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The Problem of Half an Egg
The Big Oven Small Cake Dilemma
Stick a Fork In It (easy creaming)
Baking For One and the Insecure Girlfriend
This is not so much a cookbook, as an exploration of life philosophy. The initial dilemma was this: I like to cook -- I like it as an activity, and I like the sensory surroundings, and I especially like getting to eat the results. And most of the time, this is all very well and good, but I also like to bake ... and I'm single and live alone. Well, it seemed to me that I had the following options.
Or ... it eventually came to me ... I could start baking things in exactly one person-sized batches, and always enjoy them fresh and in moderation. Thus was begun the "baking for one" project. I started experimenting and testing and keeping notes on recipes adapted to produce exactly and only one serving -- just the amount that you were actually craving when the idea popped into your head, and no more.
Now, getting back to that "moderation" thing -- the Baking For One project is not about self-denial (quite the opposite), or about low-sodium low-sugar low-cholesteral low-everything baking. It is, at its heart, about self-indulgence, but moderate self-indulgence. The self-indulgence that says one perfectly-flavored cookie is worlds better than an entire bag of mediocre cookie-product. My recipes call for butter, not margarine; for eggs, not egg-substitute; for cream, not skim milk. That doesn't mean you can't take them and substitute these things in as you please. After all, the Baking For One project is all about baking for you, and for what you choose to do with the recipes. But remember that it's also about saying, "I deserve the best -- just not in too large a quantity all the time."
And so, I began.
Now, the place to start a baking cookbook is with the basic standards, like pound cake. The basic notion behind a pound cake is that you use a pound of each of the basic ingredients: butter, sugar, eggs, and flour. Working off the theory that a large egg is approximately 1/8 pound ...
Pound Cake #1
Next I figured I'd try a Basic White Bread with not entirely satisfactory results (see the recipe comments).
Now, one of the really fun things about baking for one is that it gives you an excuse to buy those really cute little pans and molds they have at the gourmet cookware shops. Have you ever gone to a restaurant where they served the pre-dinner bread as little individual sized mini-loafs, rather than one large sliced thing? Isn't there something quaintly empowering and self-indulgent about the thought, "This is complete in itself and it's mine, all mine"? Ok, ok , and they're just downright CUTE. And you only need to buy one of them, and they don't take up much room in the cupboard. Most of my recipes assume that you're using one of these mini pans: **at some point I will list typical dimensions here**.
And the same principle goes for ingredients. Baking in small quantities -- especially when you're concerned about the freshness of your ingredients - means thinking about shopping and storage differently from how my grandmother, the farmwife and mother of many, thought about it. Buy small quantities. There's no point in getting a two-pound bag of chopped pecans if it would take you five years to use it up. A good rule of thumb is that, even for ingredients that keep extremely well, never buy more than you're likely to use in a year. Ah, but you say, buying in small quantities is uneconomic. Well, yes and no. If you end up throwing half of it out because it's gone bad or stale ... or if you simply end up putting up with less-than-perfect tasting recipes because you have to use it up, that's false economy. Buy in small quantities, get good air-tight storage containers, and only buy things when you have a project that will need them. When you start on a program of Baking For One, you don't want to go out and set up a fully-equiped pantry immediately. Shopping is half the fun -- spread it out.
I've been doing this for a while and, while the specific ingredients you keep on hand will depend entirely on your own tastes and choices in ingredients, here's a list of the supplies and quantities of specifically baking-related ingredients that I keep in my kitchen:
**at some point I will add a typical inventory here**
There is nothing quite like the aroma of Banana Bread filling your kitchen. And banana bread should always be eaten when it is just barely cooled enough to cut nicely. Furthermore, what more can you say about a recipe that works better the longer that greasy black banana has been sitting on the shelf? (Well, ok, it is possible for a banana to be too far gone to make good banana bread, but you have to work at it.)
Trying to scale recipes for single servings is when you really begin to understand the usefulness of the "pinch" as a standard measurement. When my recipes say "a pinch" they assume that you have a certain working understanding of, for example, how salty a pinch of salt makes things. Think about how much salt that is, and whether you want that amount of salt in your end product. Most things that get measured here in pinches are fairly flexible in how much the recipe needs or can tolerate. I confess that I'm not into chemistry-lab cookery, where ingredients are weighed to the tenth of a gram and the results have a clone like reproducability. (Although I do intend to work out metric weight based versions of the recipes to go along with the English volume-based ones I'm used to working with.) When it comes down to it, I don't tend to measure very precisely -- partly to keep the complexity of the recipes down. (An as-yet-unmentioned principle of these recipes is also to keep the number of dirtied dishes to a minimum!)
But the one place where I quickly ran into difficulties was that of eggs. Unlike butter, sugar, and flour, it's not trivial to reduce the number of eggs in a typical recipe to an eighth or a tenth or whatever of the original. In some recipes, including extra egg doesn't afffect the outcome significantly (**when I think of an example, I'll include it here**) -- in others, the recipe can be tailored around a one-egg quantity (e.g., angel food cake). But for the most part, adding too much egg messes up the dish, and one entire egg is too much. Since most starting recipes assume Large or Extra-Large eggs as the default, I briefly experimented with searching out Small eggs and scaling the recipes down in that fashion. The problem is, it's really hard to find a grocery that regularly carries eggs in sizes smaller than Large (and I live in the Land of Many Specialty Groceries -- so if I have trouble with it, it's not a good recommendation). So that solution was out. I even more briefly toyed with the idea of using quail eggs for easy portion control (did I mention that I life in the Land of Many Specialty Groceries?), but it's a fairly absurd idea, both from the standpoint of expense and availability. I never even went so far as to buy a flat of quail eggs to experiment.
In the end, my solution for dealing with less-than-whole eggs is to mix an egg separately and then measure it by volume. This breaks one of my basic principles because it involves dirtying extra dishes. It also involves having leftover egg. You can keep it in an airtight container in the refrigerator for a day or two and use it in another baking project, or simply toss it in with something else you're cooking. Just don't forget it's in there.
Another try at Basic White Bread -- aiming for two small loaves this time.
About a year into the Baking For One Project, I felt firmly enough committed to the small-batch-baking lifestyle that I decided to do something about the absurdity of heating an entire family-sized oven just to bake half a cup worth of batter. So I bought a high-quality counter-top "toaster oven". Now, I'm not talking about one of those things that's not much more than a horizontal toaster where you can broil cheese sandwiches and maybe mini-pizzas. I'm talking about a piece of equipment that will keep an even and predictable temperature without significant environmental heat loss, with separate controls for top and bottom elements and at least two shelf positions. And the crowning touch in the model I selected was a timer -- not just a timer that beeps away while the cake burns, but a timer you can set that will turn the heat off after X minutes. In addition to the overall energy efficiency of a smaller oven, a device like this can simplify your work because you need little, if any, preheating time, and if you aren't in the room when the cooking time is over, the remaining heat will generally dissipate quickly enough that your dish isn't overcooked. (Or you can allow for being out of the room and reduce your cooking time by one or two minutes.) Anything that allows me to pop something in the oven and not have it turn into a charred and smoking mess by the time I remember that it should be about done is a Good Thing.
Baking Powder Biscuits are just the sort of thing to whip up for breakfast on a weekend morning when you're not rushing off to work.
Ok -- let me tell you a secret about the "cut in" or "cream" steps. You can do it with a fork. You can do it with a fork even for regular-size recipes, although it's more work, but there's absolutely no reason to haul out a mixer to cream your butter and sugar, or to do that weird little two-knife trick to cut the fat into the flour. Just mash your butter into the other ingredient with a fork against the side of the bowl. Trust me.
I've got notes for a bunch of possible Biscuit Variations, but i don't think I've actually tried any of them yet. When I've worked them up, I'll expand the notes into recipes.
It had never occurred to me that Baking For One was a problematic philosophy until I was explaining it to a woman I had started dating. Here I was, cheerfully explaining that it was all about treating myself with respect and indulgence, and how much fun I was having, and how excited I was about trying out some new recipes. And she responds, "But ... but ... now that we're together, you'll have to give up this Baking for One nonsense -- you'll be Baking For Two."
I wouldn't go so far as to claim that that moment was The Beginning of the End, but it was definitely not a good sign. Baking For One is not about not having someone else to bake for, it's about having someone to bake for: you, yourself, when you want to fill the kitchen with the aroma of chocolate chip cookies. Memo to self: any woman who is threatened by the notion that I enjoy occasionally doing things just for myself is not a good match. Remember this.
Here's a Medieval-Style Cheesecake, not the fluffy, frothy "New York style" cheesecake (which I'll get to later). As a medieval dessert, it works very nicely flavored with rose water and/or almonds. So an actual medieval cheesecake would have a pie-type crust, but for this experiment I went for something sweeter.
Ok, I'll confess, my favorite "scratch" Scones are actually the Bette's Diner scone mix (Lemon-Current flavor). So my goal is to develop something that tastes very much like them (although not necessarily lemon-current). Note that I'm using the meaning of "scone" current in California, which may not correspond to its meaning elsewhere in the world.
Let us now have a moment of silence for a failed attempt at Angelfood Cake. When I was a college student at U.C. Davis and enjoying the Aggie pleasures of keeping a few chickens in my back yard, my supreme triumph was when my hens succeeded in laying enough eggs in a short enough period of time that I could make an Angelfood Cake. It would have been easier if I'd been doing small-scale cakes like this.
For some people, chocolate chip cookies are the nostalgic childhood "comfort food", but I think the most memorable cookies of my childhood were oatmeal, for some reason. (And my mother is one of those people who Does Cookies, although nowhere near as much now as when I was a kid.) I don't really associate Oatmeal Cookies with raisins, although lots of people like them -- nuts, though, definitely.
Ok, I'll make a deep secret confession: I loathe and despise the traditional style Fruitcake -- the one with the candied citrus rind and unnaturally colored candied pineapple and whatnot. It was always dry and dense (well, maybe the fact that my family didn't have a tradition of drenching it in brandy was partly to blame) and when I was a kid the bitterness of the citrus rind was a major turn-off. So I'm not going to develop a traditional fruitcake recipe for the Baking For One project.. But I'm very fond of cakes chock-full of the types of dried fruit that I like, so here's what I offer. I'm still aiming for a "dark" cake and a moderately dense one, although moister than the ones of my youth.
That first one wasn't entirely satisfactory (see results notes) so here's a second Fruitcake recipe.
The holiday dessert, par excellance, of my family's traditions is the Pecan Pie. Now, keeping in mind that a pecan pie is basically a candy bar in a pie shell, it is probably a good thing to confine this to special holiday occasions when every fiber of your being cries out that life will not be complete without a pecan pie. It's sort of like how I once turned on the football games when I was spending Thanksgiving by myself because Thanksgiving without football games on the tube feels about as weird as Thanksgiving without turkey (or at least a cornish game hen). It also isn't really Thanksgiving for me without Pecan Pie. I think that one time was the only Thanksgiving I've ever spent by myself, so I may have the dilemma of having worked out a single-serving Pecan Pie recipe that I'll rarely feel the need to use.
Now, I'm not a mom, and I'm really ambivalent about the flag, but Apple Pie gets my thumbs-up. I got inspired to try this by the mini apple pies at the local yuppie grocery store. (I'm really dating myself by calling them "yuppie" groceries, aren't I? Ok, ok, "gourmet" grocery.) This makes two tarts, because that's what you get from one apple. You could, of course, only use half the apple for pie and use the other half for something else ... oh, like an apple and onion stuffing for your roast cornish game hen. (No, wait, that went with the pecan pie, didn't it?)
(Let's add dates to the new diary entries from here on.)
Oct 29, 2008: Since the time I came up with the Baking For One concept, I've made some revolutionary changes in my diet -- that's small-d "what I eat" diet, not big-d "a strict eating plan" diet. One of these changes is becoming more mindful of the calorie content of what I eat and making choices with that in mind. I haven't abandoned the principle that food should be delicious and use "real" ingredients. But for those who, like me, want to keep the caloric value of their food in mind, I've added data on that point to most of the recipes. I'm also thinking of tinkering with some of the recipes to create a calorie-target version, i.e., a portion size that aims for a relatively consistent (and often smaller) calorie value for the batch.
Reader Feedback: This part of my web site is one of the top fan-mail generators; who would have thought it? One reader suggested I experiment with using egg-white-in-a-carton rather than fractions of whole eggs. At the time, I didn't pursue it because it seemed to conflict with my principle of not compromising on ingredients. But lately I've been trying some recipes this way, simply because I tend to have an egg white carton in the fridge most of the time (I'm doing omelettes half-and-half with whole eggs and egg white) and it's definitely simpler to measure out those fractional eggs that way! A whites-only substitution should be safe for most dough-based recipes, where it serves as a binder and a "lifting" agent. But stick to whole eggs for any custard-like recipe, and any recipe where you separate the egg and use the yolk and white for different purposes. As a rule of thumb, a typical egg is 1/4 cup, so multiply fractional eggs in the recipes by 1/4 cup for the amount to add (or use the amount given, if it's a volume).
To be continued ....
Basic White Bread #1
Chocolate Chip Cookies
Basic White Bread #2
Baking Powder Biscuits
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