Cooking Vs Baking
I’m often asked whether I prefer cooking or baking. The answer is … I don’t know. Cooking tests my improvisational and creative skills while baking challenges me to be more disciplined since it requires me to be more technical and precise. Both exercise different parts of my brain. They feed off of each other and I strongly believe I am a better cook overall because of it.
While my skills in the kitchen were acquired organically, I can not forget the books that most inspired me during my childhood. Growing up in Indonesia, there was a cooking bible that every housewife knew and loved called Pandai Masak (translation: savvy cook)
This vintage cookbook was written in the 60’s. It’s a compilation of popular recipes from traditional-regional Indonesian to Chinese-Indonesian and Dutch cuisines. This all-in-1 book includes varieties of savory dishes and a significant section is dedicated to desserts. The dessert section was my first window into learning the European style of baking (note the western style dressed woman on the cover as opposed to what could be a woman in a traditional dress). I am assuming that inclusivity matters and it was important to reflect the diverse content of the book, however it could also mean that that western culture is the dominant culture and overrides the indigenous culture reflective of the time.
There was not a single illustration or photograph inside the whole book. For the most part, excluding the dessert section, the recipes did not come with measurements (GASP!) It was just a list of ingredients with a maximum of two paragraphs of instructions that were vague at best. If I were to take a guess as to why they did this, it’s probably because traditional and regional cooking is part of an oral tradition that is accompanied by practice. You learn by listening and doing, perhaps drawing a standard was impossible back then so each house holds gets to put their own spin on it, leaving a lot of room for interpretations by individual cooks. You would be surprised how much lack of information forces you to be an instinctual cook ! It helps you to be carefree and improvisational because you are not bound by too many rules and you fill in the blank through trial and errors, and adjust according to your taste.
Before the internet, there was The Joy of Cooking , another cooking bible that inspired me so much during my formative years that it inspired the name of this site. What follows naturally after cooking if it's not the feasting itself ? This book taught me how to bake the American way. While both of these books were lacking in illustrations, The Joy of Cooking provided theories, instructions and precise measurements making it a wonderful source to learn from. From this, I learned to be precise and it trained me to be more of an exacting, technical cook, quite a turn from the previous book!
I can’t stress enough the importance of learning fundamental theories about the nature of food preparation to allow you to be free and start creating to your heart’s content. There are those who are more comfortable at cooking savoury dishes and there are those who prefer to bake under strict technical instructions. As disciplines, those two are considered separate branches of knowledge. I think, as a home cook, you can be quite great at both provided you understand the fundamentals. (So great you might fool the judges into thinking you are a professional cook ;).)
If I were to tell a novice where to begin laying a strong foundation in the principles of both cooking and baking, I would recommend The Science of Cooking. I had spent two decades trying out hundreds of different recipes until I stumbled upon this book. Have you ever run across a recipe that you just couldn’t master no matter how hard you tried? It doesn’t matter if you follow the directions exactly or if you improvise a solution. It just ends up being a fail in one way or another? This book provides the essential building blocks for innovation by giving you an understanding of the chemistry involved in cooking. Consider it a textbook masquerading as a cookbook.
These days, we have the Internet with its infinite wisdom and glorious #foodporn. Whether it be Pinterest, YouTube or food sites, feasting with your eyes and learning step by step tutorials is as easy as a click of a button. I rarely look at recipes anymore but when I do I can already tell which one will work and which one won’t just by reading it. That said it doesn’t mean things won’t go wrong. I still have fails often but the most important part is building the knowledge base to know how to recover and salvage your creation.
My understanding of both disciplines really helped secure my placement in the Cooks Vs Cons audition process. I did come up with a couple recipes that showed my skill both as a baker and a cook. During one of the rigorous preliminary auditions, I had to bake a pie to make sure I could convince them to meet with me. I came up with Passionfruit Coconut Meringue Pie, a tropical twist to a Lemon Meringue Pie, an american baker’s staple. Anyone who claims they can bake should know how to bake a proper american style pie.
Here’s the recipe that I wooed them with during the in-person audition. I needed to convince them that I could do savoury as well as sweet baking with a much more carefree attitude. Allow me to present the Tricolor Potato Rosemary Tart
Yes, indeed, I baked my a** off to prove that I was a worthy amateur cook. I think having developed both skills really gave me an advantage and a winning dish that represents the harmony between cooking and baking.