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Sourdough cinnamon rolls, left, and berry swirl meringue clouds from Baked to Order.
In Baked to Order, Ruth Mar Tam opens the door to experimentation.
Waiting for her permanent residency to come through one chilly Toronto winter, author Ruth Mar Tam turned to baking. To stay warm and channel her creativity, the Seattle native baked and blogged, starting Cook Til Delicious purely as a personal recipe journal.
Now, seven years later, nearly 74,000 Instagram followers admire her laminated pastries, layer cakes and sourdough loaves. Carving out a career in food was unexpected, Tam says. What began as a creative outlet has led to her debut cookbook, Baked to Order (Page Street Publishing, 2020).
A professional harpist, Tam relates her love of baking to her musical background. “There’s a nice balance in baking between precision and self-expression,” she says, adding that one of her primary goals with the book was to open the door to experimentation.
Baked to Order ’s 60 recipes fall into chapters focusing on sweet and savoury treats such as pies, tarts and galettes, and pâte à choux. Helpful step-by-step photos feature throughout, and she offers plenty of variations as well as a final section filled with ideas for repurposing scraps.
“If you focus on basics and solid foundational techniques and recipes, you can do a lot. Being confident in your techniques and those basic recipes can really give you the freedom to be creative,” says Tam. “That’s one of the most fun things about baking — just being able to express yourself.”
You don’t need hundreds of recipes at your fingertips, she emphasizes. Once you’ve mastered core templates, you can take your baking in many different directions — whether through flavourings, construction or decoration. If we’ve learned anything from baking shows such as Nailed It! , five bakers could make the same cake recipe only to end up with entirely different results, each a product of their personality and skill.
After teaching music for many years, Tam sees writing and blogging as another way for her to teach people while continuing to learn herself. “You never completely master something,” she says. “There’s always a different way you could do it. Seeing how other people approach things is always really fascinating to me.”
More than 30 years of being a musician — first the piano, then the harp — primed her for baking. She draws a parallel between finessing a piece of music by practising it repeatedly and making the same recipe again and again. You learn a bit more each time: Make a recipe once and you may achieve the desired result, but as you revisit it, your understanding of how it comes together deepens.
“Sometimes minute details can make a big difference,” says Tam. “Having the tenacity to sort those things out and practice intelligently was something that I learned through many, many years of music lessons and really great teachers.”
Becoming a better baker is about developing awareness of your actions, she adds — a feel for the process gained with time. Take making a loaf of sourdough bread, for instance: Ingredients can be as minimal as a sourdough starter, flour, water and salt, but the way you combine them can have a significant impact on the end result.
An ingrained skill cultivated through practice, you’ll eventually be able to feel the difference in the dough — responding to your senses instead of prescribed timings. Once you understand why you’re applying certain techniques and what happens when you tweak them, you can start building on recipes to find your own style.
As Tam illustrates with her variations in Baked to Order , you can transform a recipe in just a few steps. She switches up her berry swirl meringue clouds by playing with extracts and oils, making them extra fruity or swapping the berries for chocolate. Recasting her strawberry palmiers, she adds lemon zest, dips them in a different flavoured sugar, or trades sweet for savoury by incorporating pesto or tapenade.
Coming up with the variations was one of the most rewarding aspects of writing the book, she says, and the options are limitless.
“These are just the tip of the iceberg. I really hope it inspires people to go beyond what I’ve done,” says Tam. “That’s always the biggest compliment of any recipe is when someone ends up making something different out of it. And I’m like, I never would have thought of that but I’m glad it was someone’s inspiration to make their own masterpiece.”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2021