Thursday, October 29, 2009

Essentials of a Dutch Baby

Apples, sauteed in butter, start to relax at the bottom of my cast-iron pan.

Nothing inspires me more than a handful of shiny apples lying forlornly at the bottom of their formerly full bushel box. What to do, I wondered. I decided last week that I should highlight a few of the cookbooks I rely on regularly to bake or cook away the doldrums of a gloomy, midwestern fall once the leaves are all raked up. I found it easiest to combine the two projects: apples and cookbook.

The Williams-Sonoma Essentials of Baking book is one I opened on Christmas, wrapped in laughing santas with a note from my mother. I'd just begun to fling handfuls of flour recklessly about my Colorado kitchen, with mixed results. Altitude, I quickly learned, was not the friend of handwritten recipe cards from middle America. Initially my favorite thing about the cookbook was a handy chart in the introductory section that described your problem and told you what part of the recipe you screwed up. I rapidly grew more confidant. Later my favorite thing became that everything turned out perfectly, but that was after I figured out how to follow the yeasty (and sometimes lengthy) directions.

Pour the egg-y batter over the apples in pre-heated skillet.

The very first and simplest bread I started baking was an olive bread. It turned out golden and crusty outside with pillowy soft guts, dotted with olives aplenty. The walnut variation of this bread is one I make monthly even now, baking and freezing in smaller loaves sized for a two-person dinner. From there, the sourdough called to me, then baguettes, foccacia, oatmeal molasses, cinnamon rolls, all in quick turn. And, growing braver, I turned to pastries. Months after receiving it, I could whip up a batch of danish to make George's father proud. Then came the croissants, bagels, a plum and almond frangipane tart, pizza dough, angel food cake, eclairs, cheesecake. I'm so brave now that I've taken to writing in the margins, little notes about how things turned out or how to make them better.

Six years later this is still my most-used cookbook, though now I've handwritten some of my bread staples onto recipe cards to prolong the book's spine. It's given me the confidance to branch out into tricky, multi-paged recipes, to know when it'll be better to chill the dough even when another cookbook skips it, to read a recipe and sense when the measurements are off — like one Martha Stewart recipe that calls for two tablespoons of salt when it should be teaspoons. If you need just one baking guide to get started, I highly recommend Essentials of Baking.

This week I made the Apple Oven Pancake (called a Dutch baby when you do it in cast iron) and I wrote " halved recipe to bake in cast iron but doubled apples — sank right away, still good tho." It would've turned out fine if I hadn't adjusted the fruit content. Still, are there leftovers? No. Which, really, says it all.

Just before falling, my dutch baby billows nicely.

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