Easy as Pie

A Busy Person's Guide to Scratch Baking

Photos by John Valls

Published Spring, 2006
Edible Portland

Once upon a time, a sour-cherry pie with lattice crust, still warm from the oven, was the ultimate expression of hearth and home. A thick slice of homemade bread, slathered with sweet butter, was a hallmark of hospitality…if your name was June Cleaver.

Now we live in an age of convenience foods, and everyone complains that they haven't any time. Bread making has a reputation for being fussy and old-fashioned, a tricky collaboration of yeast, time, and expertise, with long odds of a payoff for the amateur baker. The thought of baking a loaf can be overwhelming and conjure up images of an entire day spent in its service.

Actually, baking is the perfect pursuit for busy people because it is well-suited to being divided into steps and stages. Significant chunks of time are spent waiting, but you needn't plan your day around the schedule of a loaf of bread. In fact, the methodology is quite logical and far more flexible than you might imagine.

The lulls are a natural and necessary part of the process, essential to the development of texture and complexity of flavor you want. They facilitate balancing the demands of a lump of dough with the stuff of daily life: a 9-to-5 job, kids, food, rest, play, laundry, bills. The first rise takes between 18 and 20 hours, authorizing you to adjust your routine not one iota. Rest assured, time and temperature are hard at work.

I learned to bake in stages when I worked in restaurants. A few of my jobs required me to arrive in time to bake bread for lunch service, or pastries for breakfast-at 4:30 a.m. Because I cherished every minute in bed, I learned to do whatever I could in advance without compromising: Everything was made fresh daily, and tasted delicious.

I developed muffin batters that kept beautifully in the refrigerator for three days so I could go bleary-eyed to my ovens and turn them on, make my first cup of coffee and scoop the batter into paper liners while they preheated. Thirty minutes later, the kitchen was filled with buttery sweet aromas, redolent of cinnamon and nutmeg, the perfume of vanilla beans and lemon zest. I mixed and shaped my scones, and stored them in the freezer. The day before I planned to bake them, I took the scones out of the freezer to defrost overnight in the walk-in.

I assembled flaky biscuits by adding cream to a mix I made the previous day by cutting the butter into the dry ingredients. I learned that cake layers were easiest to frost and assemble when they were a day old, or had been frozen and defrosted. And cake batter freezes like a charm! If you've ever tried to make, bake, cool and decorate a cake in one day, you'll understand the enormity of such discoveries.

I learned to love my freezer, and defend against invasion of the corner earmarked for the pastry department. (There's never enough food storage space in restaurants.) Once you get past it feeling like a dirty little secret, the idea of baking out of a freezer is totally liberating and essential to baking in stages. Some of the best apple pies I've made have gone straight from the freezer into a 425-degree oven. When I make tart dough, I always double the recipe and freeze half.

Baking cookies? Instead of adjusting the recipe to suit your purposes, make the biggest batch your mixer will hold. Bake what you'll eat immediately and put the remaining dough in the freezer. You can wrap the entire block, or scoop it into individual cookies.

In my experience, that ideal combination of crispy and chewy is best achieved with scooped, frozen cookie dough that you pop directly into a preheated oven. Knowing that the warm chocolate chip cookie you're dunking in milk was frozen less than 30 minutes ago is a wonderful feeling. That…and the fact that you're crafting a perfect loaf of bread, even as you reach for that second chocolate chip cookie.

See, I told you that you have time to bake.

Recipe for Rhubarb Muffins in Steps