From rule breaker to baker

 Molasses spice cake

Even the most experienced cooks can be intimidated by the thought of baking. Off-the-cuff improvisation and editing - essential in cooking - can be disastrous to baking endeavors. That was something that kept food writer Kathy Gunst from doing a lot of baking. She explained to The Washington Post that "for someone who prides herself on being a bit of a rebel - in the kitchen and out - baking has been a challenge. Being a really good baker requires understanding what makes bread dough rise and why some cakes are light and fluffy, and that is a matter of working within the lines. Isn't it?"

Gunst began to have a change of heart after was asked to help judge a cookbook competition - in the baking category. She approached the task with a feeling that approached dread, but dutifully began to bake from five different books that she felt could help her become a better baker. At first the results weren't encouraging. "I spent 10 days testing recipes: baking pies and fancy pastry, icing cakes and generally feeling bad about myself," she recalls.

Even though she was discouraged, she decided to dig in her heels and try again. It was then that she had an epiphany. She started weighing her ingredients instead of using less precise measuring methods. "Expert bakers could have predicted that: My eyeball-it approach was a big part of the problem," she explains. "When I actually measured the spices called for in a gingerbread cake, I was amazed: My practice of filling the spice cap up to what I'd assumed was 1/2 teaspoon was way off."

Once she realized the value of precision (which included using the correct size of baking pans), her baking dramatically improved. After this crash course, Gunst began to feel more confident, eventually being able to successfully deviate from the recipes.  She sums up the lessons learned from her deep dive into baking: "if you follow the rules and understand why they are there, you can go ahead and start to break them, a little at a time...I needn't fight my urge to experiment. I just needed to learn how to do it right."

Photo of Molasses spice cake from Better Homes and Gardens Magazine by Jim Stott and Jonathan King and Kathy Gunst

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