Baking can no doubt be complicated. If you are impatient and refuse to let eggs and dairy come to room temperature before mixing, your cake batter can curdle. You can set off the smoke detector trying to caramelize sugar. But really the worst thing you could possibly do is mistake salt for sugar, and that only seems to happen in movies to illustrate how unsuitable a woman would be as a wife and mother. If it happens in real life, just shrug it off and declare that you weren’t making cupcakes anyway — you were making adorable, portable weapons.
Baking is mostly forgiving. Frosting beautifully disguises a cake that didn’t rise evenly. Ugly piecrust can be covered with ice cream and no one will complain. Even failures like, “Oh crap, I forgot to add the sugar to the bread pudding” (which, yes, I have done) can be rescued with a caramel sauce. Just use a lot of it.
But still, they insist. Abigail Johnson Dodge lays it out in the introduction to The Weekend Baker: Baking is very hard and time consuming. She relates the story of “Doug,” a man who turned to her for help with a dinner party: “I don’t get home until 6:00. How am I ever going to make the dessert, much less dinner for six, by 8 p.m.?” She should tell Doug that he needs to learn not to hold dinner parties on work nights, or that he could easily pick up a pie at the bakery. Instead she goes into a spiel about breaking the dessert recipe into sections and spreading the process out over three days. This is the theme of her cookbook: unnecessary shortcuts, and taking days to complete a pretty straightforward dessert.
Her shortcuts are of the puff pastry variety, and there is a lot of frozen puff pastry in The Weekend Baker. I usually keep puff pastry in my freezer for those dinners when a wine glass falls into the dessert and shatters into a million pieces (which, yes, has happened). Puff pastry + frozen mixed berries from Trader Joe’s + sugar + whipped cream = dessert! But at some point someone decided that puff pastry and pastry crust are interchangeable. They are not. Puff pastry screws with the ideal ratio of crust to filling, it does not hold up to wet ingredients, and it tastes like something you pulled out of your freezer. If you’re going to go with something frozen, you might as well use Pillsbury piecrust. It’s not as dramatic looking, but at least your tart will still be a tart.
So Dodge’s tarts (fruit + sugar + puff pastry) are fine and they take about five minutes to make. Homemade pastry crust freaks people out, and for good reason. It’s quick, but it can go so, so wrong. But if you’re scared of pastry crust, why not just make a crumble with an oat topping instead? Dodge has a recipe for that, too. This shortcut saves all of one minute by using granola instead of a regular oat topping. And you know what? It tastes like she baked some fruit and dumped some store-bought granola on top, because granola and oat topping have a different texture.
I am not against cutting corners if it actually saves time and the alteration is appropriate for the recipe. But Dodge creates drama where none exists. The truth is, cookies, cakes, crumbles, and even custards are all very simple. Any kid can do it. Just open up the Betty Crocker cookbook that you first learned to cook from, pages all stuck together and smeared with peanut butter and chocolate, and the recipes there will be as stress-free and quick as anything in The Weekend Baker.
(In the recipe below, which was a little dull, I tried it again using blueberries tossed with a little sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg. It was an improvement.) • 20 August 2008
| Blueberries or blackberries work, too.
Bursting with Raspberries Bread Pudding
From The Weekend Baker
1 medium day-old loaf of bread
4 large eggs, plus two egg yolks
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 cups half-and-half
1 cup raspberries, blueberries, or blackberries
Lightly grease an 8-inch square baking dish. Remove the ends and bottom crust from the bread. Cut into 3/4-inch cubes until you yield 5 cups. Spread bread cubes evenly into dish.
In a medium bowl, whisk eggs, yolks, brown sugar, vanilla, lemon zest, and salt until well blended. Add half-and-half and whisk until combined. Pour over the bread cubes. Make sure the cubes are well coated, and then cover with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature for up to an hour.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Arrange the berries over the cubes and dunk them into the custard. Place the 8-inch dish into a larger baking pan. Carefully pour water into the larger pan until it comes halfway up the sides. Place in the oven and bake for 45 minutes, or until a knife inserted in the middle of the pudding comes out mostly clean. Serve warm.