In case you haven’t seen it, there are three parts to each show: the Signature Challenge, the Technical Challenge, and the Showstopper Challenge. For the first and last challenges, they plan their own version of whatever has been assigned (“please make Paul and Mary sixteen perfect petits fours, in two flavors”, e.g.). Some contestants come up with very unusual flavor combinations, which makes me wish I could taste their results as well as see them.
The Technical Challenge is different. The contestants are all given the same recipe and ingredients, and left to do the best job they can. Usually the recipe is for something that few of them have ever made before, and sometimes it’s a pastry that none of them have even heard of. On top of that, the recipe is deliberately skimpy on details—the temperature for the oven, but not the baking time, for instance. Recipes for yeast-raised dough tend to leave out rising times, and sometimes parts of the recipe just say, “Make a custard” or “Prepare fruit”, leaving the contestant to fill in the gaps with their own knowledge of baking (and some on-the-spot guesswork.)
And that’s why I love the Technical Challenge. It’s a test of their overall baking know-how. The more broadly they have experimented in baking and the more they have read about different baked goods, the more likely they are to know something about baking the assigned item. Being practiced in common techniques helps when the recipe leaves out the details. Even being inquisitive in sampling pastry can pay off— if the contestant has eaten the pastry in question, at least they have some idea how it should turn out.
Now onward to Cakes For Bakers, a cookbook for the professional baker, copyright 1923. This book belonged to my Grandpere, who was, indeed, a professional baker. The book in interesting for a number of reasons. It’s old and refers to things like “pastry butterine” and whether the damper should be closed while baking. The selection of recipes is unlike my household cookbooks—it includes “Monte Carlos”, “Stork’s Nests”, and various kinds of Zwieback and honey cake, for example. It offers suggestions on pricing, decoration, and display of goods, and discusses the use of ammonium carbonate in leavening cookies.
The most interesting part of the book, however, is not the book itself but the multitude of scraps of paper that have been tucked into it. Scrawled in pencil on the backs of old checks and garden store forms are recipes—lists of ingredients, really—with no explanation of their existence. In at least one case, my grandfather appears to be copying out a recipe from the book for a butter cookie, but with less lemon. Are these notes on how to vary existing recipes? Recipes from other books? Some appear to be calculations for making a different size batch.
One thing is certain—there is no explanation of how the listed ingredients are to be mixed and baked. To use these scrawled recipes, a person would either have to know the technique, or look up a similar recipe and work from its instructions.
For a long time before I had this book, I was trying to find a recipe for a certain kind of cookie that Grandpere made. All through my childhood, when we stayed with them, we ate these cookies which were stored in an old coffee can. There were crescents, ovals with scalloped edges, and leaf-shapes, but they all seemed to be basically the same cookie with different toppings—chopped nuts, tiny chocolate chips, whole cashews, or red candied fruit. My father said much later that they were butter cookies, but the butter cookies I tried never tasted quite right.
Eventually I found a butter cookie recipe with a bit of almond flavor that seemed right—but by then it had been so long that the flavor of the cookie was a dim memory. Still, it seemed possible that the cookies might have had a touch of almond—he put almond in the apple pastry and sliced almonds on the sides of cakes. (I wish I had asked my father whether Grandpere was especially fond of almond flavor. It’s too late now.)
So I was excited when I discovered the cookbook some years ago with its scraps of recipes. Could the answer be here? Maybe the recipe for the butter cookie with lemon? (Though I don’t remember any hint of lemon in the cookies he made.) At least that list of ingredients matched with a recipe in the book, which would help with mixing directions.
The recipe in the book, however, was less than detailed. “Mix like cakes?” How much is “as much ammonia as will lie on a dime?” (I had to look up bakers’ ammonia and an equivalent in baking powder.) Finally, I guessed at the temperature of the “moderate oven” and the time.
The result, as I recall, was not remarkable. The failing could be in the recipe or in my memory of the cookies or both. But the challenge was an interesting one, and I think about it sometimes when I watch the contestants on the Baking Show attempt to figure out their sketchy instructions, and again when Paul and Mary survey the assorted results and compare them to the picture-perfect version they’ve just been sampling in another tent.
If only I had a Chock Full O’Nuts can filled with Grandpere’s cookies for the purpose of comparison, I could figure out that recipe yet.