The Oopsie

One of the biggest divisions between baking and cooking is improvisation. Many chefs & cooks complain that they don’t like to bake because the recipes are too rigid, and improvisation is limited to nonexistent. Cooking allows for constant adjustment – seasoning, temperature, ingredients – whereas baking does not. In some ways, this is true. Bread is only going to rise if you have a rising agent (or a chemical reaction engineered to create rise) and some kind of flour to hold the structure of the bread as the gas expands. Too much fat, and the bread will be too heavy. Too much raising agent and the bread will blow out and become a stringy mess. Too much kneading and the gluten tightens up too much, making the bread heavy and flat. Not enough kneading and the gluten doesn’t stretch to allow gas bubbles to raise the bread. Too much butter in your frosting will cause it to split and curdle; not enough will make the buttercream too liquid to spread and shape. And in most cases, once you commit to putting something in the oven, you cannot adjust for mistakes. Baking is careful, measured, and recipe dependent. Baking is literally chemistry. And chemistry is finicky.

I love baking because it is chemistry. I love the idea that the baking soda and acid you used to make your fourth grade science fair volcano is also what makes cookies puff up. I love that byproduct of wild microorganisms eating sugar is carbon dioxide, which gives bread its rise and delicious crumb full of holes. But sometimes that chemistry seems to ensure that mistakes can and will be made. And sometimes one wrong step can ruin an entire recipe. I hate wasting food, and ingredients, but sometimes it can’t be helped. There are issues of safety when working with eggs and raw dough. There are issues of edibility when flavors are wrong or the wrong ingredient was used (salt for sugar, anyone?). The more I bake, the more I learn to anticipate and prepare for problems to avoid incontrovertible mistakes. But sometimes, there is nothing to be done.

Right now, I’m waiting to see if some challah dough is going to work out, as I accidentally added a stick of butter to the already egged and oiled dough when my eyes skipped over from the challah instructions to a panettone recipe. Oopsie! So far, it seems to be rising, but we’ll see. I’ll only know if it works or fails once it begins to bake. You can have happy accidents in baking, just like in cooking. They’re just a lot more rare because you can’t change it once it has happened. There is no adding salt or acid, to sweetening or diluting flavor once something is cooked. You can’t just throw the cake back in the oven for a bit and hope it comes together. Once a mistake is made, you have a choice. Lean in and hope for the best, or throw it out and start again. Fingers crossed, after leaning into this challah-butter mistake, something at least edible emerges. So tonight, it’ll either be this amazing brioche/challah hybrid, or an oily hockey puck. Fingers crossed for deliciousness…