One of the things I am trying to teach the kids in our cooking together, and to be honest, trying to get better about myself, is to be comfortable experimenting in the kitchen. To be able to cook on the fly, without a recipe, or to take a recipe you have and tweak it to either suit your tastes, or the contents of your pantry, is an excellent skill to have in the kitchen. My wife, who is an excellent cook is really good at this. In fact, I think she prefers to cook by instinct as opposed to breaking out a cookbook and cooking from a recipe. She likes the creative challenge of working this way. Inspired by her, I have become much more comfortable “using the force” when cooking, applying techniques I know well to ingredients on hand. Sometimes working to capture classic flavor combinations and profiles that I love, sometimes letting it all hang out and shooting for something totally new.
Working this way while cooking savory dishes is one thing. I have the occasional total failure, but for the most part, I can wing-it and end up with a pretty tasty dish for the table. Cooking baked goods or pastries without regard to a recipe however, is just asking for trouble. There is a real chemistry to baking that cannot be ignored, and if altered in the wrong way, will more often than not lead to poor results. If you have the time, knowledge, and inclination to set up an honest to goodness test kitchen at home, then have at it, but know that success in developing “new” baking recipes will likely depend on your willingness to work and re-work them many times before hitting upon a winner. If, like most people, you lack the masochistic bent required for test kitchen work, there are a few other routes you could follow to exercise your creativity.
The first is to buy a copy of Michael Ruhlman’s great new book Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking . As its title implies, this book gives you the codes to the “chemistry” of baked goods (as well as some other things like pasta, custards and sauces), and once you have the basic ratios in hand, you are free to let your creative side loose and have some fun with adding and mixing flavors, and ingredients. Another option if you want to get creative with your baking is to make modifications to tested recipes that you already know, while being careful to maintain the core chemistry of the original dish.
This is what my wife and I did recently to good effect when we were trying to develop a healthy muffin that we could make and freeze for a quick getaway breakfast option. We ended up taking a recipe we had for oat and wheat germ muffins that produced cakes with a decent texture, but were lacking in flavor, with a blueberry muffin recipe that was very tasty, but lacked the nutritional value of the oat and wheat germ alternative. It took a few tries, but the resulting muffin is a nice blend of both. We’ll make a few batches of these at a time and freeze them. Everyone in the family loves these, and on a rushed morning, can toss one in the microwave for 45 seconds and have a great take-away breakfast to start the day.
- 1/4 cup rolled oats
- 3 tablespoons whole wheat flour
- 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 3 tablespoons granulated sugar, and 2 teaspoons cinnamon, combined
- 1 cup rolled oats
- 1 cup buttermilk
- 1 large egg, beaten
- 1 1/4 cups wild blueberries (fresh, or frozen and thawed)
- 1/4 cup canola oil
- 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/4 cup toasted wheat germ
- 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Pre-heat oven to 375 F degrees, and set the rack on the middle position.
- Spray cups of a 12 medium muffin pan with non-stick cooking spray.
- For Streusel, combine all ingredients in a bowl and set aside.
- Combine 3 tablespoons sugar, and 2 teaspoons cinnamon in a bowl and set aside.
- Mix oats and buttermilk in a large bowl and let sit 10 minutes. Add oil, vanilla and beaten egg to the bowl and incorporate.
- In a separate bowl, combine flours, wheat germ, baking powder and soda, salt, and 1/2 cup sugar. Add to oat mixture and gently stir until just combined.
- Toss wild blueberries in 1 tablespoon of all-purpose flour to coat, then shake gently in a strainer to remove any extra flour. (wild blueberries are smaller and sweeter than the sometimes VERY large cultivated berries, the flour coating keeps the berries from sinking to the bottom of the muffins when baking)
- Sprinkle cinnamon sugar and blueberries on top of the batter, and gently fold to distribute evenly.
- Fill muffin cups equally, sprinkle with the streusel topping, and bake for 18-20 minutes.
- Cool on a wire rack for 10 minutes, remove from pan and serve, or continue to cool on racks until they are at room temperature before packing and freezing.