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.
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.
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.
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.
Gunst, who lives in South Berwick, Maine, 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.”