For me cooking has always been an art, but baking feels more like a science. It’s a lot harder to be creative with ingredients that have to be measured precisely and techniques that guarantee the best results.
Because of this, baking intimidated me a lot before I discovered The King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion. It’s like the Bible of baking.
Aside from over 450 incredible recipes, the thing I love the best about this cookbook is that it explains the scientific reason behind recipe ingredients and instructions. It describes things like what makes a flaky pie crust and why some cookies spread out on the pan and how yeast works. That gives an adventurous home cook the tools to create their own recipes.
In 2012, I had the opportunity to interview one of the book’s authors, P.J. Hamel, a senior writer and editor at King Arthur Flour. P.J. lives in Sandwich, Massachusetts and once a month she travels up north to Norwich, Vermont to check in at the King Arthur Test Kitchen, attend meetings, take photos and of course stock up on supplies.
She said that the cookbook is the embodiment of co-author and King Arthur founder Brinna Sands’ philosophy on baking.
“She’s a teacher at heart, and has always been fascinated with the ‘why’ of baking,” P.J. said, explaining that her purpose in writing the first King Arthur cookbook was to “give people the tools they needed to create their own special treats; the ability to change and substitute ingredients, to modify techniques, times, and temperatures.”
This can only happen if you understand at least some of the science of how ingredients work with one another, and what happens when they’re mixed, and exposed to heat.
After spending six hours poring over the nearly 600 page book, I learned what makes some of my baking recipes successful and other not so much. For example, I discovered that the reason I always need to scald the milk in my mother’s pizza dough recipe is because milk contains certain enzymes that interfere with the growth of yeast.
I also learned that the reason my cakes usually turn out too dry is that I have been measuring flour incorrectly.
“We write recipes using the ‘sprinkle and sweep’ method of measuring flour,” P.J. said. “If you dip your measuring cup into the canister, tap it a few times to settle the flour, then level it off, you could be getting up to an additional 1/4 cup in your one cup measure, compared to the ‘sprinkle and sweep’ method, where you stir the flour to aerate it, then sprinkle it into the cup and level it off.”
But the best way to measure dry ingredients like flour is with a scale. It not only makes baking more accurate, but it is also easy. P.J. puts a mixing bowl on the scale, and adds each ingredient by weight, setting the scale back to zero each time. She doesn’t use measuring cups and cleanup is a snap.
The other tools that P.J. considers essential are a bowl scraper, stand mixer, parchment paper, baking pans in a full assortment of sizes and an instant-read digital thermometer to tell when her yeast breads are done.
P.J.’s favorite recipe in the cookbook is the Almond Puff Loaf because it’s a remarkable elegant pastry that is easy to make. It also tastes fabulous! I ate three slices of it on the day I baked it and I rarely eat sweets.
P.J. graciously shared that recipe with me for this column, a version of which originally ran in The Cape Codder newspaper in December of 2012.