recise I am not. Nor do I like following recipes. I prefer a little room to play. This is why I like to cook but have never been much of a baker. As a few chefs have told me, you cook with your eyes (all’occhio). There are guidelines, but they can bend to individual taste. You can adjust a dish as it evolves — a drop more tomato sauce here, an extra pinch of salt there.
This is not the case in baking.
Baking has a definite finality to it. You can’t go back and add a little extra sugar or a pat of butter once a cake is in the oven. If you make a mistake it’s back to square one.
Bread-making is even more mysterious. You add a living ingredient, yeast, that alters the chemical make-up of the dough, aligning gluten molecules to give you a lighter loaf. Once this active ingredient has done it’s work, often over the course of a day or two, the transformed dough is ready. Ready to be taken out of its creator’s hands as he hopes all the proportions are right.
All this said, I’ve taken up baking and a little pastry-making as a winter hobby. I’ve even followed a few recipes. Since my only goal has been getting over the baking hump, there’s been little order to my attempts. I’ve made cakes, cookies, crème caramel, crème brûlée and various breads.
Among the first things I had to wrap my mind around were many forms of flour. It turns out that flour’s protein content determines what it should be used for. Protein establishes the amount of gluten, which, in turn determines elasticity.
In bread, you want a level of chewiness that’s undesirable in a cake, which should have more crumble to it. Bread begs more protein. Whole-wheat flour () has the highest protein content (12-to-14 percent), all-purpose flour (tipo 0) has between 10-to-12 percent, while protein in pastry flour (tipo 00) comes in at between seven and nine percent.
With this basic knowledge of flour I started playing with bread recipes. It started with a whole-wheat loaf, which came out crispy on the outside and chewy in the middle. After came pizza bianca with all-purpose flour, and then a mixture of wheat and all-purpose for a weightier focaccia.
After a few weeks of different breads I ventured to desserts, starting with cakes based on a recipe I learned from my work at Pierluigi restaurant in Rome. The first version, with apples, cinnamon and vanilla, actually tasted better cold the next day, and was perfect for an afternoon snack. Round two, and the winner in my book, used pear, chocolate and a splash of rum.
My confidence up after the success of the cakes, I felt ready for something a little more demanding. I had seen, and helped make, crème caramel at Pierluigi a handful of times, but had avoided making it at home. The process involves two discrete parts, the cream and the caramel. First the cream.
It starts with milk, sugar, vanilla, cognac and lemon peel simmering for 10-15 minutes. You then strain this a few times to get rid of any bits of lemon or other impurities, and then comes the first complicated step. While the mixture is still hot you combine it with egg yolks. As you do this you need to stir vigorously so that they eggs don’t cook immediately. If they do, you’re toast, well, scrambled.
If you manage to combine all the ingredients, you then carefully pour the mixture into ramekins, which are placed in a large pan full of water. The water bath, known as a bain-marie, ensures even cooking at precisely 100C (212F) so that a crust does not form on the outside of the ramekins.
After cooking them for about an hour, until they firm up, remove the pan from the oven and the ramekins from the water and let them cool at room temperature. Once they cool you’re ready for the caramel. If you have a cooking torch, sprinkle some sugar on top and go at it. I don’t have a torch, so needed to make real caramel.
Making caramel is a bit of a risky procedure — risky for two reasons. First it’s easy to overcook, and second, liquid caramel is incredibly hot (310F;155C) and can cause nasty burns. That said, it’s not extremely complicated.
Put about a cup of sugar and a small splash of hot water in a pan over high heat. Keep an eye on the mixture and stir only occasionally. First the edges of the pile of sugar will start to bubble and liquefy. Next it will become very clumpy until it slowly smoothes out into a very bubbly, viscous mixture.
At this point you want to stir a little more frequently and keep an even closer eye on it. As soon as the color starts to change from white to amber keep your nose close to the pan. It’s done just before it smells burnt.
I missed that point on the first two attempts, but the third time was a charm. While still piping hot, spoon the caramel on top of each ramekin, rotate around to spread evenly and let them cool. In an hour or so the caramel is hard as a rock and smooth as a piece of glass.
After a few months this all feels like less of a mystery, but certainly not something I’m entirely comfortable with. Maybe once I memorize a few more of these recipes and don’t have to keep going back to my notes I’ll feel a little more at home.
Pear Chocolate Rum Cake
- 300 g pastry flour (tipo 00), plus extra for dusting pan.
- 300 g sugar.
- 300 g butter, melted.
- 4 medium pears, peeled.
- 1/2 cup dark rum.
- 100 g cocoa powder.
- 1 packet vanilla yeast.
- Cane sugar.
- Confectioners’ sugar.
- Butter to dust pan.
- Mix butter and sugar well with a whisk in a large bowl.
- Add flour and mix gently, first folding with plastics spatula or wooden spoon and then with whisk to remove any clumps.
- Grate 2 pears with the largest setting on a cheese grater.
- Add grated pear, rum, cocoa powder and vanilla yeast to bowl and mix well with spoon.
- Coat round cake tin with butter and sprinkle with flour, covering it entirely.
- Pour in batter and spread evenly, being careful not to touch the sides of the tin.
- Slice other two pears thinly and arrange on top of cake in a ring around the edge.
- Dust with cane sugar and bake for 40-45 minutes at 165C (330F).
- Remove and let cool for a few minutes.
- Take a plate at least as big as the cake and place it on top of the tin. Flip it over so the cake comes out on to the plate. Take a second plate and put it where the tin was, flip once more to get the cake back to its original position, with pears slices on top.
- Sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar and serve.