Sometimes I can’t wait to get home before opening my mail. Instead, after stopping at my Post Office box, I tear into my packages indelicately on the Bay Area Rapid Transit, trying not to appear overly animated. As all public transit regulars know, it’s essential to maintain “train face” at all times, lest you attract the attention of transit crazies. But I must have failed to keep my blasé BART face when I brought the Ovenly cookbook home.
When I looked up from its pages, I noticed people starting. This should tell you how excited I was about the book.
At least, how excited I was at first.
Ovenly isn’t just a cookbook. Ovenly is also a Brooklyn, New York, bakery operated by business partners Erin Patinkin and Agatha Kulaga. Both women bring good stories to their venture. Neither is a professionally trained baker. Instead, each spent their respective childhoods stoveside, grew up and earned “useful” professional degrees, got good jobs, and rapidly became miserable. After meeting at food-oriented book club, Ovenly bakery was born.
Erin Patinkin is from suburban Chicago, where her mother and grandmother were avid recipe swappers. Young Erin soon joined them, later inheriting her grandmother’s recipe box.
Agatha Kulaga’s story is especially poignant. Though the professional cooking world is replete with “How I Came to Cooking” stories, few are so genuinely touching. The daughter of Polish immigrants, young Kulaga happily consumed tripe and headcheese. She learned to bake at her Polish grandmother’s side.
Kulaga’s parents separated when her mother became mentally ill. Her father became sole caretaker for Kulaga and her younger brother, a dire situation she writes warmly about, thanking her father for his love and care, adding “So at fourteen, I became the woman of the house.” The adolescent Kulaga took it upon herself to prepare dinner nightly, basking in her father’s gratitude. In college, she earned an MSW, then worked as a psychologist at New York University. After a decade, drained by the work, Kulaga turned to baking.
Ovenly is hip, inviting and accessible. Its pages offer scones, muffins, and biscuits I was keen to try. Recipes are accompanied by multi-step “how-to” photographs and written descriptions, along with “base recipes” encouraging creativity. Many recipes appear fairly easy, yet offer compelling variations in a section titled “Get Creative”. Cheddar Mustard Scones, Bloody Mary Scones, and Jelly Doughnut Muffins looked especially appealing to me. More skilled bakers might try Brooklyn Blackout Cake or their adult Pop-Tart, the “Hot Tart”.
I confess the fad for salting sweet things repels me. You can keep your Salted Chocolate Chip Cookies, and Salted Peanut Butter Cookies. Maldon Sea Salt on a Chocolate Truffle Cookie? No. Just no. Nor am I fond of an herb like tarragon used in a cookie dough, as it is here, in Bourbon Chocolate Chip Cookies with Tarragon. I prefer my tarragon tucked inside a nice chicken.
But I realize myself in the minority. Besides, one can always decrease or omit the salt atop a baked good. And the tarragon can come out of the cookie and go into the chicken, along with the salt from the cookies. The bourbon? You can put that anywhere you’d like, so long you share it.
If you’re the type who nips into the kitchen once yearly, visit the bakery. Ovenly is for serious bakers, as indicated in the “Essential Tools And Ingredients” section. This chapter calls for kitchenware basic cooks are unlikely to have: bench scrapers, cardboard cake rounds, a revolving cake stand, dough scoops, pastry bags and tips, a stand mixer. The authors neglect to mention a couple items, like graduated measuring spoons in unusual measures like ¾ of a teaspoon. Possession of a food processor is assumed. I may be the only serious cook in America without one.
Into the kitchen.
I started with Cheddar Mustard Scones. In cooking for a book review, I follow recipes precisely. I consulted the 13-step “Scone Process”, a helpful series of how-to photographs. The dough was wet and difficult to work, but I soldiered on. Once out of the oven, the scones stuck to my non-stick baking sheet. What I managed to pry off was heavy, doughy, and despite the dry mustard, Maille mustard, and sharp cheddar cheese, surprisingly tasteless. My spouse graciously gnawed one at dinner. Into the trash they went. Everyone can fail once. I resolved to try again.
Before embarking on Bloody Mary Scones, I tested my oven’s accuracy. All was well. Perhaps I underbaked the Cheddar Mustard Scones? Made some other error? Never mind. I’d take on Bloody Mary Scones.
I began with mise en place: measuring all the ingredients, then setting them out in little bowls and dishes. Normally I don’t do this: I lack the space. Nor do I have a dishwasher to wash all those fussy little bowls and dishes. But I was taking extra care. I did my mise en place, and man, what a meeze: 16 ingredients, not including garnishes.
Quick breads — those without yeast — rely on a combination of baking powder and/or baking soda combined with some kind of dairy to rise: milk, cream, buttermilk, yogurt, you get the idea. Dry ingredients are stirred into wet until just combined. The idea is to avoid activating the flour’s gluten strands, which make baked goods tough. When I arrived at dealing with the wet ingredients for the scones, I was once in again in trouble.
The headnote for Bloody Mary Scones suggests “make it boozy by mixing some vodka or tequila into the cream” but gives no measures. The recipe itself calls for “ 1 ¼ Cups +2 Tablespoons chilled heavy cream + more for brushing”, but is unclear about how much cream is used up; at the recipe’s conclusion, you are instructed to brush the “remaining cup of cream” atop the scones. I reread this for what seemed like a thousand times. If you’ve followed the recipe, you won’t have a cup of cream left over.
Further confusing matters, in the “Get Creative” section, Kulaga and Patinkin suggest you decrease the cream if another wet ingredient is used, “like fruit” but once again, give no measures. I wanted to add some vodka to the scones. I decided on a 1:1 swap, exchanging ¼ cup vodka for ¼ cup of the cream. This way, I hoped, the liquid ratio would still work.
Alas, the result was an orangy-pink, paste-like blob in the bowl, dotted with bits of pureed tomato. Dusting my largest cutting board with flour, I thruwped the dough out and attempted kneading. The blob sucked up the flour, yet remained wetly orange.
I managed to get the mass folded, shaped, cut, and baked. After 20 minutes, the scones were browned and passed the toothpick test. They also stuck fast to the baking sheet. This time, the pan required a lengthy soak.
When discussing failed bread recipes, people often invoke door stops. I feel comparing Bloody Mary Scones to doorstops is an insult to doorstops, which serve a useful purpose. These scones, like their predecessors, were sodden. And despite that long ingredient list, they were very salty. But once past the salt, they tasted of nothing. This time, we didn’t even try to pretend they were edible.
I need to add, without boasting, that I am an experienced baker of breads, both yeast-based and quick. Muffins and scones emerge from my oven weekly, which is why I chose these recipes to test. I lack the experience and the equipment to attempt Ovenly’s Pistachio Cake with Lemon Curd and Lemon Buttercream. I have no business trying their take on a lattice pie crust. But I know how flour should behave, how a scone dough should come together under my fingertips, how to sprinkle just enough liquid into a dry dough or flour into a wet one. Ovenly’s scone doughs never cohered properly. They never found themselves.
At this point I was at a loss. I’ve never had a cookbook not work this way before. I felt I had to try a third recipe before writing a review. It had to be a muffin, the go-to breakfast in my house, a treat I can bake while unconscious. Ovenly’s’s Jelly Doughnut Muffins sounded tempting: a traditional muffin reworked with a jelly-filled center and a cinnamon-sugar topping.
How I wish I could say it worked. The measurements called for scooping two tablespoons of batter into the muffin pan well, adding 1 ½ teaspoons of jam, then topping it with a final two tablespoons of muffin batter. These instructions will leave you anxiously scraping the bowl: there isn’t nearly enough batter for 12. The resulting muffin is grey-beige, texturally strange, with a close, oddly rubbery crumb. It was so cloyingly sweet I didn’t bother with the cinnamon-sugar topping.
In My Paris Kitchen, David Lebovitz discusses cooking “au pif”, or using your common sense. He writes that Americans lack this sense—really, this confidence—in the kitchen, demanding recipes specify down to the last quarter teaspoon. He’s right. But baking is unforgiving. One can taste a stew through all its stages, fussing over several hours to create the ideal dish. When baking, you get one opportunity to assemble your ingredients, hurry them into the oven, and then bonne chance. Baking isn’t the place for au pif.
Although the women of Ovenly began as home bakers, they aren’t home bakers now. I wonder how much recipe testing happened in a home kitchen, rather than the bakery, where commercial stoves cook far hotter and far faster than humble home ovens.
I remain at a loss. Patinkin and Kulaga are hard-working perfectionists. It’s clear they’ve poured their hearts into Ovenly the bakery and book; I truly doubt inaccuracy was the goal. Yet eight pounds of wasted flour later, I cannot recommend Ovenly, unless you’re the type who enjoys reading cookbooks without ever actually using them. Perhaps the women of Ovenly will revise. Maybe we can hope for an improved edition of what has the potential to be a wonderful cookbook. Until then, caveat emptor.