Slow Food for the Baker’s Soul

For most, kindergarten is a time of adventure and fun, of field trips and naptime, of making things out of construction paper and crayon, chunky paste and marking pens.  Kindergarten marks a time of firsts: first words you could read, first time you successfully tied your own shoes, first friends that you made outside of your neighborhood.

But my happiest memories of kindergarten involve none of these firsts, nor do they involve the making of seasonal crafts—paper chains that count down to Christmas or colorful turkeys made by tracing my hand.  My favorite days in kindergarten were those in which my classmates and I, in fidgety groups of five and six, would take a special trip to the kitchen at our school, where we would (under the guidance of a few knowledgeable room mothers) learn to prepare simple snacks that we could make all by ourselves.  These were special days when we would get to use the ovens in the school’s kitchen, learning about temperature, timing, and the importance of potholders.

I still remember the first thing we ever learned how to make in that kitchen: little “pizzas” assembled from an English muffin split in half and topped with tomato sauce and grated cheese.  And I can still clearly recall each of the steps involved and how pleasing they were to my five-year-old self: brushing the muffin halves with olive oil, then sprinkling them with oregano before moving on to smother the crusts in tomato sauce from a jar and finish things off with some grated mozzarella.  When the snacks came out of the oven—soft, warm, and melty with cheese—I couldn’t believe we had made these ourselves; they were delicious!

But it wasn’t just that I had made something “all by myself” that excited me so; it was that I had made something with actual ingredients (such as they were to my five year old mind), something that had to be cooked in the oven—something that tasted good.  It was a joy and a victory I haven’t forgotten, and that I have pursued with enthusiasm ever since.

I come from a family of food lovers and food makers.  My mom has long been a great cook and excellent baker who would make crepes for dinner during a time when things like sloppy joes and Hamburger Helper were at the height of their popularity.  Meanwhile, my father—like many other dads—knew his way around a grill, but he also annually turned out wonderful Thanksgiving meals, with perfect giblet gravy and savory stuffing seasoned with sage and thyme.  At home my parents experimented with different cuisines, making complicated Chinese dumplings for a dinner party or frying tortillas for tacos and making fresh guacamole from scratch.  This was the ‘80s, when most people I knew got their guacamole from a plastic tub at the supermarket and their taco shells from a box because doing something like frying tortillas seemed like, “too much trouble.”

So I grew up with a healthy respect for food you prepare yourself, and I saw how enjoyable the preparing could be.  I was obsessed with cooking shows as a kid, watching them the way most of my other friends watched Mighty Mouse or Inspector Gadget.  From my parents and from the cooks whom I loved to watch on TV, I learned that no dish was impossible to realize: if you paid attention to ingredients and method, you could prepare any kind of food you wished, a prospect that sounded both daunting and exhilarating; the opportunities seemed limitless.

***

I have a KitchenAide mixer; it is one of the first major purchases I made when I moved out into my first apartment without roommates.  The mixer is blue like a pastel Easter egg, and everything about it—from its color to its soft, rounded edges—is friendly to me.  Often just the sight of it makes me want to don my frilly half apron and whip up a batch of cookies.

Lately, though—spurred by the book, Baking Unplugged, by Nicole Rees—I have come to appreciate the special pleasures that come from mixing by hand rather than by machine.  Mixing by hand is a method that employs all of the senses: Not only am I watching for what the mixture should look like, but I’m also paying attention to how it feels when I’m stirring it.  When I’m mixing up Coffee Cocoa Snack Cake, for instance, I whisk the eggs and sugar for a solid minute, keeping myself tuned to how the mixture feels: thick and gloppy at first, then smoother and less gritty as the sugar begins to dissolve, the whisk moving through with greater ease.  I add the sifted dry ingredients, folding them into the wet in a gentle scooping and turning movement that I know is finished not only when the batter looks moist, but also when I can no longer feel the skid of the rubber spatula hitting large pockets of flour at the bottom of the bowl.

Meanwhile, other recipes involve even more of the senses in the baking process, increasing the satisfaction.  The recipe for Brown Butter Banana Cake requires browning two sticks of butter slowly over a medium-low heat.  A baker like me who is prone to multi-task, to try to prep some ingredients while others bake or bubble or reduce in volume, will find that the process of making browned butter demands full attention because the butter can go from melted to burnt in a matter of a few seconds.  The proverbial “watched pot” may be reluctant to boil, but the process of gently cooking butter will yield immense pleasures while one looks on intently as the yellow sticks melt, then froth, then slowly turn a nutty brown. Once the butter is browned, the bananas must be mashed fine.  The bananas are sweet and fragrant like vanilla; their scent fills the air, mingling with the brown-sugar-sweetness of the cooling browned butter.  All senses activated, increasing the anticipation: This will be one amazing cake.

As one might imagine, sweets mixed by hand take a little longer than recipes in which the ingredients are combined with a mixer.  They require an extra bit of care and attention, an extra few steps to complete.  But the steps are not complicated, and in fact are part of what makes the recipes so rewarding.  Every moment of the process brings with it the opportunity to savor each ingredient—what it looks like, how it smells, what it feels like in the hand.

***

Anyone who cooks with children learns very quickly that kids like to touch everything—pie crust, cookie dough, a fluffy mound of sifted flour; the child’s first question is always, “Can I touch it?”  Followed by that question are the ones that address the other senses: What does the batter look like?  Can I smell it?  Can I have a taste?  What makes the crackling sound when something is sizzling in a pan?  Children delight in the experience of discovery, of seeing what it looks like when bread dough has risen or marveling at how slimy egg whites fluff into silky, shiny meringue.

Mixing by hand brings this sense of discovery back into baking, slowing things down and requiring the baker to be present and involved in each of the recipe’s steps.  And it is this precise involvement that reminds me of what I loved about making that first ridiculous little English muffin “pizza”: the doughy-soft texture of the muffin “crust,” the woodsy fragrance of the sprinkled oregano, the salty bite of the mozzarella sprinkled on the top.  Each element had its own unique appeal, and in smelling, touching, and tasting the ingredients along the way, I got to appreciate how each contributed to the finished product.  It is the same with hand-mixing: my senses have a part in each of the steps, making them all the more gratifying to complete.  I whisk the sugar and eggs, melt the butter, brew the coffee that will be added to an already intensely fragrant chocolate cake batter, each step heightening the anticipation that comes with waiting for the ring of the oven timer.  Soon—but not too soon—it will be time to eat.

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About Sarah

Grammar goddess, cultural critic, full-time media junkie. I read, I bake, I watch tv. And then I write about it.
This entry was posted in Foodstuffs, From Scratch and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Slow Food for the Baker’s Soul

  1. Raquel says:

    Beautiful ode to taking your time and being in the moment. 🙂

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