Today I am introducing a guest blogger named Sarah. I hope you enjoy her style and her world-view as much as I do. She will be writing on this site on Mondays as she prepares to start her own site.
Hi, I’m Sarah. I’m a writer, teacher, and digital marketer with a background in Journalism. I enjoy writing about food, travel, and French language and culture.
Baking vs Cooking
Growing up, I loved to bake. It started with every holiday season when my Mom would let my sister and I take turns adding different ingredients (the Nestle chocolate chips, the butter, even the flour) to the pearly white KitchenAid mixer for batches of festive cookies. We’d spend the afternoon baking sugar cookies we rolled with a wooden rolling pin, chocolate chip cookies we dropped in spoonfuls onto shiny cookie sheets, and gingerbread men we dusted with powdered sugar. The powdered sugar and the flour covered our faces and most of the kitchen by the end of the day, and I usually felt sick from sneaking raw cookie dough when Mom wasn’t looking, but it was one day that I looked forward to every year.
Years later, I signed up for Baking 101 as a freshman in high school. The teacher divided us into groups of four, and each week we tackled a different recipe. We baked quick bread, snickerdoodle cookies, and even an ice cream pie with graham cracker crust.
“Baking is a science,” the teacher would tell us. I learned that I had to add the ingredients exactly as the recipe stated, in the exact order that the recipe stated, or else I was gambling with the chance of dough that didn’t rise, or cookies that tasted like baking powder, or bread that was soggy in the middle no matter how long you baked it.
For years after that high school Baking 101 class, I continued to bake because I loved the reliability of it. As long as I followed the recipe and used exactly the amount of and types of ingredients that the recipe stated, I’d get the same result.
A few years after college, when I lived on my own and was getting tired of pre-made, frozen dinner entrees, Kraft Easy Mac, or canned tuna with mayo as my staple dinner options, I started cooking. This was scary at first, because it involved new tools, like a peeler, and a grater, and a seemingly endless inventory of ingredients outside of the one baking aisle that most grocery stores contain. And I didn’t have to follow the recipe, which was also kind of scary, because how would I know what the result would be?
“Cooking is about feel,” my brother-in-law once told me. OK, I thought, so if I feel like dumping a tablespoon of crushed red pepper flakes into taco meat I can? Yes, I learned, but I had to like the result and actually want to eat it.
I recently went back to baking, and realized how much I’ve strayed from the science of it. In cooking, if something doesn’t taste right, I can add a pinch of a spice or seasoning and usually correct it. More importantly, I don’t have to mix ingredients exactly as the recipe states, or add them in the exact order that the recipe states, in order for the dish to turn out as edible and enjoyable.
Pies Can Cry
It was for a holiday potluck that I decided to briefly return to baking. And wow, the return was brief. I decided to bake a key lime meringue pie, which I’d never baked before. I wasn’t intimidated, but I realize now that this is because I was approaching the recipe with a cooking mentality. More feeling, less science.
Ironically, it was the “more feeling” that was the reason my pie was a complete disaster. The meringue was weeping. Yes, this is actually something that can happen to pies. Pies can cry.
The recipe called for adding boiling water, butter, and egg yolk to pre-made key lime filling, filling a pre-made graham cracker crust, topping it with meringue, and baking it until the meringue turns golden brown. It offered a pretty easy return to baking, I thought. The meringue was optional, and it didn’t look very complicated. However, I had no idea how temperamental meringue is.
Meringue is made with egg whites and granulated sugar. You beat the egg whites into the granulated sugar until the mixture starts to form soft peaks throughout.
So, I followed these instructions.
Those look like soft peaks – yay!
It tastes good – yay!
And popped the pie into the oven.
It looks like meringue! I looked at the golden brown bubbles that formed points at the top and thought I’d done a pretty spectacular job.
The Meringue Travesty
When I placed the pie on the stovetop to cool, clear liquid oozed out of the top. I wrote is off as part of the pie filling still setting and let the pie cool. It did seem odd because there was no water in the meringue, yet the clear liquid, similar to water, seemed to be coming from the meringue.
I Googled “water in meringue” and the search results returned an overwhelming diagnosis that my pie was “weeping.” One comment suggested that I let it cool for longer, but didn’t promise this was a resolution. In fact, none of the posts and comments offered any resolution. And none of them offered any clear reason for the weeping in the first place.
You could have beat the mixture for too long, one comment said. The eggs could have been old, another comment said. Maybe you didn’t beat the mixture enough, yet another comment said.
I let it cool for longer and hoped this would do the trick, then handed the pie to my boyfriend, instructed him to hold it level on his lap during the car ride, and off we went to the holiday potluck.
We made it 5 minutes down the road before he looked incredulous, and was covered in a watery liquid that seemed to come from no where within the pie.
We pulled over, and tossed the soggy, weeping dessert into a public trashcan.
I think I’ll stick to cooking.