I would not call myself a precise cook. For me, improvisation trumps precision, and that's why baking and I don't get along. I'd rather eyeball quantities or season to taste than deploy measuring cups and candy thermometers. This slice confirms that.
Just yesterday, friends invited my wife and me over for dinner and asked if we'd bring dessert.
"I think I'll make meringues," declared my wife, who gamely set about separating eggs.
When I heard a mild oath from the kitchen, I asked, ""Got yolk in your whites?"
"Uh huh," she groaned. "I'm going to try to save it."
Among my limited tidbits of baking expertise, I know that whipped egg whites are notoriously sensitive to interloping yolk. These were no exception, getting frothy under the whisk's ministrations, but refusing to hold any peaks.
"I'm going ahead anyway," declared my wife as she poured out one thin, glossy layer of sweetened albumen. "Let's see what happens." She slid the baking sheet into the oven and asked, "You want to use these yolks?"
Not one to waste ingredients, I said, "Sure. Maybe I can make a custard or pudding." I dug out a much-loved copy of How to Cook Everything by Mark Bitman, which seemed like just the tome for the job. I learned that if I mixed the yolks with an appropriate ratio of milk, sugar, and vanilla, I'd have a simple custard sauce in short order. The only catch: I needed to coax the sauce's temperature into a five-degree window that would yield the desired coat-the-back-of-a-spoon consistency, all while (under no circumstances) allowing the liquid to boil. Guess what eventually happened.
My wife and I felt like contestants on a TV cooking show where everything was going wrong, the clock running down. Time to improvise and, to the extent possible, salvage dessert.
I strained the broken custard and left it in the fridge to consider thickening up. My wife chiseled the crispiest bits of meringue off the baking sheet, leaving hunks of chewy, stuck-on mess behind. We chopped up some blackberries and strawberries, tossed them with a few spoonfuls of Cointreau, and left them to macerate.
When it came time to serve dessert, we ladled out chilled vanilla soup, studded with tart berries, topped with meringue crumble. A tasty hit!
The episode may have reinforced my apparently fixed mindset about baking, but my growth mindset about cooking, in general, remains alive and well.