I'm trying to keep my business, my triplets, and my waistline under control. I excel at one of those, fail at another one of those, and one is a work in progress. Which is which is day dependant.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Baking, A Love Story

It's nearly 10pm on a Sunday night, and I am at work baking a cake full of love - my husband's birthday cake. I'm using a recipe I've never tried before, in a kitchen I've not baked in for a long while (because these days, I am fortunate enough to have a baker who does this for me, commercially speaking), surrounded by a bunch of beautiful equipment which is wonderful when one needs to bake 20 cakes at a time...but is useless if all you are making is one cake for a loved one.

I won't sugar coat this (pun very much intended) - I was a little scared when I started my little project tonight. I'm in an unfamiliar setting, using an unfamiliar recipe, and really wanting it to turn out perfectly for the person I love more than anyone else on the planet. But baking...baking is in my very bones. I relied entirely on instinct to begin. I rolled up my sleeves. I read the recipe all the way through, and the dance began. I turned on the oven, then gathered up the various bowls and measuring cups I would need to complete this cake (which by the way is a layered buttermilk and white chocolate cake filled and covered with a white chocolate and passionfruit icing).

I had my tools, started to measure out the ingredients, and while I was working, I found my heart rate slowed considerably, my breathing became much more even, my shoulders relaxed down, and I found myself singing along to the radio which was quietly playing in the background. I thought to myself, "I really LOVE baking. Really LOVE it," and let out a happy sigh and thought about all the reasons why I love to bake.

Most cooks and chefs I know (both amateurs and professionals) either love to bake or hate it. There is no real grey area - the cooking world is split into bakers and non-bakers, those who love it and those who are a little afraid of it. I believe bakers are born, not made- so in your nature is either a baking soul or there isn't. I know some brilliant chefs who need only look at a sponge recipe in order for it to fail. Similarly I know plenty of bakers who cannot manage to season a plain pasta dish. Sure, there are exceptions - but even those who are capable in both arenas find themselves inexplicably drawn very much to one area or another. "Real" chefs look down on pastry chefs, and pastry chefs just laugh because they know the 'real' chefs are just totally intimidated by the magic the pastry chefs can create.

So the world has bakers, and non-bakers.

Me, I'm a baker - and here's why:

I love that baking is firmly a scientific pursuit, and yet there are so many baking recipes out there which totally defy all logic and common sense. I love sense of comfort and peace I get from the careful measuring, the weighing, the considering, the mathematics, the formulaic nature of baking. I love that if you mess something up, either you'll end up with a complete disaster or an entirely new invention which is probably better than the one you were trying to achieve. I love the slippery, slidey greasiness of butter, the bright orangey yellow wetness of egg yolks, the powdery grainy yet smooth softness of flour, the chink-chink-chink noise that chocolate buttons make as they fall into a metal bowl from a great height. In my heart of hearts I just know when a baking recipe will work or not - and I love that every time I think, "this will never work," what results is one of the nicest, most delicious, gorgeously soft and moist delicious cakes ever made by my own hands. I love that baking recipes force you to rely on some sort of magic happening in that oven when you're not looking. I love the euphoria of sliding a hot, heaven-scented cake pan out of the oven just as much as I love the soul destroying, crushing realisation that your cake is burned or looks like it was sat upon by a very large elephant. I love that baking is based on formulas and certainty and measurement and exactness - and yet you really don't have any idea if it's worked until you lift the fork to your mouth. I love that, in baking, a synonym for 'total disaster' is 'complete genius.' I love that you can try a recipe which seems ridiculous (like the whole wheat zucchini chocolate chip bread I baked this week) and suddenly find your thoughts turning to creating an entire upside down meal whereby the vegetables are in the dessert and the sugar and chocolate is in the main course.

I love that baking radiates good intention.

I love that there are dozens of kinds of sugar and each of them act in entirely different ways in a recipe, and each have their own colour, texture, smell, and sweetness - and yet they all come from the same fields of sugar cane. I love the wrinkly squishy pointy vanilla pod - which has the power to entice lovers, affect global trade, and be a thing of great wonder and joy once you split it open. I love the muscle fatigue I feel in my arms after I've kneaded a dough for a while, or creamed some butter and sugar by hand to create a bowl full of white, fluffy, deliciously sweet peaks. I love meringue for it's fickle nature and its ability to make me laugh, cry and beg for mercy.  I even love the tools of baking - the satisfying 'thunk!' of an ice cream scoop spring releasing every time you fill a cupcake paper, the sssccrrraaapppeee of the metal dough scraper as you gather up the bits of shaggy dough off the bench, the swoop of the spatula as it gathers the last scraps of ganache in the bowl, the whomp-whomp-whomp of the dough hook as it slaps your brioche dough against the sides of the bowl.

Baking is a beautiful art which engages ALL of the senses and forces you to use most of them at once. When a cake slides out of the oven, you need to use your eyes, nose and sense of touch to work out if it's cooked or not. Your sense of taste tells you if the effort was worth it, the sound of the collective "mmmm" of your friends is music to your ears when you've achieved something truly amazing. I love that baking might be scientific, but it's also inherently intuitive - it's not just about reading the recipe and following it exactly. When something I've made comes out of the oven. I love that I can just know when it's done, or could benefit from another minute or two or ten. I love that baking is a complete bastard; when I've touched it, tested it, checked it, look at it..and declared it done, only to turn it out and have the middle still be molten cake batter. I love that moment when the shaggy mess of dough in front of you suddenly, right before your very eyes, in a blink-and-you-missed-it moment turns into a bouncy, silken, smooth dough which carries in it's very core hundreds of possibilities.

I love that baking something for someone can express an entire lifetime of emotions. I love you. I'm sorry. Things will get better. Or maybe things won't get better, but right here in this very moment, you are loved. He's a lying, cheating bastard. She didn't deserve you anyway. Forgive me? I've been thinking about you. I respect your opinion. I think you need some cheering up. I need your help. You are important to me. I didn't mean it. I meant every word of it. I'll try harder next time.  I listen when you talk. We will be okay.


I love you.


Rachel said...

Ah, this is so true - I am most definitely a baker! My hubs cooks the evening meal but I am much happier baking cakes and cookies although, curiously, breakmaking is something I have yet to get the hang of, but I'm working on it!

adele said...

Beautiful post!

I have a draft in the works about how baking is the refuge of the socially awkward - I like to joke that I made most of my friends through the judicious application of sugar and butter, and I'm not entirely kidding. :P

emzeegee & the hungry three said...


Well I make no secret of the fact that I'm socially awkward, so it definitely makes sense that I would be of the baking variety of nerd. Wait a sec, I quite like that term - baking nerd. :) I wonder if ALL of us who work in hospitality are not a bit awkward, especially given we are always working while others are out revelling. Hmm. There could probably be a whole PhD in this! :)

Thanks for your comment, Adele! :)