South Berwick’s expert cook reins in her rebel side — a little

When I attended the Cordon Bleu School of Cookery in London in the late 1970s, I learned the foundations of French cuisine. But even as Ms. Cadbury was teaching us the proper way to fold butter into puff pastry and the technique for making silky béarnaise sauce, I made a silent vow to myself: I would follow the rules, and then I would break them. I would be a jazz musician, riffing on the classics, creating my own dissonant, experimental compositions in the kitchen. And for years, that has been my approach to cooking.

For the most part, it has worked. Except for when I bake.

I’ve always believed that great bakers are good at following rules. And so, for someone who prides herself on being a bit of a rebel – in the kitchen and out – baking has been a challenge. Being a really good baker requires understanding what makes bread dough rise and why some cakes are light and fluffy, and that is a matter of working within the lines. Isn’t it?

Then, a few years ago, I was asked to judge a prestigious cookbook competition – in the baking category. I tried to decline, explaining what an honor it was but telling the organizers that they had picked the wrong person for the job. I lobbied to switch categories. “Why would you want someone who isn’t proficient in a subject to judge the experts?” I asked.

“Think of it as a challenge,” the head judge said. “Call me if you get into trouble.”

Within a week, I had three enormous boxes of books: close to 50 devoted to cakes, cookies, pies, French pastry, ice cream sandwiches and more. I tucked myself into bed each night with a dozen or so titles and made my way through the pile. Eventually, as instructed, I narrowed the field to the five that made me believe I could become a better baker.

Then came the scary step. I needed to test two or three recipes from my top choices. Because this was baking, I would have to follow the recipes to the letter. And that was going to be tough.

No more eyeballing it

I spent 10 days testing recipes: baking pies and fancy pastry, icing cakes and generally feeling bad about myself. Honestly, who likes spending time doing something they’re not good at? I started having nightmares about my tyrannical fifth-grade math teacher, who insisted we write all our math equations in ink.

Instead of calling my therapist, I dug in deeper. I started weighing everything, and I learned there was a big difference between what I called 1 1/2 packed cups of brown sugar and the generally accepted 330 grams that 1 1/2 cups of packed brown sugar is supposed to weigh. Expert bakers could have predicted that: My eyeball-it approach was a big part of the problem. When I scooped out 1 cup of flour that should have weighed 128 grams, my scale showed close to a 20-gram discrepancy. When I actually measured the spices called for in a gingerbread cake, I was amazed: My practice of filling the spice cap up to what I’d assumed was 1/2 teaspoon was way off.

I had a major aha! moment. From then on, when a recipe told me to take the eggs or butter out of the refrigerator an hour before I used them, I did what I was told. If a recipe called for a 9-inch cake pan, that’s what I used. If it said to whip eggs and sugar at high speed in a mixer for a full 10 minutes, until light and fluffy, I didn’t call it quits after five. I was a soldier, following the commands of my superior. I didn’t cut a single corner or question the requirements.

My first (typically rushed) attempt to make French tuilles (delicate, buttery cookies that resemble the roof tiles on French houses) resulted in cookies too fragile to hold their shape. But when I retested them, measuring the ingredients and nailing every detail, they came out perfectly. Every failure led to deeper inquiry. I looked through each book for answers. The books that made the cut answered my questions about what to do if the dough fell apart when you rolled it out, or if the cake didn’t rise properly, or if the crème anglaise separated.

When my three-layer chocolate cake with mocha-chocolate buttercream came out looking like it could be sold in a real bakery (or at least would be the first thing to go at a bake sale), I felt victorious. I’d gone into the experiment kicking and screaming, and many cakes, cookies, puddings and pastries later, I’d emerged a much better baker.

A crash course pays off

Then, one fall, several months after I judged the competition, a friend brought me a basket of apples from her orchard. Time to make a pie. I didn’t want to follow someone else’s recipe. I wanted to try something different, something I could call my own. I also didn’t want to slip back into my old sloppy baking behavior. For the crust, I decided to substitute nut flour for half of the wheat flour.

I whirled the flours with butter and ice water, and it became a wet, sticky mess. But something told me to forge ahead: I placed the dough in plastic wrap and chilled it for several hours. It was way moister than what I was used to, and when I tried to roll it out, it was almost impossible to work with. So I draped it into a French tart pan with a removable bottom, pressing it together like a kid molding Play Doh.

I peeled the apples and tossed them with brown sugar, ground ginger and cinnamon, then overlapped the fruit slices. It was pretty, but it looked dry. So I boiled down apple cider with ground ginger and a touch of cinnamon. I waited until it was almost thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. I poured that glaze over the apples and placed it in the hot oven, and soon the kitchen smelled like some kind of autumnal fantasy. The tart was a perfect balance of nutty crust, juicy, sweet apples and fragrant spices.

At Thanksgiving, when my youngest daughter asked for pumpkin cheesecake, I went a little off-script again. I studied several recipes and made a plan: Rather than blend pumpkin puree into a cream-cheese base, I swirled it in by the tablespoon. I was patient in the baking, nestling the cake in a water bath for its oven time and letting it rest and cool before refrigerating. The rewards were huge: a perfectly creamy, smooth-topped cheesecake with a stunning marbled effect.

A biscuit epiphany

Another revelation came this past Valentine’s Day, when I planned to serve my husband a chocolate dessert. I used the same nut pastry I had discovered when baking the apple tart and filled it with a simple dark chocolate batter. Feeling the need to be creative without veering off-course too wildly, I sprinkled coarse sea salt and toasted unsweetened coconut on top of the still-warm tart. The white flakes set against the dark chocolate tart looked, and tasted, pretty impressive.

This spring, when I visited San Francisco, the season’s first locally grown strawberries appeared at the farmers market. I wanted to bake fluffy biscuits that would showcase them, and I kept fantasizing that Mary Berry of “The Great British Baking Show,” in her clipped British voice, would taste them and say: “Nice bake! Very nice bake, indeed.” In the past, my biscuits have fallen . . . short. I didn’t have my baking books with me at the time, but I remembered that one had advised folding finished dough over itself several times to create layers. That’s what I did, without overworking it, and the results were light, layered and truly spectacular. (A ginger butter took them right over the top.)

The winning baking books from the competition now line my shelves. When I pull them out to bake, I feel a weird sense of pride, as if I wrote them myself. During my two weeks as a full-time “baker,” I gained a few pounds and got jazzed up on sugar. But I also learned that if you follow the rules and understand why they are there, you can go ahead and start to break them, a little at a time. My crash course in baking taught me plenty of techniques, and it taught me a few things about myself: namely, that I needn’t fight my urge to experiment. I just needed to learn how to do it right.

Even a rebel, it turns out, is capable of restraint.


 The Washington Post

Buttermilk biscuits with double ginger butter

10 to 12 servings
These biscuits are light and fluffy and delicious served warm right out of the oven with the double ginger butter (double because the butter is mixed with chopped bits of crystallized ginger and ground ginger). They are sized right for serving at breakfast, with tea or as a light dessert. And they would be ideal cut open and filled with vanilla-scented whipped cream or crème fraîche and fresh, thinly sliced strawberries.
Two tricks with the recipe: The first is that the butter is grated (using the widest opening on a box grater, the one usually used for grating hard cheese), which allows its fat to be incorporated into the flour mixture very easily. The second involves folding the dough over several times to create flaky layers and height.
If you really love ginger, you can add a touch of ground ginger to the biscuit dough. You’ll need a 2-inch biscuit cutter.
The butter is delicious on pancakes, French toast, muffins and plain old toast.
Serve with jam or honey, in addition to the ginger butter.

MAKE AHEAD: The cut-out biscuit dough needs to freeze for a least 1 hour and up to overnight. The butter can be made a day in advance; cover and refrigerate until ready to serve; bring it to room temperature before serving.
From Maine cookbook author Kathy Gunst, who is a resident chef on NPR’s “Here and Now.”

For the biscuits
2 cups (240 grams) all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling
1 cup (120 grams) cake flour
1 tablespoon plus 3/4 teaspoon (17 grams) baking powder
1½ tablespoons (12 grams) sugar
½ teaspoon (2 ½ grams) ground ginger (optional)
1 teaspoon (5 grams) sea salt
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) chilled unsalted butter
3/4 cup cold regular or low-fat buttermilk, or more as needed
For the ginger butter
6 tablespoons unsalted butter (3 ounces), at room temperature
3 tablespoons (24 grams) finely chopped crystallized ginger
Generous pinch ground ginger (about 1/8 teaspoon)
Pinch coarse sea salt
For the biscuits: Whisk together the all-purpose and cake flours, baking powder, sugar, ground ginger, if using, and salt in a large bowl.
Use the widest opening on a box grater to grate the butter into the flour mixture, adding it a bit at a time and gently mixing it into the flour so it doesn’t clump up. Use your hands to make sure the butter is fully incorporated into the flour. Add the buttermilk; use a flexible spatula to mix until the dough holds together. If the mixture’s still too crumbly, add up to 2 more tablespoons of buttermilk.
Lightly flour a rolling pin and a clean work surface. Transfer the dough there; use a light touch to shape it into a rectangle, then pull the far end of the rectangle up toward you and fold the dough over in half. Press down on the dough and repeat this step 6 more times.
Roll out the folded dough to a 1-inch thickness. Use the biscuit cutter to form a total of 10 to 12 biscuits; you can reroll the dough once, but you might notice less height on those rerolled biscuits after baking. Place the biscuits on a baking sheet.
Cover the biscuits with plastic wrap; freeze for 1 hour or up to overnight.
Meanwhile, make the ginger butter: Use a flexible spatula to further soften the butter. Add the crystallized ginger, ground ginger and salt, stirring until the ginger is fully incorporated. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use; bring to room temperature before serving.
When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone liner.
Bake the biscuits (straight from the freezer, unwrapped; middle rack) for 12 minutes, then reduce the oven temperature to 375 degrees and bake for 8 minutes or until the tops are golden brown.
Serve hot.
Nutrition | Per serving (based on 12, using low-fat buttermilk): 230 calories, 4 g protein, 28 g carbohydrates, 12 g fat, 7 g saturated fat, 30 mg cholesterol, 230 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 3 g sugar

Chocolate tart with sea salt and toasted coconut
8 to 10 servings
You might say this tart combines several popular flavors. The pastry is made from almond flour and all-purpose flour and is very buttery and crisp. The filling is like a chocolate mousse: good bittersweet chocolate, cream, eggs, vanilla and sea salt. It’s topped with toasted coconut flakes and more sea salt. The tart filling has no sugar; it’s all about honoring the chocolate and the balance of the salt.
Cookbook author Kathy Gunst likes to make the pastry dough by hand, but you can use a food processor. If you serve the tart the day you bake it, it’s like chocolate pie. But if you refrigerate it overnight, the filling becomes dense and almost fudgy. It’s delicious either way.
You will need an 8-inch round tart pan with a removable bottom.

MAKE AHEAD: The pastry dough needs to rest in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour. Plan on letting the tart cool for at least 1 hour, or cover and refrigerate it for up to 12 hours.
From Maine cookbook author Kathy Gunst, who is a resident chef on NPR’s “Here and Now.”
For the crust and topping
1 cup (120 grams) all-purpose flour
½ cup (60 grams) almond flour
Pinch sea salt, plus more for sprinkling
2 tablespoons (28 grams) sugar
12 tablespoons (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, well chilled, cut into small pieces
About 1/4 cup ice-cold water, or as needed
1/3 cup (20 grams) unsweetened flaked coconut
For the filling
1½ cups heavy cream
9 ounces (255 grams) bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped (may substitute 5 ounces 65 percent bittersweet chocolate plus 4 ounces milk chocolate)
2 large eggs
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
½  teaspoon (3 grams) good sea salt
For the crust and topping: Whisk together the all-purpose and almond flours, the salt and sugar in a large bowl. Add the butter; use your hands and a light touch, work the butter into the flours until it resembles coarse cornmeal. Add a few tablespoons of water and mix, using a soft spatula or wooden spoon, until the mixture just comes together. Add more water as needed, using only enough to keep the dough together.
(Alternatively, pulse the flours, salt and sugar in a food processor just until blended. Add the butter and pulse about 15 times, until the mixture resembles coarse cornmeal. Add only enough water so that the dough begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl.)
Place the dough in a sheet of plastic wrap and form it into a ball. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up to overnight.
Unwrap the dough and roll it out on a clean work surface into a 10-inch round. Drape the dough into the tart pan, covering the bottom and up the sides of the pan; trim the edges (you’ll have scraps left over), but make sure there’s enough to fit just over the rim. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 20 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Remove the tart shell from the refrigerator; use a fork to dock the pastry in several spots. (This will keep the pastry from puffing up.) Place the tart pan on a baking sheet; bake (middle rack) for 10 minutes, then let it cool on a rack for 10 minutes. Keep the oven on; spread the coconut on the baking sheet and bake for about 5 minutes, watching closely, until the coconut begins to turn golden brown. Let cool; keep the oven on.
For the filling: Heat the cream in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat until it is gently bubbling at the edges.
Place the chocolate in a large mixing bowl. Pour the hot cream on top and stir steadily until the chocolate is completely melted and the mixture is smooth.
Whisk together the eggs, vanilla extract and ½ teaspoon of sea salt in a separate mixing bowl until frothy. Add the egg mixture to the chocolate mixture and stir until fully incorporated and smooth. Pour the filling into the cooled crust and bake (middle rack) for 25 to 28 minutes. To test for doneness, gently shake the tart; if the middle wobbles just a little (and still appears undercooked) but the sides seem solid, it is done. The tart will continue to cook once it’s removed from the oven, and it will firm up when cooling.
While the tart is still warm, sprinkle it with the coconut and about ½ teaspoon of the coarse sea salt; press the salt and coconut very gently into the tart to make sure they adhere. Let the tart cool for 1 hour before serving, or refrigerate (see headnote).
Nutrition | Per serving (based on 10): 380 calories, 5 g protein, 24 g carbohydrates, 32 g fat, 19 g saturated fat, 105 mg cholesterol, 150 mg sodium, 3 g dietary fiber, 14 g sugar

Editor’s note

Kathy Gunst is the author of 14 cookbooks, including “Notes From a Maine Kitchen” (Down East, 2011), and is the resident chef on NPR’s “Here and Now.”

8 baking tips for cooks who think they can’t bake

• Read through recipes thoroughly before starting. Does the dough need to rest in the refrigerator overnight? Do the strawberries need to macerate in the sugar for an hour? Plan your time accordingly.

•  If you want to get wildly creative with a recipe, first try to understand the technique behind it. Consult a few other recipes for the same dish, and see what ingredients and techniques they share. Think about why you are changing an ingredient and what the consequences might be.

•  Try to change only one ingredient at a time. If a recipe calls for lemon zest, it’s okay to substitute orange zest. But don’t try to change three or four ingredients at a time, or you may throw off the science. You need to understand what’s at play – how the ingredients interact – before you can start messing with them.

•  A kitchen scale is your friend. To measure out ingredients precisely, weigh them. A small kitchen scale is inexpensive and can make a world of difference. Many American cookbooks, particularly baking books, now offer measurements in ounces and in grams.

•  Measure out all the ingredients in advance and set them in small bowls. If you lose focus, or if the phone rings, you’ll see which ingredients you’ve already added and won’t duplicate or mess up.

•  Make sure your oven temperature is accurate. You can buy an inexpensive oven thermometer to make sure you’re on the mark. If you’re not, adjust the oven to compensate – or, if it’s way off, consider getting the oven professionally calibrated.

• Be patient. Baking takes time, and cakes and tarts often need to cool before you can get to the next step. Don’t try to take shortcuts; that leads to trouble.

Have fun. Be willing to “fail.” After all, it’s only sugar and butter and flour. Even the flops taste good.

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