Baking With Chef Desi: A Lesson On Little Things For Grand Cinnamon Rolls

"There is no one way to be organized or detailed-oriented, because orderliness is shaped so much by circumstance."

Chefs always get the same question when they meet a non-cook (or civilian as some of us like to call them): “What’s your favorite thing to cook?” Well, I’m not here to give you an answer because that’s like asking someone what their favorite song is; it will always depend on the mood, season, time of day, the most recently watched T.V. show, or opened magazine. What I can tell you though is the answer to the second question I get asked all the time: “Why did you choose to focus on baking instead of savory food?”

The short answer: I like cake.

The long answer is that baking requires order, precision, and attention to detail. Cooking, on the other hand, allows the cook to have a little bit more freedom, playfulness and randomness.

In baking, chefs work with raw ingredients and most of these are unsafe to eat in their natural state, meaning we have to rely on a lot of science, physics, and chemistry to predict their reaction, taste, and texture. Luckily, an OCD cook a long time ago wrote some stuff down and recipes were invented (phew!), which are no more than the recorded findings of science experiments.

Being a savory cook means having the freedom to try creations as they’re cooking (most of the time). In fact, one of the commandments of being a cook is to try EVERYTHING before, during, and after the preparation process to prevent anything less than perfect being served to the guest. For example, if you’re making a tomato sauce for pasta, you cook the tomatoes with some oil, garlic, onions, basil, oregano, and your apartment smells like Nonna’s house on Saturday afternoon. You cook the pasta, stir the sauce in, sprinkle some cheese and presto! When you taste it you’re less than impressed because you forgot to put salt in your sauce rendering it tasteless. Fear not! Pop the pasta back into the heat, sprinkle some salt and pepper, stir continuously for a few seconds, and dinner is served.

Now, imagine it’s your significant other’s birthday and you’ve decided to bake him/her/them a cake: oven at 350*F, cake goes in, timer goes on. Minutes later you re-read the recipe and realize that you added half a teaspoon of baking powder instead of the half tablespoon it calls for... well, let’s just say it’s not going to be the nice fluffy cake you were hoping for and as you probably have already figured out, there’s not much you can do to fix it. Not to say that cooking savory food is not detail oriented because it very much is, but the failure to pay proper attention to details in baking creates drastic ramifications.

There are so many factors that affect the results of a recipe and sometimes even the slightest change can ruin the whole batch, so pastry chefs tend to be very precise and aware during their process. Measuring everything is a must, and in professional kitchens, it is always done by weight instead of volume because of the added precision. Pastry kitchens, in my experience, also reflect this passion for accuracy: every container is labelled, there is a system for everything, and patterns for every organization. Simply put, pastry chefs who watched The Home Edit were not entirely impressed and that’s mainly because we already use those tools and techniques in our daily work life— and those who are like me— in our personal life too.

Yes, the measuring, and organizing, and categorizing can sometimes take over us off the clock. My kitchen has many categories, my closet is organized by function and color (even the shoes). When I deliver the baked goods I sell, I create a map of the whole route taking into consideration traffic patterns to ensure maximum efficiency. There’s a system!