Failing at Cooking

Yesterday was baking day in my Cooking for Boys club.

Baking is not like other cooking. Proportions matter, cooking times matter, cooking temperature matters, and the degree of preparation matters.  The first dozen times you make any recipe, you have to follow the recipe. Once you know it, you can make approximations; but until you know the basic rules, you have to stick to them.

I handed out four recipes — chocolate chip cookies, brownies, sugar drop cookies, and coconut macaroons.  Some people worked alone, others worked in pairs.  I showed several young men how to separate a yolk from an egg white;  I showed another boy how to chop up chocolate; I showed everyone how to cream butter.

We wound up with a lot of really terrible cookies.  A lot of terrible cookies.

And I do mean A LOT of terrible cookies.

What went wrong? Let us enumerate the ways:

  1. Two boys kept opening the oven door, letting out heat.
  2. Two boys took their cookies out, let them cool, then decided they weren’t done, and put them back.
  3. The brownies were in too large a pan.
  4. The wet mix for the brownies contained raw chocolate that wasn’t melted in with the other ingredients.
  5. One pair smashed together all their ingredients instead of separating wet and dry mixes, and then combining them.
  6. Nearly everyone ignored cooking times, and undercooked their cookies because they were more interested in talking to each other than paying attention to the oven’s contents.

These are all easy mistakes to make, and we analyzed them afterwards.  Of the four groups, three figured out what they had done wrong, and resolved to correct it next time.  One enterprising young man took photocopies of all four recipes home, to explain to his family.

All of the kids gained familiarity with cracking eggs, measuring spoons and cups, distinguishing between milk and cream, working with finicky ingredients like raw chocolate, and even separating whites from yolks.  They learned to distinguish teaspoons from tablespoons, and pinches from teaspoons, and salted from unsalted butter.  They learned the joy of mixing with your hands, and the dangers of eating raw cookie dough.

They did not learn enough about washing up your mess afterward.

Yet what occurred was absolutely vital.  How can you learn to cook if everything comes out fine?  All the students understood at the end that baking is not like other parts of cooking, and you have to follow the recipe, at least at first. The casual approach does not work wonders in the alchemy of the oven. Moreover, even the American kids (the class/club is half-International students, mostly South Koreans) didn’t even know the relationships among the various measures; teaspoons and tablespoons were foreign concepts to them all.  How can you cook without knowing how to measure and set proportions?

So it is with teaching, and with learning in school: sometimes you can be free with your own spices and your own ingredients, and make it up as you go along.  And sometimes you have to follow the recipe.

Either way, make sure you pick up some useful skills along the way.

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