I like to cook, but I haven't done much in the way of baking since my bread-baking days gave way to "got a lot of toddlers" days. But this year brought me a brand new kitchen and renewed ambition to bake Christmas cookies and other goodies. The final installment was a batch of Baklava, a wonderfully rich middle-eastern pastry that my aunt taught me to make. As my daughter and I were tenderly placing and buttering fragile layers of phyllo dough, I explained to her that I preferred cooking to baking because I'm a "throw together whatever tastes good" cook, a technique that doesn't work in baking because everything has to be precise. I should have listened to myself more closely.
After dough layers are assembled over and under a delicious filling of ground walnuts and flavorings, you make a sugar syrup with lemon to pour over everything after baking. I had listened attentively to dear Aunt Jenny who had emphasized that it had to become a thick syrup, not at all watery. "Yes, Aunt Jenny," I said to myself as I boiled and boiled; I hadn't, however, paid enough attention to that important guideline: Be Precise. Somehow along the way, I had missed the instruction that the lemon juice should be added to the syrup after boiling, not before. Did it matter? Yes.
Those of you who listened in Chemistry class may be able to explain the whys and wherefores, but, as I later discovered, the abortive syrup finally 'thickened'' well after it had reached the "let's make it rock hard" stage of candy-making. Though I was mildly surprised to observe that I was pouring deep-caramel-colored syrup over those perfectly-browned diamond shapes of Baklava, it was indeed startling to have the whole pan of stuff harden within minutes to approximately the consistency of granite.
I chiseled it apart and served with trepidation. My family was courteous. As they dug unchewable nuggets from their teeth, they praised the flavor and the flakiness of the (lower levels of) pastry, but they were just being kind.
So today, I am performing surgery. I am incising and discarding the awful bits, gathering the goodies that lie below, and gathering the remnants. Perhaps they'll be good in a bowl with milk? They're certainly tasty when grabbed surreptitiously on the run.