Thursday, September 12, 2013

Baker's Alchemy

I used to be a so-so baker, but I've gotten better. Not having to rush really makes a difference, as does changing your techniques a little. I used to be intimidated at the thought of making bread, and my results were edible but not admirable. The texture would be uneven, or some of the dough wasn't quite cooked through. Biscuits were another challenge: mine never rose like I wanted them to. Brownies and cakes were OK, and so were my pies, but the crusts were never really flaky and always a little disappointing considering the effort they took.

I guess I've just gotten the hang of it (except for pie crusts, which I have yet to master). Baking really is a ritual, in the true sense of the word, because it's transformative and in a way "magical." I still get the same thrill I got as a little girl with my Easy-Bake oven, which allowed you to turn out miniature versions of cakes, pies, and biscuits cooked under a light bulb. I'll never forget how proud I was of my first endeavor, a small apple pie that I insisted on bringing to the dinner table for dessert, even though it was only big enough for a single serving. The feeling of creating something that turned out well was gratifying, and I repeat it every time I pull out a pan of biscuits or a batch of gingerbread cookies.

When you have time to enjoy it, working with dough is very soulful. When you spend a lot of time working with your mind, working with your hands is very relaxing. Assembling and measuring the ingredients is the preliminary to the really fun part: kneading and shaping the dough. I always thought kneading the bread was probably the secret to having it turn out well -- and it was the part I had the most trouble with. Recipes only take you so far, and I learned that you have to become fearless in the face of the unknown. Followed the measurements exactly, but your dough is too sticky? The hell with it. Just add more flour and keep kneading until it becomes manageable. It seems like a problem, but it isn't.

And how about those biscuits of mine, which used to be so paltry? I'm using the same recipe, but now I double it, and the biscuits turn out much better. I also use a different kind of flour, which makes them rise more creditably, and if I add more salt than the recipe specifies, it improves the flavor. They may not taste exactly like my grandmother's, but they remind me of hers, and that's moving in the right direction.

It's gratifying to work with the dough and feel it taking shape in your hands, but my very favorite part is getting the dough (or the batter) into the pan. I love cutting out biscuits, which I do with a floured glass. I'm happiest when they're all of a uniform size, but I admit that rarely happens. I usually have one mongo biscuit that results from taking the last bits and pieces of dough and rolling them together into one; it may be twice the size of the others and a little misshapen, but it tastes the same as the rest. I also like rolling up bread dough, sealing the ends, and tucking them under before I slide the loaf into the pan. Looking at a pan of dough ready to go into the oven always makes me feel like I've been making good use of my time.

There's also the unparalleled moment of unmolding a cake or a loaf from a pan. I was taking a Morning Glory cake out of Bundt pan the other day, admiring the way it came out so beautifully shaped, when it suddenly took me back to another childhood memory: that of making mud pies. I used to love to take the tea cups from my little tea sets, fill them with dirt, and unmold them onto saucers. I'd take a moment to admire the perfect shape of my dirt puddings before picking them up and throwing them at the side of the house. That was always the grand finale. Of course, I've outgrown throwing things since I've started working with edible materials.

Yes, it's a little bit of alchemy and maybe a little bit of your own soul that goes into baking. You transform a few piles of dry stuff and a little bit of Crisco or butter into something delicious that didn't exist before. Your kitchen smells great, you've preoccupied yourself for half an hour or so with working to make something turn out well, and afterwards you get to eat. There's really nothing bad you can say about a round of baking, as long as you don't eat everything up in one sitting after you're done.