In the beginning pages of Bouchon Bakery, one of Thomas Keller's first suggestions is to know your oven. Become aware of the hot spots where food tends to cook a little faster, and brown a bit more around the edges. Be confident that whatever temperature you program it for is accurate. Or, if you're using an oven like mine, there will be no programming of large digital numbers that glow in the dark. Instead, you will simply be turning an old black dial to the corresponding temperature printed in white.
The brand of my oven is deceptively called Modern Maid, although there's not a single thing that's modern about it. The oven door swings open to the left, much like a microwave, and the entire unit is elevated above the stovetop, as opposed to being built below it like every other oven you've probably seen in your life. My oven is unique—much like my current living situation.
The faded yellow apartment building where I live on the outskirts of Downtown Long Beach is a 55+ Senior Living Complex. Its residents are always quiet. It has an elevator unit that inches its way from one floor to the next at a glacier-like pace, and it also contains a well-maintained garden at it's core. When I walk out my front door and prop my hands on the railing of the second floor balcony, what I see underneath me is a small, yet inviting forest of green. I like to think of it as the life force of this weatherworn apartment building whose glass doors have been permanently etched with scribbles and gang signs.
In addition to the greenery, my complex is daily rejuvenated by its quirky residents, some of whom have been residing here for more years than I've been alive on this earth.
I see Mr. Thompson* on a near daily basis. He meanders around the complex with his long white hair and cane. "Have a blessed day," he always tells me in parting—right after an update of the latest weather report and a corresponding reminder to stay hydrated, if it's warm, or bring an umbrella, if it will be raining.
Mr. Brower*often hangs out on the porch right next to the bushes where his favorite stray cats are hiding out. Every afternoon, he places a bowl of food and water for them on the green Astroturf, and whenever I ask him how he's doing, his answer is always the same: "Not bad. For an old guy."
My friends find it endlessly amusing that I live in a building with senior citizens, and I remind them that my rent is absurdly cheap. They also wonder how I'm able to "get away" with living here, but the truth is that I'm really not getting away with anything. The California Fair Housing Act prohibits landlords from discriminating against tenants based on age; therefore, some 55+ buildings are required by law to have an 80/20 ratio. Eighty percent of it's tenants can be 55 and over, as long as the other 20 percent are younger.
All things considered, this place has really grown on me over the past two years I've been here. But if there is one thing I would change, it would definitely be the kitchen. Starting with the oven.
How to perform a biscuit test
Note: If you're lucky enough to own a convection oven, the biscuit test probably isn't necessary. Unless of course, you love biscuits and just want to eat them. By all means then, buy a tube and bake it under the guise of conducting "the biscuit test." That's probably something I would do.
Otherwise, you won't need this exercise because convection ovens are designed to circulate the air inside the oven continuously and bake everything in nice, uniform perfection. Keller recommends using a convection oven whenever possible; however, it isn't necessary—which means the rest of us can still make it work with what whatever old school, less-than-perfect equipment we've got. And that, my friends, is exactly what this blog is all about!
Step 1: Buy a tube of refrigerated, ready-to-bake biscuits. Any brand will do. I spent $1 more and opted for organic ones without artificial additives or yucky hydrogenated oils.
Step 2: Preheat your oven to whatever temperature is suggested, and follow the package directions exactly. Keller insists these doughs have been rigorously tested to ensure accuracy, so if your biscuits take longer to bake, then you know your oven is running cool. If they take less time, then your oven runs on the warmer side.
Step 3: Once they're done baking, examine their color. Some biscuits will have more of a golden brown hue, while others will be paler. The color patterns will tell you where the warm and cold spots are in your oven.
My results? That old beast of an oven surprised me. Sure, it runs a bit on the cold side, but those biscuits maintained a pretty even color throughout. Convection oven, consmection oven—that's what I say.
What about your oven? Have you done a biscuit test, and if so, what did you learn?
* Names of my neighbors have been changed.