Saturday, February 18, 2012

Project: "Better Baker" - My Search for Leavening

My Three R's

As I mentioned in a previous post, one of my big goals for 2012 is to become a better baker.  Of course, I realize that "better" is one of those adjectives that can mean just about anything to anyone.  But for me, being a "better baker" means taking more risks, allowing myself to make more mistakes, and emphasizing learning and improving rather than avoiding failure and trying to be perfect.

Now if participating in the December Sanity Challenge taught me anything, it was the importance of accountability.  Setting goals, period, is wonderful.  But creating a sense of personal responsibility and obligation by sharing those goals with others - that's often the crucial difference between caving in and rising to the challenge.  Which is why it's so important for me to write this post.

Initially, I looked at this goal like it was an amazing, giant rollercoaster.  I knew there would be ups and downs, but I was looking forward to it - an exciting new adventure with endless possibilities.  But like any rollercoaster, there comes a point where the novelty wears thin and you just want to get off, the grass suddenly appearing greener on the other side.

And that's where I am right now, starting to wish I was back on solid ground.

I strive for excellence in everything I do, whether it's acting, waiting tables, photography, or writing, and baking is no exception.  The fact that I bake gluten-free, dairy-free, and more and more these days, vegan, doesn't change the standards that I hold myself to.  It's important to me that what I make and what I share with others be delicious, period - no qualifications needed.  So in embracing this goal of becoming a better baker, I understood that I would be venturing outside my comfort zone - baking things I'd never baked before or baking things with little to no gluten-free, dairy-free, and/or vegan precedent.  In theory, all of those challenges sounded great to me.

However, it was the act of actually taking on those challenges was where I started to veer off course.  While an emphasis on "learning and improving" was part of the original manifesto,  auto-pilot kicked in and the domineering perfectionist bullied his way back into the driver's seat.  Instead of patting myself on the back for trying something new, I became frustrated that I wasn't immediately good at it.  My experience with baking popovers is a perfect example.  Of the nine trials, eight of them tasted wonderful and were well worth repeating.  But of the nine, only two looked "right."  And I became fixated on getting it "right," not because it would make them any more delicious, but because I was stubborn and wanted to prove that I could do it.

Brain-Hurricane Notebook.

Now, in my perfect world, I would be able to bake everyday.  That would be a dream.  But in real life, I bake two days out of the week at the most.  So it becomes a big deal that I make the most of those opportunities.  In the days in between, I read books on baking, scour the net for hints and tips, and I document all my ideas, inspirations, and theoretical recipes so I'm prepared when those days come.  And armed with so much knowledge and passion, better baking would naturally follow, right?  Well, sometimes it would, and other times it wouldn't.  In experimenting and playing with recipes, this is normal, even for the most accomplished and experienced pastry chef.  But for some reason, that wasn't good enough for me.   "Failures" trumped all, leaving me feeling agitated and  on-edge most of the time.  And somewhere in that mix, baking became a  conditional equation.

If I get X right, then I am a better baker. 
If I don't get X right, then I am not a better baker.

And in all-or-nothing fashion, doubts of myself as a baker began to transfer to my daily life,

If you are a better baker, then you are a smart, capable, valuable person.
If you are not a better baker, then you are not a smart, capable, valuable person.

contaminating my every day with fear, hesitation, and resentment.  [sigh]

Are you getting the sense of the rollercoaster, yet?  It's funny how the things I'm typing seem both rational and irrational to me at the same time.  If anything, writing it down and getting it out of my system is just what I needed to gain some distance from it all and separate the woods from the trees.  And while it all may sound crazy or senseless, if anything it helps me understand just how much this goal of being a "better baker" means to me.  If it didn't mean much, I could easily move on and say, "I tried."  But the fact that it hurts like this and makes me angry, sad, frustrated, and a bit cuckoo - that speaks volumes.

So, now that I've got all that off my chest, here's my plan to help me rise again to the challenge.

1)  Reclaim the Zen.  I recently tweeted that in a past life I must have been a pastry chef whose time came too soon because all I want to do is bake like there's no tomorrow.  As much as my id wants to pack the baking days with multiple recipes and experiments, doing just one recipe at a time would be a huge boost for me.  It would not only allow me greater capacity to focus on how the ingredients and the ratios are affecting the outcome, but it would also allow me to truly enjoy and savor the process again, like I used to. 

2)  Refocus on the journey instead of the destination.  While earning the right to be called a baker will be awesome, it is by no means something that will happen overnight.  It may not even happen by the end of 2012.  And that's perfectly fine.  Like a butterfly emerging from its cocoon, in order to grow and find strength, I need to be tested, I need to be pushed, and I need to have patience.  And this goal is definitely helping me to find all those things and more.  Now I just need to accept them.

3) Remember who I'm doing this for.   Especially when it comes to the blog, Twitter, and Instagram, I'll start to post a picture, one that I'm proud of, and then I'll hesitate and second-guess myself.  Thoughts of what others will think start to flurry through my mind, and suddenly something that should have taken a minute or two takes me twenty.  And the kicker is that 9 times out of 10, I'll post the picture anyway.  Ultimately, this goal is for me.  When it's all said and done, of course I would love to share all the knowledge I've learned and the recipes that come from it.  But like the oxygen masks in airplanes, I've got to take care of myself first. 

Thank you for indulging my little soapbox.  If you read down this far, hats off to you.  While part of me was scared that sharing this would make me seem incompetent, naive, or unstable, a larger part of me knows that being frank about my challenges will help someone else out there not feel so alone.

Stopping to look back on it all, I have learned an amazing amount of things.  And while my brain's hunger for knowledge far exceeds the time with which to apply it, I just have to have faith that all these ideas will come to fruition in due time.  After all, better to have the dilemma of too many ideas and not enough time rather than the other way around, right?

My goal of being a better baker is in the cards - I know that.  But I've been sprinting up a slippery slope to get to it.  Remembering the words of my grandmother, "Haste makes waste," I'm ready to pick myself up and start again, one foot in front of the other.  And this time, my game face will include a smile.

On a rollercoaster, what goes up must come down.  But the opposite is also true.

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