Go bake wild

July 15, 2016

What’s the one most common piece of wisdom you’ve heard about baking?

For me, it’s been “baking is a science”. It’s about chemistry, ratios, exact measurements. In other words, follow your recipes.

So I always did. Sometimes I’d get a little bit daring and do a minor substitution. But then I got a little more daring. With close family members being gluten free and dairy free, it got so that I had to start experimenting. These days, you can find recipes for nearly anything on the internet but even so, I might make a gluten free recipe non dairy as well, or try to make a regular recipe gluten free…or lower the sugar, change the spices, etc.

Even following recipes, I’ve had some busts. I’ve had cookies made with coconut oil melt into puddles and pour off the sides of the tray. Just yesterday I followed a recipe for a gluten free apple cinnamon pull apart bread and it was an inch from a disaster. The fluffy dough was more like pancake batter, and after enough doctoring to make it workable, the result was a tasty, but dry and dense loaf. Luckily for me, Little Miss was not upset with her somewhat lackluster birthday cake!

I’ve recently made an interesting discovery. You don’t need a recipe. We’ve always been told to stick to our recipes, but that’s just big baked goods trying to keep us down.

I’m joking about that last comment. Mostly.

If you have enough experience baking that you have a decent understanding of the ingredients and what they do, you can make up recipes and will likely have at least moderate success. They won’t always be an out of the ballpark hit, and at worst you may wind up wasting some ingredients.

Do you have the guts to go bake wild?

I’ve got two stories to share, and both include my “throw sh!t in a bowl” method of baking. Neither of these experiments was gluten free, but they are non dairy.

No-recipe bread

I’ve made a decent number of loaves of bread in my day. I have three favorite recipes that I rotate between, all of which are low to no knead, and only require a few hours to rise because I am impatient, and unlikely to realize a day in advance that I’d like to make bread.

So one day I decided to do an experiment. I poured a cup of warm water into the bowl of my KitchenAid, then added a tablespoon of yeast – why a tablespoon? Because it’s a generous amount without being too much. Some recipes call for a sprinkle of sugar for the yeast to “eat”, but it’s not necessary. Once that had a few minutes to mingle, I added a little pink sea salt, 3 cups of unbleached flour (one at a time) and a little drizzle of olive oil and let it mix for several minutes with the dough hook. I got lucky, the dough looked like bread dough; if it didn’t, I could doctor it with more water or more flour to get the texture right. Then I covered it and let it sit for a few hours and woohoo, it rose! I greased my loaf pan generously and dumped the dough in, then let it rise another hour or so and baked it at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for about 40 minutes, keeping an eye on it to see how the color looked. When the crust had some color and the internal temperature was 190 degrees, I took it out.

And I had bread. With no recipe. It was a little bit dense and chewy, but that’s fine by me. I don’t tend to make fancy breads, I tend to make simple, hearty peasant breads. A few days later I repeated the process with a touch more olive oil, and dried garlic and rosemary stirred in.

I made bread. With no recipe. All because I knew the basics.

No-recipe cookies

Have you heard of “kitchen sink” cookies? That’s when cookies contain “everything in the kitchen except the sink”, and that’s my style. I feel like cookies are a little more complex than bread because there are more ingredients. Again, if you have experience baking, you can likely figure out something halfway decent.

A few weeks ago we were expecting company and I decided to make cookies. Rebel that I am, I decided to again forgo a recipe. I started with 2 cups of unbleached flour and sprinkled in a pinch of salt, then added a tablespoon of baking powder (why a tablespoon? Because that’s what I decided). I added sugar, only about half a cup. Then a generous shake of cinnamon went in, a sprinkle of ground flax and hemp seeds and a handful of chia seeds. Next up I stirred in an egg and a few tablespoons of coconut oil, a nice drizzle of maple syrup and a tablespoon of vanilla extract and enough water that it began to resemble a cookie dough. When the texture looked right, I tossed in some mini chocolate chips and chopped dried cranberries. Then I spooned them onto some silpat and baking sheets and baked them at 375 degrees Fahrenheit for about 15 minutes, keeping an eye on their color.

A selection of pantry supplies.

A selection of pantry supplies.

Why was I able to do this? Again, the basics. I have a general idea of the amount of flour to use for a normal batch, and I know what cookie dough should look like. Baking powder is for leavening, so I made sure to include some. Coconut oil is a great substitute for butter, but it turns to liquid at about 70 degrees, so I used just enough to add a little fat content but not enough to liquify and make the cookies turn to mush. A little almond or cashew milk would have worked as well as water, but I wanted to avoid the nuts; the water makes them a little fluffier with a bread-y texture.

I also could have used brown sugar or more white sugar, but I know that maple syrup digests differently and affects blood sugar less than white sugar.  Similarly, the flax, hemp and chia seeds have health benefits and add a tough of protein to balance out the carbs and sugars. The next time I made no-recipe cookies, I mashed a very ripe banana and mixed it in so I could use even a little less sugar. Did you know that bananas are considered one of the sweetest fruits out there? Just eating one, I wouldn’t have guessed it, but hey, whatever.

Are these healthy cookies? Not really, I mean, they’re still cookies. But they’re healthier than a lot of alternatives.

So. Do you have what it takes to go bake wild? To break out of the constraints of printed recipes? To make those baked goods your own?!

Start slow. Adjust sugar content. Try coconut oil and cashew milk instead of butter and dairy milk. Sprinkle a little cinnamon into your chocolate chip cookies. See what’s in your pantry and leverage your knowledge.

If you’re happy baking with recipes, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But if you want to experiment, despite what I was always told, it is possible!

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