Essay

Baking and Superstition

On Tuesday, I divulged that I am typically an all-butter crust baker, but today I shared a recipe for a crust that includes shortening. The recipe also included brown butter, still warm and melted. I never. NEVER. use shortening in my pie crusts and I NEVER EVER use anything besides refrigerator-freezing-cold butter. I was very nervous about both these things, though less so about the shortening and only because it is atypical in my personal baking. I could even forgive the idea of shortening given the addition of flavorful, nutty brown butter.

The melted butter sounded like a nightmare (besides its gorgeous flavor) and against everything I know and feel about crust-making. But the suggestion came from a trusted baking source, so I thought it was worth a shot. It was also, I’ll admit this, not the best time to be experimenting given it was last night and I was due to share the recipe with you lovely people today.

In addition to the shortening dare I took, I also added cocoa powder to the dough, both to intensify the chocolate flavor theme and to get that nice, chocolate color. I was nervous about adding cocoa powder too because cocoa powder really dries out a crust (Or anything you add it to. Have you had cocoa powder brownies? Very cakey.), so I was pretty conservative about the amount. Still, after pre-baking the cocoa powder crust I had some cracks (gasp!), but I filled them with some extra dough and carried on with baking life. And guess what? It turned out perfect, tasty, and without any leaks.

I loved the results. I also loved squishing the tasty dough against the pan instead of rolling out before baking. I loved giving up my traditional crust-baking method to try something new. I loved adding a smidge of flour here, a little more water there, and trusting the process more than my own memorized preferences. Going off script is hard, especially with the heightened stakes of sharing my results more publicly with others.

“So much of baking, and life, is wrapped up in tradition, routine, and superstition. We do things out of habit, and habit becomes practice, and what we practice becomes what we are best at. ”

 

A lot could have gone wrong (I thought) with this tart crust, but it didn’t. It really didn’t. Which made me think about how much time I’d spent positive that it would be a disaster, that the tart would crumble to pieces before baking, after pre-baking, when I cut into it (this chocolate tart cuts beautifully, with barely a crumble).

So much of baking, and life, is wrapped up in tradition, routine, and superstition. We do things out of habit, and habit becomes practice, and what we practice becomes what we are best at. My methods for baking aren’t the best for me because of actual superiority over other methods. Often, my methods are better because I’ve practiced them more than I have others.

Knowing this won’t stop me, or other bakers, from telling you to add vodka to a crust or to never add acid to a crust, to never add cocoa powder to an already dry mixture, to bake a cake at a lower oven temperature than prescribed, or to never bake macarons on a rainy day. Some of these baking superstitions have truth to them (humidity can impact macaron baking, though not always and not as much as many of us think), but not nearly as much truth as we all believe. Baking, like superstition, is storytelling. We bake the way we are told, or the way we have read, from loved ones and trusted mentors. We bake with our whole bodies, with all our senses, and we bring with our baking our own ideas about ritual and practice.

My baking superstitions are numerous, though I probably wouldn’t have called them superstitions before yesterday. I won’t melt chocolate in the microwave. I am hesitant to use cocoa powder in anything. I always save egg whites in the same container. I always bake macarons on one specific silipat mat and on one specific pan. I do believe these things make a difference for my baking. I believe it’s in part due to science that I don’t always understand and in part due to my own silly superstitions and having more practice with a particular pan or mat. There is always that human emotion factor. That feeling when you get macarons right for the first time, or the crust on a tart finally releases perfectly from the pan and stands just beautifully upright. And don’t we hold onto that feeling and to the details that brought us there? Certainly, after baking several batches of macarons with no feet, I was never going to use anything but the exact method and tools that had gotten me the results I wanted.

This week I took the smallest risk in baking and it paid off, despite all my nerves and baking superstitions. There will be other times when it won’t pay off and I’ll be just as honest about those times as well. I hope. But for today, I wish I could share a piece of this chocolate tart with you. The chocolate tart that proved me wrong and did it with such class and such tastefulness, I barely even noticed.

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