Remember those lab notebooks you had to put together in high school and/or college chemistry? The graph paper, the carbon copies, the wrinkled and warped pages from when the notebook got inevitably wet. Those were the days…
I was thinking about them today because I’ve restarted my macaron experiments in earnest. I’ve made these cookies successfully previously –
Those smooth tops! Those ruffled feet! – but the notes I took at the time were sloppy and incomplete. Although I have a bunch of flavors that I want to try baking kicking around in my head, I’m reluctant to experiment too broadly until I’ve nailed a base cookie consistently (because that’s how my brain likes to work). There are a few major parts to doing that – the recipe, the technique, and the oven.
For the most part, I’m using Stella Parks’ French macaron recipe (with some adjustments here and there for cooking time, oven temp, etc. – I try not to mess with the ratios too much). I’ve had good success with it in the past, and I love that she breaks baking down very scientifically and demystifies the process. (Her book, BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts, is the next on my cookbook wishlist.) There are a couple other recipes that utilize a different cooking methods that I want to try at some point, but this hers is definitely my go to.
As for technique, I have a method of doing the meringue and macaronnage that I think is pretty consistent at this point. I’m sure there are variations between batches, but that much can’t really be helped.
So the part that I’m really trying to dial in right now is the oven and baking method. My oven has both convection and conventional settings, as well as a removable divider in the middle that transforms it into a makeshift double oven (that I rarely use because I find that it does not separate different temperatures all that well). It’s calibration is a bit off, and it loses heat pretty rapidly (about a 25 degree drop in temp every time the door opens – I checked with an oven thermometer because the display does not tell you that). But it’s a poor craftsperson that blames her tools, so I’m still trying to learn the weird ins and outs (there seem to be many) of my particular oven.
To do that, I need what every scientist needs – documentation.
Enter, Airtable. (There are several pictures of sexy, sexy spreadsheets coming up. If that’s not your jam… too bad, I guess?)
I feel like maybe I’ve talked about Airtable before, but that also could have been in real life where I mention it to someone at least once a month. Between it and Google Docs, all my nerd tendencies to look at stats and document and track are satisfied. Basically, Airtable lets you build databases (and tables within databases) to create documentation that you can filter, search, and cross-reference. I’ve been using it most recently to inventory my library (with a little barcode scanner thing that A coded up for me) and to log my reading.
You can have multiple tables in a database, and a lot of fields in a table. The fields are customizable – they can be links to a table within the database, tags, checkboxes, multiple choice, etc. There are so many ways to make it into exactly what you want or need.
The tabs on my library database are all built from cross referenced info from the main table. For my reading log, there are a couple of cross-referenced tabs, but I also keep a short story table that uses the same author field, so that I can go look at all the works I’ve read by a single person.
Mmm… spreadsheets. Anyway.
Of course, when I started to put together a lab notebook for all my macaron experiments, I decided to use Airtable.
I have columns for temperature, convection, bake time, bakeware, etc. There’s a space for pictures, for notes, for troubleshooting. It’s admittedly a little intense, but I don’t care. I love it.
Because it’s not enough just to have a fuck-ton of data, your data needs to be relevant, useful, and organized. And preferably cloud-synced so that no one can spill liquids on your notebook.