Award-winning baker Abby Dodge urges us away from perfection and toward reality.
Perfection? Let it go.
Abby Dodge knows that’s easier said than done. Turns out that brief post-Martha exhalation was only so that we could catch our breath before Instagram began its reign of faultlessness.
Dodge, fresh off her James Beard cookbook award nomination for “The Everyday Baker: Recipes and Techniques for Foolproof Baking” (Taunton, $40), had begun hearing too many people say they can’t bake “because it’s never perfect,” she said. “I was like, ‘OK, let’s hold on here; that goal is completely unattainable.’ ”
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She thinks it’s a generational thing, that her mother’s friends who baked in the 1950s didn’t fret. “Cakes were lopsided, and there were crumbs on them,” she said. “Maybe in that whole ‘trying to have it all,’ somehow baking got lost.
“I share that at the beginning of every class, anytime I get a chance,” she said, speaking by phone from her home in Connecticut. It’s also the reason that she insisted that her hands be in all the step-by-step shots, across 617 pages.
“They’re my gnarly dishpan hands, but it was really important to us to keep it as real as possible,” she said. “They’re imperfect, but that’s what’s beautiful about it.”
The author of 10 cookbooks was full of advice, some coming from long experience, some from happenstance.
For instance, she said, most people read a recipe through before preparing it. But that’s rarely enough.
“Read the recipe, then read it two more times,” she advised. “We’re all in such a rush — and I’m one of them: ‘I’m going to make this cake, I’m just going to dive in.’
“And more often than not, halfway through making the batter, you realize you don’t have the one ingredient you need. Then you become frustrated and think, ‘Oh, I hate baking.’
“But is it really baking you hate? No, you just really wish you’d taken just two minutes to read the recipe again. And once more.”
We discussed three recipes with her, chosen because they presented techniques we hadn’t encountered before, but now have in our arsenal of good baking ideas.
LEMON MERINGUE PIE WITH CAYENNE
“I’m not a big cocktail person, but I love a lemon drop martini that has a little bit of heat to it. We have a friend who infuses some simple syrup with jalapeno that is just awesome. The trick is that not all jalapenos have the same heat levels. I wanted to create that subtle, back-end heat, and using cayenne gives me a little more control.
One more twist: The pie’s meringue topping is dotted with poppy seeds. Why?
“That was just one of those things that happened in the kitchen,” Dodge said. “I’d been making a regular meringue and I’ve been in the business long enough to know that it’s very hard to capture something so white in a photo, so I thought: What can I do to give it some contrast and depth?
“Turns out the poppy seeds also added a certain earthiness, another layer of flavor. And crunch!”
Spicy Lemon Meringue Pie
Note: Use your favorite pie crust for this recipe. This recipe should be started early on the day you plan to serve it. From “The Everyday Baker,” by Abby Dodge.
1 (9-inch) pie crust, pre-baked
For the filling:
2/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
2/3 cup water
1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
Pinch of salt
Pinch of ground cayenne pepper
1/2 cup heavy cream
6 large egg yolks
For the topping:
3/4 cup superfine sugar
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
Pinch of salt
6 large egg whites
1 tablespoon poppy seeds
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Put the lemon juice, 2/3 cup water and lemon zest in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Once boiling, slide the pan off the heat, cover and set aside for 15 to 20 minutes to steep.
Put the 1 cup sugar, cornstarch, pinch of salt and cayenne in a medium bowl and whisk until blended. Pour the juice mixture through a fine-mesh strainer over the bowl, pressing on the solids to release all the juices; discard the solids.
Add the heavy cream and yolks, and whisk until blended. Pour and scrape the mixture back into the saucepan. Cook, whisking constantly, over medium heat until it comes to a full boil. Boil, whisking constantly, for 45 seconds.
Pour and scrape the filling into the pre-baked pie crust, smooth and cover the surface directly with plastic wrap. Refrigerate until well-chilled and very firm, about 6 hours.
To finish the pie, position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 375 degrees.
Put 3/4 cup sugar, cream of tartar and pinch of salt in a large heatproof bowl and stir until well-blended. Add the whites and place on top of a pot of simmering water over medium-low heat (the water shouldn’t touch the bottom of the bowl).
Whisk until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture is foamy and warm, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove the bowl from the heat and set on a towel (this keeps the bowl stable while mixing.) Beat with a handheld mixer on medium-high until the mixture holds firm peaks when the beater is lifted, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the poppy seeds and vanilla, and beat briefly until blended.
Uncover the chilled pie and scrape some of the meringue onto the center of the filling. Using a small offset or silicone spatula, spread to cover the filling to the edges of the crust. Scrape the remaining meringue onto the pie and spread, mounding slightly in the center and making swirls and peaks.
Bake until the meringue peaks are deep golden brown, 12 to 15 minutes. Move to a rack and let cool for about 30 minutes before refrigerating until well-chilled, 2 to 3 hours. To serve, cut with a well-greased knife, regreasing between slices.