Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Baking Failures & A Hamburger Bun Quest

"The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you've got to have a what-the-hell attitude."
— Julia Child

“Perfect Baking,” “As Easy as Pie,” and “How to be a Domestic Goddess” are titles of just a few of the baking and dessert books I have on my bookshelf.

These authors have very good intentions – I truly believe that they want me to be a domestic goddess. But the truth is that baking, unlike other aspects of cooking, is a very exact science. A pinch of this and a smidge of that doesn’t work that well when you are making something as perilous as a three-layer cake with a Swiss meringue buttercream frosting and fondant decorations. There isn’t much room for error.

But I confess that one of the things I enjoy about baking is the experimentation. So I don’t really mind these baking failures. I always keep in mind that we owe the very versatile puff pastry dough to a baker who forgot to put butter in their dough then tried to roll it in after the fact.

No one likes to talk about his or her failures in life. But in baking, that final spectacular product is often preceded by many many failures. And even a recipe that has been made hundreds of times before can fail.

Fortunately, in most cases, those failures are edible.

I typically try a recipe two or three times before I debut it at a dinner party or family gathering or before I try to change an ingredient in the original recipe.

But sometimes I’m tempted to try a recipe before I test it. I have found out the hard way that sometimes the seemingly easiest recipes are the hardest to perfect.

I vividly remember the simple chocolate cake with a buttercream icing I made for a dinner party. I hadn’t bothered to test the recipe -- I had made similar recipes many times. And this cake looked pretty good when I took it out of the oven. But after a few minutes, I watched in horror as the middle of the cake sunk. I now had a nice little dip in my beautiful cake. And no time to make another one before the guests arrived.

Being an avid wearer of makeup, I knew a little concealer was called for to camouflage my blemish. I made the buttercream icing and iced that cake anyway. I built up the icing over the dip, put the cake on a pretty platter and no one was the wiser. Of course, I made certain to take the cake to the kitchen to slice it. I very neatly sliced around the middle of the cake.

Each baking disaster teaches me something that I can use next time. Sure I’ve learned to measure correctly, have ingredients at the right temperature, have the right equipment for the job but surprisingly, one of the most important factors in successful baking is to check the weather first. A cold kitchen can make your bread decide not to rise and high humidity can cause havoc with meringue.

My husband writes a popular hamburger blog. Recently, he decided that he would like to include a posting about how to make your own hamburgers from scratch. For him, this means to grind your own sirloin and make your own hamburger buns and sauce. He had been pestering me to create a hamburger bun for him.

I usually would try several recipes first before I settled on a favorite one but he had already bought the meat and wanted to make the burgers that night. How hard could it be I thought? A little yeast and flour thrown together and I would make him the best hamburger bun he ever consumed. After all, I know how to make croissants; hamburger buns would be a walk in the park by comparison.

My baking prowess would soon be on display for all to see on hoosierburgerboy.com

Last summer in the annual BBQ issue of Gourmet Magazine, a recipe for hamburger buns was featured. It was first published in the magazine in 2002 and it was a favorite of the editors. But in my mind what made it a special recipe was that the creator of the recipe is from the same small town where I grew up in Indiana. I had torn it out and saved it but hadn’t yet tried it.

I carefully made the dough and set it in a bowl to rise on the stove. The yeast did its job and the dough doubled in size. I then shaped the dough into buns and covered them for their final rise.

They looked good until I took the cover off to put them in the oven. The dough was so sticky it was like gum on a shoe. The dough stuck to the plastic wrap.

Blog fame would not be mine that night.

I started researching possible hamburger bun recipes to try next. I decided that I needed a sturdy bun that wasn’t too bready -- one that didn’t overwhelm the burger but still melded well with the cheese, meat and condiments and sauce.

Also on my wish list was a bun that wouldn’t take all day to make -- ideally one that had only one rise instead of the typical two. The above recipe took more than five hours from start to finished bun. It would be great to find one that I could make on the spur (almost) of the moment – whenever the burger whim hit which at our house was quite often.

Many of the recipes I encountered were brioche dough but I didn’t want a hamburger bun that was that rich; the bun needed to be the supporting player and not the main attraction.

Then I happened upon a recipe from allrecipes.com. The recipe called for instant yeast so the time to finished product would be quick and it wasn’t heavy on the butter but was more of a dinner roll.

From start to finish the recipe took only about 1.5 hours. Not bad! I made each dough ball about 3 oz. The bun was light and didn’t detract from the hamburger. I tried it several more times -- eventually increasing to about 4 oz for the perfect size.

This recipe has now become a favorite – we also use it for turkey cheddar burgers and rosemary Portobello mushroom burgers that are both a nice break from beef.

As Ray Kroc, creator of the McDonald’s franchise noted, “It requires a certain kind of mind to see beauty in a hamburger bun.”

I take that as a compliment.

The latest Gourmet Magazine annual BBQ issue (June 2009) features yet another hamburger bun recipe but I’ve decided not to be tempted – I have plenty of other uses for those four hours.

So while I haven’t made any major discoveries like puff pastry yet, my experimentation has led to some signature desserts and baked goods that are requested over and over again by friends and family.

In fact, I find the more I mess up, the more I learn. And there lies the trick to being a good baker.

So, there are actual times when I made that pie to die for that I felt like the perfect baker, a true domestic goddess.

No comments:

Post a Comment