I was 14 years old when I first learned how to bake. I gathered enough guts to use the gas oven quite easily because the manual was pretty straight forward and my mom was always on stand by to offer me tips. She was very eager to help out I guess because she was so afraid that I might blow up the kitchen if she left me unattended. I just started reading cookbooks then and saw a great Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe – ideal for novice bakers. It called for flour, eggs, butter, sugar, salt, baking soda, baking powder, vanilla extract, semi-sweet chocolate chips and a little elbow grease (I didn’t have a KitchenAid until I graduated from high school). The first few attempts were nothing short of a disaster – burnt, tough and missed the mark by a thousand miles. I had to make several batches looking over the recipe close to a hundred times before I could confidently serve the fruits of my labor to anyone willing to taste them. At that point, I started tweaking the recipe to appeal to my finicky eaters. One of my sisters wanted her cookies chewier than usual so I turned to Alton Brown’s scientific approach to baking and used more brown sugar in my chewy mix. I have baked and ate my weight in cookies throughout the years I have been making them but it’s quite surprising how I still learn something new about these darn good treats to this very day (Just recently, a friend shared that she adds a touch of Garam Masala to her dough for that warm, exotic finish).
Learning something new, for me, is unnerving. While I excitedly anticipate an amazing outcome after picking up a new trick, there is a cloud of insecurity looming close behind that the practice of the skill might not work out as planned. Studying the cookie recipe for the first time whetted my appetite but nobody prepared me for the devastation that came with burning the batch and producing paperweights instead. It threw me for a loop because I was certain that I followed the recipe to the letter. I guess most people shudder at the thought of having to learn something new because of the fear of messing it all up. This was true for me that I waited a while before mustering up the courage to give baking another go.
Just like writing with your non-dominant (in my case, left) hand, learning can feel deliberate at times as well. It calls for your conscious effort and your full attention – you study, you observe, you inquire, you think. I didn’t understand why I kept burning my cookies even after properly weighing and scaling the ingredients so I literally kept a close eye on every batch as they baked. Soon after, I noticed that the lumps of dough on the sheets placed at the back of the oven melted faster than the ones in front. Having seen that, I switched the sheets halfway through the time required for a more even cooking. Still, the cookies came out slightly overdone. This was when I invoked my mom’s counsel and asked what the problem might be. As an experienced baker, it did not take her long to figure out that the oven was warmer than necessary. Turned out that the temperature knob of our old-timey oven was not as reliable as I have expected. So I invested in an internal thermometer and I have been baking perfect cookies since then.
I came across a quote that says we learn something new everyday if we pay attention. Carrying this out can be a challenge for most of us considering that we already have a lot going on. But if we decide to keep a closer look at our busy days, we might see that there are many opportunities for learning stuck between the crevices of our daily grind. You may have been struggling with heavy traffic traveling via the route you have known for years and taking that alternate course may very well be the answer to your woes. You’ll never learn that unless you deliberately turn the other direction. Similarly, I may have not been able to reach the satisfaction of baking the best cookies on the face of the earth (that’s a bit of an exaggeration) had I been unwilling to study my mistakes and make the necessary adjustments. It will feel awkward and uneasy – very much like writing with your left (or right) hand – but the rewards of pursuing new learning can never be matched. I intended to learn how to bake, but I also gained understanding of oven temperature troubleshooting that made the difference between a paperweight and a tasty cookie. This was made possible simply by learning with my left hand.