Uncluttered Baking

By Sharon Kebschull Barrett

Before we got married, my husband and I found a prenup agreement laughable: I was a newspaper copy editor, and he was a grad student — what assets were there  to fight over? But when we prepared for a new house a few years ago, we did have a sort of pre-build: I would design the house, and he, tech obsessive, got to plan the wiring in the walls.

This caused him a bit of unease, and I heard lots of nervous muttering, all along the lines of my going too stark.  As he knew, this was my chance to create the modern house of my dreams — and what good is modern without stark?

In the end, the house got a good compromise: modern, but with enough warm touches to make it feel homey, at least to us. And with two children, truly stark simply isn’t possible: It’s always acquiring  extra layers of decoration.

I did get my wish, though, in my kitchen. There especially, I wanted a calm, sleek space, with stainless steel countertops devoid of stuff, rubber floors for soft comfort underfoot, cabinets without handles (the doors have cutouts instead), and a rolltop door that hides my appliances.

That lack of clutter I crave holds true in my baking, too. How often have you looked at a recipe that sounds gloriously over the top — cookies with pecans! chocolate chips! cocoa! espresso powder! mini marshmallows! white chocolate chips! coconut! and more white chocolate! — only to find that they tasted like … nothing much, really. So many flavors, so little that stands out.

I’ve learned not to trust that piled-on approach, though those recipes still catch my eye. If such a recipe seems otherwise sound, I’ll tweak it, dropping many of the elements and focusing on just two or three that I know harmonize well. If I can’t “taste” the recipe in my head while reading it (as in the cookies above, in which my mind’s taste buds just can’t pull together so many flavors, even though they’re complementary), I keep losing a layer of flavor until I can.

A better way toward big flavor, I find, is to keep adding layers of the same (or almost) note. I realized while writing my cookbooks that I tend to create recipes with “double” or “triple” in the name: Triple-Lemon Madeleines, Double Chocolate Muffins. Building up lemon flavor with minced lemon verbena, lemon thyme and lemon balm gives me true depth. The flavors build up, not cancel one another out. Chocolate gathers strength with cocoa as a base, chocolate chunks for more flavor and texture, and a bit of espresso powder or a pinch of pepper to brighten it without being another identifiable flavor.

Think, too, about size and flavor concentration. I recently made mini raspberry muffins that I’d previously done only as full-size, and they didn’t work. Full-size muffins have space for fresh raspberries and for a large disk of almond paste that I tuck into the middle.  Also, in that recipe, some raspberries are crushed with the sugar first, boosting the flavor.  When reduced to a mini muffin, though, there just wasn’t enough space in each for the flavor to fit. I’d have been better off, I think, using raspberry jam, a concentrated flavor. It misses the point of a fresh-berry muffin, but better than that a flavorless  — or stark! — one.

Recipe: Double-Lemon Bars

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