When I was growing up my Mum didn't make a lot of sweets really. Of course on family birthdays and some holidays Mum would bake incredible cakes and pies but really, I never saw baking as "proper cooking", and poo-pooed cookie and cake bakery as the domain of old fashioned housewives. I loudly maintained this opinion over the years, even as I came to realize that not only does baking take every bit as much talent and patience as savoury cookery, but it also requires a certain precision in order for the magic to work properly. Like most cooks, I often try to make a recipe my own, by adding a little here, omitting a little there and generally putting my own twist on a recipe that has caught my eye. Over the years though, I have tried to do this all too often with pastry recipes, ignoring the basic obvious fact that many of these tried and true recipes rely on a number of chemical and physical reactions to be successful.
Like many things, it turns out that if you can understand the science behind what is going on in your mixer, cake tin and piping bag, THEN you can start applying your own tweaks and changes to make a recipe truly your own.
I bought two cookbooks recently, which have both been invaluable in my quest for successful baking. The first is Leith's Baking Bible from the cookery school of the same name, which has recipes for just about everything you could want to bake both sweet and savoury. Each section has important tips and information about the upcoming recipes and has helpful "What's gone wrong when" suggestions for improving your methods. I have cooked several of these recipes, with great results every time.
The last book I bought, which is actually an essential for every aspect of cookery was McGee on Food and Cooking. This is a hefty tome about the size of a dictionary, with print only slightly larger and is a go-to for Heston Blumenthal. This book investigates the minutiae of each and every ingredient and how and why they react to various treatments, heat and other ingredients. It could definitely be used purely for reference, as it would take months to read cover to cover, but if you CAN take the time to read it, you'll gain more practical knowledge about science and history of food than you ever would watching all 13 seasons of Good Eats back to back. I am on page 114 of 818 (followed by a 48 page-long index!) and have covered milk and milk products and nearly all of the egg section. If you're a complete anorak about cookery and don't fall asleep easily while reading, I'd recommend giving it a go.
One other thing that has vastly improved not only my puny ability, but mostly my confidence, is a pastry class I took last autumn at master patissier Eric Lanlard's Cake Boy cafe and school.
My Dad bought me this day-long class for my birthday and I was rather nervous, because the vast majority of my sugar, flour, egg and butter-related efforts to date had been roundly disappointing. There was one other student in the class, which was brilliant because we each got a lot of one-on-one help. As we went through the day, we learned all kinds of processes like making meringues, mousses, ganache, caramels, pralines and truffles and with each new thing I realized that each little step was something I was very familiar with. The class with Eric taught me that I can actually make pastries and pies, as long as I take my time, don't cut corners and just view each recipe as a series of steps, instead of one intimidating challenge.
At the end of the day, I had a huge bag full of desserts and sweets that I'd made, along with Eric's Glamour Cakes book, which is really for those who want to make rolled fondant tiered cakes. I have used the cake recipes with good results, but I think that most of the designs are a little dated and unexciting, with not very polished work in the pictures. The thing that surprised/dismayed me most was that Cake Boy uses cheap, battery eggs and lower quality ingredients in general than I use at home. The exception to this was the use of copious amounts of Valrhona chocolate. Given the number of eggs his bakery goes through daily and the prices his pastries fetch, it bothers me that he cuts this corner.
I subscribe to Olive Magazine, which I look forward to every month and from which I take endless inspiration. In the most recent (March 2010) edition, I found a recipe for Baileys Cheesecake with Coffee Jelly
This turned out beautifully as a dessert for Valentine's Day. This is a no-bake cheesecake, and rather than being made with cream cheese, uses marscarpone, quark, cream, eggs, Baileys and sugar and is set with gelatine. This produces an incredibly light, velvety treat, which doesn't leave you groaning and unbuttoning your jeans.
One thing though, is that if you follow the recipe, the coffee jelly is only about half as thick as the picture. From a flavour standpoint, this is fine, as if it was as thick as shown, the coffee flavour would overwhelm.
I expect that I will continue along my pastry exploration path in the coming months, so I'll post both my successes, revelations and failures here. Stay tuned.....