When it comes to cooking—and especially baking—I’ve always been more of a stick-to-a-recipe kind of gal. In the past few years, however, as I’ve gotten more confident with my cooking, I’m willing and able to improvise and experiment—subbing in ingredients, adding different spices, making tweaks here and there. But with baking, I’ve almost always stuck strictly to the recipe, as I’ve been taught: Baking is an exact science, and once you start messing around with proportions or substitutions, you risk ruining the whole thing.
Well, I recently took a recipe testing class here in New York that taught me it’s ok to improvise when you’re baking, even if—the horror!—your experiment might fail. This was a great lesson for me, someone who’s always hated failure—a trait which can prevent you from taking risks or being creative, and something I’ve been trying to overcome for ages. But that’s a subject for whole other blog post…and maybe my (imaginary) therapist.
Anyway, I digress. This class was taught by recipe tester/developer Sarah Copeland, who spent several years at the Food Network and by sheer coincidence has also developed recipes for Real Simple (check out her 10 recipes for rotisserie chicken). We all started out with a basic, familiar recipe: the Nestle Toll House chocolate chip cookie recipe (you know, the one printed on the back of the yellow bag of chocolate chips). Then we all chose just one thing to vary in the recipe, whether it was the type of flour, sweetener, fat, chocolate, mix-ins… you name it. While the original recipe calls for 1 cup of butter, I opted to use ½ cup of butter and ½ cup of cashew butter. We baked our 16 different cookies, then tasted them at the end of the class, noting the successes, failures, and improvements for the future. It was a really interesting and fun experiment; the quinoa flour cookies came out a bit flat but had a nicely nutty, earthy flavor that was delicious. Cookies made with all-almond butter looked good but were a bit too dry. The cookies baked with mashed avocados instead of butter had a slight greenish tinge and a somewhat cakey texture. As luck would have it, my butter/cashew butter cookies were a hit—pretty to look at and just moist enough, with a faintly nutty taste.
I was inspired enough by the class to branch out at home—fear of failure, be damned! I made the basic cookie dough with part butter, part almond butter, then divided the dough in half. I stirred in regular chocolate chips into one half and added a crazy chopped-up chocolate bar—with ginger, wasabi, and sesame seeds—along with regular chips to the other half. I baked them up, then tasted.
Were they a total success? Not really. While they were fine, the cookies were a little dry—probably because I used a creamy, no-stir almond butter instead of the natural kind with the oil separated on top (alas, my grocery store didn’t carry it). Also, next time I’ll use two or even three wasabi-ginger-sesame chocolate bars and skip the regular chocolate chips altogether, so you really get those exotic flavors coming through.
Did it matter that they didn’t turn out perfectly? Um, no. They were fun to make, fun to eat, and still tasted pretty darn good.
Do you always stick to the recipe when you bake or do you like to experiment? What have been your biggest successes or failures?