By now, I’m sure it is exceedingly obvious to all and sundry that I adore baking. It’s a unique medium that almost always brings a smile to peoples’ faces, and that just makes me happy. At dinner with friends recently, I was asked how I started out. I gave them the answer I have given for years: At my first job as a GIS tech, I had a boss with a really big sweet tooth. When I brought a cake in for a coworker’s birthday one day, he asked me to start using petty cash to make cakes for everyone’s birthday, and so a baker was born.
Or was she? As I was making batch upon batch of cupcake goodness for the workshop I attended this weekend, I had a flashback to kneading dough next to my mother in the house we had in Georgia when I was around 5 years old. Side by side in the kitchen, me on a chair while she stood patiently beside be, we pushed and pulled the dough in the age old method that has been passed down from generation to generation through the centuries.
I imagine that women throughout the millennia taught their daughters just as my mother taught me, with my own tiny ball of dough beside her own. Allowing them to taste the yeasty mixture, their faces puckering at the lack of sweetness. Gently reminding them to add more flour to the counter so the dough won’t stick, and laughing when they squeeze the gooey mixture through their tiny fingers.
Only, my mother hadn’t been taught by her mother. She had taught herself, intent on providing the freshest, most wholesome food for our family. Back before it was posh, when all the modern moms were opening bags of Wonderbread and offering jars of Jiff, my mother ground the wheat for her dough, kneaded and shaped it with me at her side, and placed it in the oven to bake. As the smell of fresh-baked bread filled the house, filling us all with mouth-watering anticipation, she would go to work making homemade peanut butter.
No preservatives, no chemicals, no name brands or catchy advertising, just one woman and her daughter, working the foods God gave us, together in a warm kitchen somewhere lost in time.
We rarely had sweets in the house when I was young, but when we did, they were baked in our own harvest gold oven. Treats were just that: something special, appearing only on important occasions. Chocolate chip-less chocolate chip cookies (from the curious time as a child when I didn’t like chocolate), peanut butter cookies with hatch marks made with a fork, and the endless variety of Christmas cookies that we would make one magical day in December. Lemon meringue pies were my father’s favorite, peach cobbler when the season was right, and the occasional batch of ooey, gooey brownies if we were really good. And, of course, a cake on each of our birthdays, of which we were allowed exactly one slice.
As I grew older, I began to notice the little plastic wrapped snack cakes other children had. Little spongy logs filled with crème, chocolate squiggled-topped cupcakes, oatmeal cookies glued together with icing – it was all very new and foreign to me. What were these sugary little delicacies? Why hadn’t my mother given them to me as the other kid’s mother’s had? Going home, I begged my mother to buy me these treats, to allow me to partake in the goodies all the other kids had. Alas, she refused, and sent me away with carrot sticks, or saltines and peanut butter, or a slice of wheat bread.
So very unfair. And then, one day one of my friends’ mothers gave me a Twinkie. I stared in wonder at the perfectly shaped tube of cake, nestled within its cellophane home. Reverently, I tore open the package and pulled out the forbidden treat within. It was very light in my hand, as if filled with air instead of the delicious-looking frosting peaking from three little ports along the bottom. I lifted the cake to my mouth, and took my first bite.
It tasted like… well, nothing, really. The icing was tasteless, the cake had an odd texture, and the whole thing struck me as entirely un-treat like. What was all the fuss about?
I never did learn to like Twinkies and the other snack cakes. But as time caught up with us, there were less loaves of bread, and only the occasional batch of cookies. I went to college and abandoned the healthy eating of my youth, and gained 50 pounds and my first 4 cavities for my trouble. Fast food was the norm, and desserts came before meals. For the first few years of college, I didn’t have an oven, so I couldn’t have baked if I wanted to.
And then along came that first job, and the sweets-loving boss. After that first cake, I found a recipe for homemade icing. I couldn’t believe how delicious it was. Then I branched out and found cake recipes, then I began to tweak them, and later I began working on presentation. The baker was reborn.
And she had learned some things along the way. Sweets were again special, not just a mindless indulgence. Food was something to be respected, to be eaten reverently, not just scarfed down while sitting in front of the television or driving a car.
I was reminded of the art of savoring food. Of laboring to create a dish, and then taking the time to really appreciate every bite, to turn the flavors over in my mouth and give thanks for the sustenance it provides my mind, my soul, and my body. With respect for food came weight loss and happiness.
Give me fresh baked goods any day of the week. Give me a cake measured with care, diligently mixed, and frosted with love. Give me a cookie where I can sneak a taste of the batter, dump a few extra chocolate chips into if I want, and eat while it is still piping hot from the oven.
Give me a cobbler where each peach is sliced by hand, sweet juices running down my fingers as I gobble up every third slice or so. A peach that was sold to me by the farmer who planted it, picked it, and brought it to the market with his sweet wife by his side. I want a cupcake where I can pronounce every ingredient, one that has been iced with fluffy homemade frosting, and that needs to be eaten within two or three days, lest it go bad. Baked goods shouldn’t have an expiration date measured in years, sealed up in plastic that was made somewhere in China, laden with ingredients with lots of x’s and z’s in the names.
Yes, the baker was reborn, intent on bringing happiness to others straight from my oven. But where did I really learn to bake? In a small kitchen in Georgia, using a harvest gold stove and wearing an over-sized apron with the strings doubled up around my waist. Kneading a small ball of dough at my mother’s side, watching her every move and doing my best to emulate her. It was those lessons that laid the seeds for me to be the baker—and lover of real food—that I am today.
When did you learn to bake? Do you have a special baking tradition in your family? And is there anyone out there that actually likes Twinkies? :)
Today I’d like to share a very simple yet delicious bread recipe with you, which is modified from the recipe found here. It’s a great starter bread for those of you who may have never tried to make your own bread. Here’s to yummy, healthy, homemade bread!
2 cups warm water (110 degrees F is ideal)
1/3 cup white sugar
1 ½ Tbsp active dry yeast
1 ½ tsp salt
¼ cup vegetable or canola oil
6 cups bread flour
In a large bowl, dissolve the sugar in the warm water, then stir in yeast. Allow to proof until a creamy foam forms on top (6 to 10 minutes)
Mix in salt and oil with a wooden spoon. Mix in flour, 1 cup at a time, until you have mixed in 5 ½ cups. Using flour from the remaining ½ cup, lightly coat your working surface. Kneed dough, adding flour as necessary, until the dough is smooth (about 8 to 10 minutes), taking care not to tear the dough. Place in well-oiled bowl that is at least twice the size of the dough, turning a few times to coat the dough with the oil. Cover with a damp cloth (I use tea towels) and place in the unheated oven with the oven light on. Allow to rise until doubled in bulk (about an hour)
Punch the dough down, then turn out onto floured surface to knead a second time for another few minutes. Divide in half and shape and place into two well-oiled 9x5 loaf pans. Allow to rise for 30 minutes until dough has risen about 1 inch above pans.
Bake a 350 degrees for 30 minutes.