Bake It Till You Make It: Week #10 of 52 Mini-Essays Project
On kitchen alchemy, The Great British Bake-Off, and generosity
Topic Idea: Natalka Freeland
Awkward Confession Time: I have a wee crush on Richard Burr. Godalmighty no, I do not mean the esteemed1 Senator from the great state of North Carolina—I am obviously referring to the finalist on the Great British Bake-Off Series 5, who established a still-unbroken record by being named Star Baker five times. (One could probably fashion an entire personality test around this potential confusion.) My Richard Burr, who styles himself “Builder, Baker,” is a bricklayer from North London who made it to the Final Three on the strength of his architecturally complex bakes as well as his delicious flavors. He is adorably ginger and married to an adorably ginger wife and has several adorably ginger children. Since his season ended he has written a book entitled B.I.Y.—Bake It Yourself and sporadically kept a blog about his baking and his life. (Richard, if you are reading this, please update your blog! Thank you, Your Fans.)
I have had crushes on subsequent GBBO stars—Nadiya, give me a call—but you always remember your first. The year I stumbled across the show, when it was still on PBS and you had to wait a week between episodes (!), was a dark one for me, and the gang in the giant tent in the English countryside helped pull me out of a wintery depression. I have always been a serious baker but never really went in much for TV cooking shows, so I was surprised at the depth of my reaction to the series. I became obsessed by the fates of the amateur bakers, hailing their triumphs, cringing at their bin-worthy disasters, reveling in their generosity and apparent affection for one another, and shedding real tears when it was time to say goodbye to one of my new friends each week. Obviously I am not alone in these feelings—The Great British Baking Show2 has taken the U.S. by storm, washed over our living rooms like a sugary tsunami, and already begun its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar in the time since I first discovered it. (Although I do feel compelled to point out, with the same petulant self-absorption as a 13-year-old boy discussing video games, that I discovered it first and loved it before it was cool.)
Even though we’ve probably eaten our fill of analyses, recaps, and synopses of the show itself, I’m revisiting it as an entrée into a broader consideration of what baking means to me—particularly since the start of the pandemic, when it’s become even more of a lifeline. (Yes, yes, you will have to read some more natterings about sourdough. I will try to keep it brief. Sorrynotsorry.) It’s a sticky question, with many layers. I think the best way to address my deep, irrational love of the Pastry Arts is to break it down into its component ingredients.
1. It’s magic. Like most bakers, I started by “helping” my mother3 in the kitchen when she was making cakes and cookies. Generous adults understand that children are never a help in these situations, but rather function as highly efficient batter-dispersal agents—useful only if you are watching your weight and want to control portion size. Otherwise, they are simply a hindrance and the only reason to solicit their “help” is to bond with them and/or indoctrinate them into the Baking Lifestyle.4 Or both.
What the child discovers when she is helping to thoroughly coat her parents’ kitchen with pink slime is that some proportion of those raw ingredients will somehow make it into the oven and later emerge with the same form/deliciousness as the pre-packaged treats she is not allowed to purchase at the grocery store. Eureka! A valuable lesson has been learned that she will continue to learn over and over again throughout decades of diets, cleanses, detoxes, and self-improvement programs of all kinds: boughten things are “bad” but homemade versions of those same things are somehow okay. This is the magic of the home oven, an appliance apparently lined with fairy dust and capable of extraordinary alchemical transformations. There’s a reason that Hansel and Gretel are not lured into leaning over a giant Vitamix.
Like most child bakers I eventually developed a repertoire of fail-safe recipes that I would make over and over again. The first few times you plonk together a bunch of simple ingredients all by yourself and thereby produce a cake-like object do indeed seem like sorcery. (I am sure this is the feeling that some children experience when using an Easy-Bake Oven, but I wouldn’t know since I was cruelly denied this toy as a child. Perhaps it was for the best, since I was thrown back on my own devices and thus forced to learn “real” baking all the sooner.) The first recipe I made with any regularity was Mocha Pound Cake, which had been a specialty of my grandmother’s (she would, alas, take her lemon meringue pie recipe with her to the grave). I remember copying it out on one of the small-sized yellow legal pads that my family seemed to favor for every purpose5—for some unknown reason in red ink—consciously imitating Grammy’s spidery handwriting as I did so.
As your baking skills grow in complexity and you start producing things that can actually fail, the feeling of wonder when they succeed only intensifies. That said, the miraculous quality of baking does not mean that it’s easy, rote, or somehow due to luck. People who scoff that baking is “just math” and therefore devoid of creativity—always accompanied by the claim that they themselves engage in “real cooking” that does not involve recipes—simply do not understand what it means to be a skilled, serious baker. Determining the exact point when short pastry has come together just enough to be rollable, when a cake (particularly something delicate like a génoise) is perfectly baked,6 when bread dough has been kneaded enough to properly develop its gluten, when cream is whipped to the right consistency, when custard is cooked but not curdled—not to mention knowing how to fix a broken buttercream and adjust its consistency for piping, how to temper chocolate (and why), or how to cook perfect caramels of different types—this knowledge is not “just math” (as if math were somehow easy) or the mindless throwing together of predetermined parcels of ingredients. Anyone who says otherwise is either delusional, disingenuous, or deeply scarred by some early confectionary-related trauma.
That said: 2. It Teaches Humility. Boy, does it teach humility. No matter how long you’ve been doing this—how many eggs you’ve separated, meringues you’ve piped, or bananas you’ve Fostered—spectacular failure is always possible and, indeed, usually right around the corner. It is best to keep this fact in mind at all times, and to walk on humble feet in the presence of the baking gods.
3. It’s Generous. The thing about baking a lot—unless you have a family of 12 or live in a commune—is that you mostly have to give away what you make. Since approximately 99.7% of middle-class Americans are on some sort of diet at any given moment and will thus regard your glutinous, sugary creations with the kind of horror usually reserved for industrial runoff, this means that you will often find yourself fobbing off your confections on unwilling recipients. Thus begins the dance. You, a serious baker, need to bake something nearly every day for your own mental health. You actually need willing participants in order to enable your habit. They, locked in the cruel grip of some sort of “cleanse” or “detox,” both want and do not want your offerings. You will try to come up with ironclad reasons why they must accept your cakes and pies: it’s their birthday, or their child’s birthday, or they just moved in, or they’re about to move out, or they’re sick, or recovering, or it’s the Festival of Knut the Reaper. They will try to tell you why it’s impossible for them to accept, without being unforgivably rude. Social custom is on your side—for now. You will shamelessly press your advantage, ignoring the clangorous little voice that tells you that it’s hardly generosity to force others to accept foods they do not want—and that, in fact, the generosity is all on their side. Thus, in baking as in life. How many of our acts of kindness are really self-serving? It’s best not to inquire too closely, and instead to trust the invisible workings of the social contract.
Occasionally, however, you may stumble across a rare soul who actually wants to eat your baking, unapologetically and with brio. Perhaps you live in France, or among the French. Never take this situation for granted.
4. It Connects You to the Ancestors. This one is kind of a combination of Numbers 1 and 3, and yet also slightly different. When you bake you are channeling ancient wisdoms and techniques that situate you in a long line of foreparents who measured and leveled and whipped and folded before you. For many deracinated, settler-colonist North Americans, these actions might be among the very few that afford such a connection. Modern conveniences have not changed the essentials of from-scratch, at-home baking very much: you still have your ingredients, your basic tools, your hard-won skills, your magical hot box in the wall. So when you make your grandmother’s pound cake recipe or help your mother fill cupcake liners, you are doing essentially the same thing that generations of bakers have done before you, and you are doing it on purpose. There is no “need” to make chocolate chip cookies or orange-scented macarons from scratch, but you choose to do so because the rhythms and rituals of these activities are time-honored and honorable, and soothe the primordial areas of your brain that signal repletion and safety.
Here is the obligatory sourdough interlude. Really—what can I say? Baking using a fermented culture that you tend yourself7 is perhaps the most ancient baking activity of all. Yeast in general is powerful magic, and when you throw in the “it’s wild and you captured it from the air” factor,8 the situation becomes downright eldritch. You are biblical, you are maker, you summon forth nutriments from the raw materials of the planet and weave them together with your nimble hands, you are time itself.
I know the whole “baking our way through the pandemic” thing has become a cliché, and social media posts of cinnamon buns, croissants, and levain loaves are now a bit of a laughingstock. But I do not laugh. I know why making these things has comforted you so, and I will click Like and I will mean it. You and I share something ineffable, and we already kind of love each other, even if we’ve never met.
And as for the rest of you—if you want a cake for any occasion please give me a call.
Is he esteemed? I do not esteem him, just to be clear. I think this is a phrase that people use mostly when they want to signal that they find said Congressperson contemptible.
The Great British Bake-Off is known as The Great British Baking Show on American television, because Pillsbury owns the U.S. rights to the phrase “bake-off.” Don’t even get me started on the question of all the different series/seasons numbering schemas. That would be an entire essay unto itself.
Obviously one’s Baking Sensei could be any caretaker or adult, but for me it was indeed my mother, from whom I inherited my love of sweets, my struggles with weight, and my shapely calves.
I must register here an exception for my honorary niece Juliette, who is a fantastic baker and cook at the age of 9, and has been tottering off to the kitchen to whip up bowls of guacamole for the cocktail-swilling adults since the age of 5 or so. It is rare that one gets to be in presence of such a clear prodigy at such a young age.
Our house was littered with these pads—they seemed to be on every surface: by the phone, on the kitchen table, in the car, near the T.V. When my father died I discovered a huge cache of them in his office closet; I believe my sister used one to draft his death notice for the local newspaper.
One contestant on GBBO Series 3, John Waite, would famously listen to his cakes to determine when they were baked. I have no idea what he was on about (I use visual and tactile cues myself), but I admire his verve. Oh, and while I have you here: that particular type of cake I just referred to above is pronounced jen-WAHZ, not jen-oh-EEZ. FFS.
And sometimes even create yourself! I have produced several sourdough cultures from nothing more than flour, water, and time, but I must admit that the best starter I ever had—and still have!—is the offspring of “Mother,” a venerable wheaten matriarch who lives with my dear friends Katie-Louise and Bethany in Philadelphia, where she helps produce the most delicious crumpets I have ever eaten.
When I was a child I used to read The Joy of Cooking baking sections like a novel, and I will never forget the shiver I felt down my spine when Irma casually noted that you could decrease yeast amounts in a recipe if a lot of baking had already taken place in your kitchen.