Not long ago, the people behind an app called Perfect Bake sent me a free kit so that I could review their product. They also tried to get into my good graces by including a small Tupperware full of cookies and muffins. Full disclosure: I ate them. I was famished.
L.V. Anderson is a former Slate associate editor.
Nonetheless, I expected to hate Perfect Bake, an “app-controlled smart baking system that turns anyone into a master pastry chef,” put out by Pure Imagination LLC, a company that makes “smart products.” The centerpiece of the Perfect Bake kit is a digital scale which, when connected to your mobile device, allows you to make recipes from the Perfect Bake database without paying attention to how much of each ingredient you’re adding. “Just place a bowl on the scale and start adding ingredients,” explains the Perfect Bake website. A “virtual bowl” on your phone or tablet screen “fills up and shows you when to stop” with a loud beep.Advertisement
In other words, with Perfect Bake, you don’t have to measure anything. The scale and app do all the measuring for you. But does Perfect Bake really turn anyone into a master pastry chef—and if so, is that a good thing?
Despite the ubiquitous truism that baking is a science, I’ve never been all that precise when I make cookies, cake, or bread. I measure out ingredients with measuring cups and spoons instead of weighing them. Sometimes I don’t measure them at all, instead pouring vanilla extract straight from the bottle for a couple of seconds, or dusting flour into the bowl until the texture looks right. I also substitute ingredients haphazardly: whole wheat flour for white, olive oil for butter, honey for maple syrup, cornmeal for rolled oats. I occasionally leave out ingredients if I don’t have them on hand, from salt to cinnamon to eggs.
In short, I am not a perfect baker, nor do I wish to be. I am perfectly happy with my imperfect (but still delicious) baked goods. And so the idea of using an app that removed all the creativity and improvisation from baking, and reduced baking to mindlessly obeying a robot, did not appeal to me. I actually dreaded going home to bake my chosen Perfect Bake recipe—Molasses Crinkle Cookies—a few nights ago.
I did my best to follow the instructions from the app, but my natural disorganization butted heads with Perfect Bake a couple of times. For instance, I found that my box of baking soda was emptier than expected, and I ran out of baking soda before the allotted amount had been added to my bowl of dry ingredients. (Perfect App actually has a solution to this kind of problem—you can scale a recipe to fit whatever limited quantity you have on hand of a particular ingredient. But at this point it was too late for me, since I’d already added other dry ingredients to the bowl.) What to do?Advertisement
If I’d been baking according to a normal recipe, I would have just continued adding ingredients to the bowl, assuming that shortchanging the cookies on baking soda wouldn’t change the cookies that much. But with the app, I had no choice but to continue adding something to the bowl to make up for the weight of the missing baking soda. I ended up adding a little baking powder to meet my leavening quota. (In hindsight, I wish I had added salt, which the recipe didn’t call for.)
Perfect Bake also made me do things I wouldn’t normally do when making cookies. For instance, I had to whisk together molasses and an egg in a medium bowl before I added them to a mixer full of creamed butter and sugar. (If I were making the cookies on my own, I would add the molasses and egg directly to the butter mixture, one by one, to avoid dirtying a bowl unnecessarily.) And some of its instructions just seemed unnecessarily painstaking: Perfect App’s built-in timer required me to cream the aforementioned butter and sugar for exactly 30 seconds—no more, no less. The app also had me weigh the powdered sugar used to coat the cookies, instead of eyeballing the amount I’d need. I drew the line at measuring the weight of each individual lump of cookie dough to make sure each was exactly 18 grams—I decided I could live with a little variation in cookie size.
Despite these hiccups, I kind of had fun using Perfect Bake, to my surprise. I enjoyed the simplicity of pouring flour into a bowl until a buzzer went off, as opposed to dipping a measuring cup into the bag several times and keeping count in my head. I also liked that I didn’t have to bother to gather all my ingredients in advance or to keep track of which ones I’d already added to the bowl—instead, I just found each one in my pantry when the app told me to, in sequential order. All in all, it was relaxing to bake without having to process information from a recipe, or really to do any thinking at all.
I still have some qualms about Perfect Bake. I’m dubious about its ability to teach people the foundations of baking—since you don’t have to pay attention to how much of each ingredient you’re adding, you might not pick up on the typical ratio of flour to butter to sugar to eggs in a cake, for instance. And the app’s tendency to micromanage every step might dissuade newbies from trusting their own judgment about whether a dough looks too sticky or a pan of brownies underdone in the middle.
But I can definitely see children of all ages—and many adults—loving this app, which combines the best elements of a science kit and an Easy Bake Oven. (The pouring of mysterious liquids, the loud noises, the sweet results—what’s not to like?) I probably would have loved it if it had existed when I was a teenager going through that phase where I refused to make any recipe unless I had exactly the correct ingredients on hand. I have a theory that every home cook goes through a period of anal retentiveness before he relaxes and learns to trust himself in the kitchen, and Perfect Bake could certainly appeal to a certain kind of perfectionist. But I hope that all Perfect Bake users find themselves in a situation like mine when I ran out of baking soda and had to improvise a solution—because how else do you learn that even when baked goods aren’t perfect, they’re almost always good?
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