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It's Not the Recipe, It's the Technique

mmm ... moelleux au chocolat!

SOMETIMES, when luck is on your side and your ventures in the kitchen yield such wondrous delights, you almost swoon at the oohs and ahs from your dear ones and your dear friends. The greatest kind of flattery is when a friend comes up to you with a twinkle in the eye and a covetous look.

“Could you give me the recipe?” the voice floats towards you.

I never know how to deal with this question. Are you supposed to be coy, and in true-blue Asian style, go, “Oh, this recipe still needs improvement!” Or do you just say exactly what’s in your heart, No, I can’t!— or be even more honest: No, I don’t want to.

I’ve never ever taken the bitchy route, but I highly recommend going down the coy and polite path. If, however, you’re up to something a little bit more dodgy, you could always try this: clear the throat with gusto and let out a quick, Hmmm! then switch the topic. I’m not sure if it’s the best technique, but it works.

Pretty Please, Share Your Recipe!

Lately, though, I’ve decided to concern myself with less bitchy and dodgy thoughts. Why don’t I just share the recipes? That was exactly what I did this March, in my first baking class ever. My recipes—three of them—got a chance to come strutting out, screaming, “Try me, try me!”

Two of my three students, a mother-son duo, launched into their first attempt of a moelleux au chocolat, a chocolate lava cake, within the week of the class. They were excited, so was I. But little hiccups greeted them, hiccups I had to half-guess at based on a distressed and not particularly clear description of their woes, so that I ended up offering a catch-all list of troubleshoot possibilities:

1. Incorporating the butter: You sure it was cubed and chilled, not softened or melted?

2. Melting the chocolate: Was your bain marie set up right, not too hot, not too much water?

3. Whisking the eggs: Did you whisk them with the sugar till they were at least slightly fluffy?

Finally, at their second attempt, everything went hey presto! even though it wasn’t in time for a planned Easter party, but who cares?

Happiness belated, is still happiness indeed!

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So Many Ways To Look at Technique

The lesson for JD, the lead baker in the mother-son team, was this: technique is as critical as the recipe, if not more so. And for the baker girl and teacher, her big lesson was to write even clearer notes that speak to the technique, to the nuances in the details—butter consistency, for instance, or the direction of one’s wrist movement when piping a chocolate mousse, and a host of anal details, enough to keep her happy and busy with even more edits and enhancements.

But only so much of technique can be written, so much more of it has to be practiced, sensed, and felt, with good judgment and keen observation constantly involved

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Which is why Thomas Keller had this to say about his approach to teaching cooking:

I focus on techniques rather than the recipes because the technique is the most important part of the recipe
"The technique is the most important part of the recipe"

And so, if you ever get to learn with me, and run your eyes over my recipes, keep them trained over the Tips and Preparation sections for pointers on technique and execution.

There are so many ways of looking at technique, and here are just some of them:

1. Get Your Butter Right

JD could have had all the ingredients down pat in his moelleux, weighed to the dot—though he confessed he had goofed up a little—but if his execution had been wobbly, then he wouldn’t have hit a home-run with a flawless product.

Case in point: he had complained that his batter ended up icky and oily. I suspect he had tossed his butter into the melted chocolate in chunky oily globs rather than as chilled cubes, bit by bit, for when I had quizzed him about the state of his butter, he winced with a knowing kind of ouch—oily globs, indeed!

I’d even venture to add that there’s a technique to cutting butter as well—safely, efficiently, and cleanly.

2. Set Up Your Bain Marie Right

Even setting up a bain marie properly is a technique in itself. One needs to master heat control: Is the water just softly bubbling or boiling? That's as important as using just the right amount of water: Is the bottom of the bowl too close to the water, or worse, touching it?

3. Think About Mise En Place

How about mise en place, that French term for put in place, that unwritten edict that tells you to be organized or else … That’s technique too, like how you would scale your ingredients accurately, and scale them in the right order if you’re using the tare function.

It sounds pretty commonsensical, lining things up and weighing ingredients, but believe me, common sense can sometimes be scarce in the kitchen. I’ve once been yelled at by a chef for having no common sense when I scaled four ingredients together to make a ganache. It wasn’t the scaling he had rebuked me for, it was the order in which the items went in—the cocoa powder should have been the last thing in, not the first.

It takes being called stupid before I realized how stupid I was.

4. Prep Your Molds Well

Then, there’s the prepping of cake molds. Whatever type of molds you’re using for a moelleux au chocolat, whether they are fluted brioche molds or plain ramekins, you’ve got to be meticulous with your mold prep, the buttering and the flouring. Same story with your soufflé. The brushstrokes must to be clean, neat, and precise, “leaving no spot unbuttered,” as I had emphasized in my recipe.

I even shared this: make sure you butter thoroughly not just the sides of the mold, but the bottom as well—a tip I had first written for myself following that one night at my Sweet Soirée, where my brushwork was more soufflé-inspired. I had merely focused my efforts on the sides of the mold, and given the bottom a mere flick of the brush.

Too quick and perfunctory was my handiwork at that magic spot that my poor friend, Jo, had to eat from the mold. The stubborn cake just glued itself merrily where it sat and no amount of coaxing or cajoling or bottom-smacking with a fork could get it to unmold.

So, the next time your eyes go twinkling at someone’s recipe, mine for instance, just remember: the recipe isn't everything.

Do You Want My Kueh Lapis Recipe?

I could give you a kueh lapis recipe right now—ingredients I had scrawled at the back of a receipt, straight from a display book at my favorite kitchenware store. I had captured no technique notes, no details concerning the batter weight and bake times for each layer, or how much pressure you have to apply when pressing the layers down, or this: do you tap or not tap the pan after each batter application? Interestingly, the author of that book hadn’t even captured details to such granularity, but the point is this:

Everything, so many things, they’re all techniques.

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But, fret not. Come talk to me about technique, I think about it all day long. And now, I’m about to share them with you. Little by little. In the kitchen, and on the page.

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vivienne yeo is a baker, a home cook, and a writer with a weakness for pots and pans, and a soft spot for cookbooks, fine cutlery, and cool crockery

Created By
Vivienne Yeo
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Credits:

copyright © 2018 vivienne yeo | Thomas Keller #1, photo by William Hereford | Thomas Keller #2, photo by Mark Mahaney for WSJ Magazine | Butter cubes, photo by Getty Images | Created with images by Taylor Kiser - "moelleux au chocolat" • congerdesign - "chocolate shaving chopped chocolate hacked ingredient cut" • Gaelle Marcel - "Eggs"

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