Broyles: Embarking on a year of baking exploration


The holiday season — and watching my first episodes of “The Great British Baking Show” — have me thinking a lot about baking and how much it can vary from house to house, country to country.

The sponges, cakes and confections on that show, which is now on Netflix, are so different than what we typically bake here.

The home baker contestants compete by making baked goods I’ve never heard of or ones that never would have crossed my mind to make at home: French specialties, such as eclairs, canapé and trifiles, and English staples, like cherry cakes (iced Bundt cake with cherries, I learned), tea loaves (banana bread meets raisins meets fruitcake), filled buns (like unrolled, filled cinnamon rolls), flapjacks (oatmeal cookies, not pancakes) and biscuits, which aren’t much like the cookies we Americans spent all last month devouring.

Baking, like language and other expressions of culture, evolves as it travels, and I’m fascinated to think about how the baked goods I consider staples became so ingrained into my life. Brownies, sheet cakes, no-bake cookies, chocolate chip cookies and blueberry muffins are all Midwestern staples that have roots I’ll be untangling for the rest of my days.

Truth be told, like cooking, I wish I made more time for baking, especially outside the holiday season. When I do bake, I can get stuck in a rut, baking the same no-knead bread I fell in love with a few years ago or the applesauce muffins I used to wake up smelling on the coldest winter days in Missouri.

To help nudge a little exploration in the baking arts, we are embarking on a year of baking new things. I’m challenging myself, and I’d like to hear about your baking rituals and efforts, too.

To kick things off, I wanted to share my family’s beloved applesauce muffin recipe, as well as a new-to-me cherry muffin recipe that I made last week.

The cherry muffin recipe comes from James Briscione, the director of culinary development at the Institute of Culinary Education. The chef recently wrote a cookbook of essential techniques and recipes called “The Great Cook” (Oxmoor House, $29.95) that includes a trio of muffin recipes and the reminder that the key to really great muffins is not overmixing the batter.

Cupcakes are made by creaming butter and sugar together, but most muffins rely on an egg mixed with oil or, in the case of my favorite childhood muffins, applesauce for moisture. With a denser crumb, muffins can hold whatever fruit and nuts you throw in them, but if you stir the mixture too much, it will create too much gluten.

I really wanted to make the cherry wheat germ muffins from the book, but my local Sprouts didn’t have wheat germ, and there wasn’t a chance I was going to another grocery store for some when I knew the flaxseed meal sitting there in the barrel would do the trick.

The muffins came together in about as much time as it takes to brew a pot of coffee, and I avoided the cardinal sin of mixing too much. As I stirred, I realized that muffins aren’t that unlike pancakes. Each are made with flour, oil, eggs and leavening, but one’s a thicker batter, so let that help spark your creativity when you’re making either one. (Cherry flaxseed pancakes, anyone?)

One truth about baking is that you can rarely eat all of what you bake yourself. Even with two of the biggest sweet tooth kids in Austin in my house, there are always leftovers. Right before Christmas, I made some of the best oatmeal cookies ever with the intention of giving them to my neighbors and friends just before the winter break.

That kind of gesture we tend to do more often during the holidays, but I know plenty of year-round baking angels out there. People like Sharon Bright, who bakes for Hospice Austin once a week. Every Tuesday, she bakes. It’s just part of her routine.

People like my friend Jennie Chen, who almost always has something sweet in her hands to give you when you see her.

Another friend bakes brownies from scratch just because and then shares with the families for whom she nannies.

I’d like for baking to be more like that in my life, even if I can’t ever bake my way onto a reality TV show.



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