaves don’t forget to fall in love. Fall only comes once a year.