I am not a baker. I’m contractually obligated to bake once a year: I make a from-scratch chocolate-chocolate birthday cake for my husband, who in turn makes me whatever high-maintenance cake I choose.
I don’t really have the patience for baking without a box mix (which, I’ll admit, I’m too much of a food snob to use). Though it’s easy enough, I don’t relish weighing out ingredients by the gram. I begrudge the fact that you should measure thickness and dimension for best results. I despise scraping down the paddle attachment of a stand mixer. And worst of all — the thing I brace myself for when I do bake — is this: the likelihood of failure when undertaking an ambitious recipe, the possibility that hours of time and expensive ingredients might just end up in the trash, as did that chocolate tart with hazelnut brittle and orange zest from Yotam Ottolenghi’s Sweet.
But as this pandemic wears on and my ennui grows, I envy those throwing themselves into new hobbies — namely, baking. You’ve seen the pictures of beautifully scored sourdough loaves and meticulously decorated focaccia on Instagram and Facebook. It’s enough to make you want to hunt down some starter.
So I decided to take on a baking project or two, with a couple important constraints. There would be no yeast, and the recipes would be creatively challenging but technically doable. One thing I’ve learned from the baking projects of my past: Know your limits, or you’ll wind up sponging batter off the backsplash.
I let my husband, the resident project baker in our house, select this recipe from Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc at Home (Artisan Books). Given that neither of us really care for meringue, I suspect he picked it because it calls for blowtorching the whipped egg-white topping.
Though it didn’t seem terribly challenging — the crust is made from four ingredients, the filling from five — this recipe had its pitfalls, the biggest of which was its call for “quarter sheet pans, which measure 9 by 13 by 1 inch.” “A standard [9-by-13-inch] baking dish would be too deep,” a note at the end of the recipe said.
I, like most cooks, own standard 18-by-13-inch baking sheets (professionally known as half-sheet pans), but was too dimensionally careless to figure this out ahead of time. Which, in retrospect, explains why Keller’s otherwise easy-to-follow recipe didn’t seem to yield nearly enough pastry dough, lemon filling, or meringue. The result was incredibly thin but perfectly tasty lemon-slicked wafers. Patches of the bars have gobs of meringue imprecisely piped on top. Other parts are fluorescent yellow and unobscured by the sticky, almost marshmallow-y topping. Those were the parts we ate first.
I picked this recipe from Stella Parks’ BraveTart (Norton), which is almost as entertaining to read as it is to bake from. Parks, best known from the food website Serious Eats, spent five years assembling this collection of recipes for iconic American candies, desserts, and snacks. There are recipes for homemade animal crackers, McDonald’s-style baked apple turnovers, Twinkies, and rainbow sprinkles. But the cover features Parks’ homemade Oreo cookies. (Or are they homemade Hydrox cookies?)
You need some specific tools and ingredients to make this recipe. First, you’ll want to get an embossed rolling pin, to make chocolate wafers that somewhat resemble an Oreo’s literally trademarked texture; these can be found in abundance on Amazon and Etsy, and at local kitchen shops closer to Christmas. You may also want a fluted 1½-inch-round cookie cutter, which adds to the effect. And if you want to use exactly what Parks calls for, order some Lyle’s golden syrup, coconut extract (wholly optional), and Cacao Barry Extra Brute Dutch-process cocoa powder.
Thankfully, we had most of these things, since my husband had attempted the recipe himself a couple years ago. But I did have to deploy him on a shopping mission to find the organic confectioners sugar, which is evidently tapioca-based and therefore less gritty than plain old powdered sugar. (“Isn’t this fun? It’s all part of the project,” I told him as I sent him to Sprouts market.)
Thanks to the stand mixer, making the chocolate cookie dough is mercifully easy. Rolling out the dough — first with a regular rolling pin and then the embossed pin — presents a mild hurdle. As you roll, stamp, scrape up, then re-roll, it gets soft and crumbly and starts to stick (you might want some toothpicks to clean out crevices in the embossed pin). An offset spatula, extremely thin and ultra-flexible, is also a tremendous help in getting dough off the work surface.
The Oreo cream filling is what set off my only real baking-induced conniption in this series of projects. It seemed fairly simple: After baking and cooling the wafers, simmer butter in a saucier (I used a tall-sided skillet) until most of the water has cooked off. Strain that into a stand mixer, add vanilla, salt, and the organic powdered sugar, and beat until creamy and soft. I flubbed the butter step a bit — browned-butter Oreo cream filling sounds better anyway! — but otherwise things went well. That is, until I tried to put the filling into a pastry bag and pipe it onto the wafers.
It is impossible to spoon what is essentially warm frosting into a plastic bag without another person to help you, but that is what I tried to do. And you can imagine my reaction when — after I somehow cajoled filling inside the piping bag that I miraculously found in our pantry, and after every surface I came in contact with was splattered with browned-butter cream filling and I had nearly lost my cool — the pastry bag split at the seams as I tried to pipe it onto a chocolate cookie.
Needless to say, the filling was ultimately spread onto the wafers before sandwiching, which is what I should have done in the first place. Ironically, I prefer the cookies without the cream.
This idea came to me indirectly, by way of Porco’s / Small Oven Pastry Shop chef and owner Chad Durkin, who passed along his recipes for cinnamon buns and lemon pretzel bars (which I did make but poorly, I am sad to report). I have a deep-seated affection for cinnamon rolls, probably from making them as a kid, before I became too jaded for a tube of Pillsbury dough. Since Durkin’s recipe called for yeast, I found a yeast-less recipe from Claire Ptak’s Violet Bakery Cookbook (Ten Speed).
The ingredients were wonderfully uncomplicated, as was the necessary equipment. All I had to special-order was a 12-cup deep muffin tin. The steps were straightforward, too: Melt butter, keep it warm and liquid. Combine brown sugar and cinnamon till there are no lumps. Mix cubed butter and dry ingredients until a coarse meal forms, then add milk and mix till it becomes dough. Let it sit a bit, fold it, then let sit 10 minutes more.
It was all easy and entirely doable until I went to roll that quickbread dough out into a rectangle. Actually, all three of these recipes want you to roll the dough out into a rectangle or square. I asked my husband afterward, “How does one roll dough into a rectangle?” The very words seem at odds. Then he told me the tapered, French-style rolling pin we have is actually ideal for rolling out round shapes.
Anyway, I didn’t bother squaring off my dough’s decidedly round and jagged edges. I brushed it with melted butter, sprinkled on the cinnamon-sugar, rolled it up, and smooshed it into a cylinder. I did measure it twice before I cut it into 12 even pieces. However, I somehow botched the math and wound up with 11 cinnamon rolls, one of which is a blob of mostly sugarless dough.
But when I look at these muffin-topped cinnamon buns and their imperfect swirls, I feel no frustration, just joy. And that’s what baking should be.