Our cooking advice column, Dear Liza, is penned by Liza Queen, one of the pioneers of the New Brooklyn food scene. Her restaurants Queen’s Hideaway and later Potlikker both attracted a cult-like following and transcended easy categorizing, save for their reliance upon Greenmarket fresh foods and Queen’s Southern-tinged style of cooking. Now she is between restaurants–and fortunately for us, answering questions from inquisitive home cooks. Send her your questions here.
Dear Liza: I am not much of a baker, but I’d like to have a couple go-to desserts. What do you suggest?
My mother’s mother was a fine baker of beautifully made, stout, early American, grandmother-y desserts like apple, blueberry and lemon meringue pies, chocolate chip cookies and lemon bars. She used leaf lard in her pie crusts, Northern Spies in her apple pies, owned and used a wooden, two-tiered pie basket, and believed in stirring with a wooden spoon.
As a result, my own mother despised baking, despite the fact that she was really good at it, because she would never be as good. And so, my mother very pragmatically decided that since once in a while she would be called upon to bake, she may as well have about four solid recipes that always worked for her when she needed them, and then she happily went about the business of never learning anything more about the whole damn thing, and would go back to eating some fruit or a Thin Mint, which frankly she preferred, if she ever wanted something sweet.
I have baked for many reasons. I have baked meringue kisses, colored lurid shades of green and blue, by myself after elementary school for fun, using a socket near the floor next to the bathroom for the handmixer, because meringue kisses were easy, and they looked funny and gross when they were green, and because I was kind of a shy little nerd. In fourth grade I cooked an apple crumble where I switched the measurements on the salt and sugar, and watched my family try to eat it with straight faces while I just sat and melted in shame and disappointment. I have baked for celebratory reasons, because I believe a birthday is not a birthday without a cake. I have baked for practical reasons like needing a dessert or two for dinner service at restaurants where I was responsible for such things. And I have baked just because I could, and had time, and because there were a million berries perfectly in season and I keep trying to make the perfect pie.
But when I began to learn to bake in earnest, I started with what my grandmother and mother made, because I already knew what those things were supposed to taste like, and I figured it would be easier. This is a good starting point for anybody, as it is, generally speaking, much easier to cook something when you already know how you would like it to taste and feel. Over the years, as I have learned things about the science of baking, and more about the ways in which flavors and textures work together, I have tinkered with these family recipes to what I would call a minor extent, and what my sister would call to the point of unrecognizability.
Here are some of them, but before you proceed, keep the following in mind: Baking really is a science, and while you may not need to know what a gluten chain looks like, or at what temperature starch molecules will start to absorb water, leak amylose, and stick to each other, you do, at the very least, need to read the recipe carefully, and set out your equipment and mise before you start.