You know how people say “you’re either a baker or a cook, but not both?” I beg to differ. People tend to know me for my cookies, because I give them away in greatest variety (I give an assortment of a dozen or so varieties to coworkers at the holidays, in addition to offering them as hostess gifts), but I very much enjoy other kinds of cooking.
When I bake, I have a healthy respect for measuring. But I think there’s more room for improvisation there than most people seem to, and it usually works out okay for me. When I cook, I’m very improvisational, and often that’s good, but it occasionally comes back to bite me. I have to sit down and be a real stickler to cook rice. It makes me crazy. I mostly boycott rice, as a result. I’ve had to get more exacting about temperatures and cooking times of a lot of things, over the years, to be a more consistent cook.
I used to feel like the thing that would challenge my cooking skills was pie crust, but when I sat down and focused on it, I have a decent recipe for traditional pie crust, and I like some variations— I make a mean puff pastry, thanks to Julia Child’s Baking with Julia and I’ve done coconut meringue tart crusts and cookie crusts to great effect. I’m fairly confident in what I can do with a pie crust, these days.
Now, I feel like the challenge is yeast breads. I’ve long made quick-breads and used buttermilk and other simple leavening agents (baking soda, baking powder, egg), but I’ve been more hesitant when it has come to yeast breads. Several weeks ago, I ran across an article that said you could use a Dutch oven to bake bread. I love my Dutch oven, use it constantly, and was intrigued, so I found a very simple recipe and tried it.
In terms of ease of execution and beauty, this recipe is a winner! Texture and consistency-wise, it was great. A total win. Flavor-wise, it’s on the bland side. It was great for the meal I served it with (spicy Italian sausage pasta sauce over spaghetti squash), but it needed something to give it flavor— sharp cheese or something, because on its own it was very blah.
This in itself is huge progress for me. I used to want to make each part of a meal stand out, and over the years, I’ve learned more about harmonizing a recipe. A simple bread with a spicy, flavorful sauce? Harmony. A complex, heavily flavored bread would compete. This is not a concept that was easy for me to wrap my hard little head around.
But I find myself thinking a lot about how to improve that recipe. More salt, for sure, but also… what? Maybe herbs and cheese, or who knows?
I’m a huge fan of sourdough, so I’m thinking of making my own sourdough starter. I’ve found a recipe I’m planning to try soon (I made green chile cornbread muffins this week with chili con carne, so I’m trying to pace myself and have something that I could bake and serve with dinner on Monday.) I may make it a habit, for awhile, to bake a bread once a week, while this is still something that interests and challenges me (or at least until I use up the two remaining packets of long-expired yeast.) I’ll keep you posted.
In the meanwhile, if you have ideas of things I should try to make my bland but otherwise perfect bread more flavorful, send ’em over! I’d love to find something that can be a go-to recipe. Bland but pretty isn’t likely to make it into heavy rotation.