I think I respond to the more experimental, have-a-go nature of cooking because it's more experimental and a bit more forgiving. Sure, things still catch fire from time to time but there doesn't seem as much of a science to it.
This past Saturday I wanted to (literally) try my hands at a bit of baking and I went along to a bread-baking workshop at the commercial bakery at Le Pain Quotidien on Bleecker Street. Under the expert tutelage of Le Pain's resident baker Karen, I joined a small class of 6 other novice bakers to learn the basics of baking bread.
When we all had to introduce ourselves, I learned that none of us in the class had ever baked a loaf of bread before - not even with a bread maker. I was certainly in safe company. Keen consumers of baked goods, my fellow classmates and I listened intently as Karen talked us through the different stages of bread baking. After a basic overview and a bit of demonstration, we got our hands dirty.
Helping to pre-shape, rest, score and bake baguettes and dinner rolls, I realised that I know so little about baking. Kneading bread looks easy but if you've never done it before you have no idea what the dough is supposed to feel like, how much pressure you're supposed to apply, and how much kneading is too much. I was a bit lost, I have to say.
Still, Karen was a very patient teacher and fortunately all our baguettes and rolls ended up mixed up once they got into the oven, so nobody's screw-ups stood out. That said, when I was scoring a baguette before it went into the oven, I did it rather gingerly because I was afraid I would slice straight through it. As a result of my sissy cuts, the ends of the baguette baked so crispy and spiky that the class declared it to be pretty dangerous. A true standout! The bakery assistant suggested I snap the spiky ends off before I got on the subway to go home, lest I puncture someone. They may have looked deadly, but those spiky ends were tasty!
There was a lot to remember in the class - weights, measures, temperatures, procedures. I don't know, maybe practice would make perfect but I just find that cooking is so much easier. Unless you're making something notoriously tricky like a souffle, cooking is a fairly simple affair. With baking bread (in particular), you're dealing with a living dough that needs to be treated well and as such, you need to pay so much more attention to it. If your baking conditions aren't exactly right, your end product will be compromised. That's a bit too much pressure for me, I'm afraid.
My three-hour crash course in the bakery was a lot of fun and I'm glad that the other people in my class were also beginners. Karen was a patient and enthusiastic teacher who clearly demonstrated that baking can be fun, but that there's also a real art to it. Knowing how much work and passion goes into the bread baking, I don't think I'll scoff at paying that little bit extra for the good stuff from now on.