The idea of baking appealed to me from an early age. It is fair to surmise that I was obsessed with sweets: the gooey deliciousness of a brownie (or blondie, if you like), the sometimes crispy outside of a giant chocolate chip cookie, the way a piece of pumpkin pie turned into two then into three then into an empty aluminum pan and a stomach ache. Elementary school bake sales were my favorite national holidays. Going over to a friend’s house meant free perusal of a foreign and exotic pantry, full of Peanut M&M possibilities.
My constant and unrelenting need for anything involving butter and sugar meant that learning how to make the stuff myself would aid in the speed in which I could enjoy said treats. Mom baked chocolate chip cookies and cakes shaped like teddy bears, baseball gloves, and debutante Barbie Dolls. The bar was set, and it was set high.
In fact, I became such a cake snob as a result of my mother’s exceptional frosting application skills and sour cream chocolate cake recipes, that I would refuse anything but homemade. Sheet cake from Ralphs? I think not. It should be noted that this was long before the idea of a preservative free kitchen or Gwenyth Paltrow demonstrating how to make DIY locally harvested egg white omelets on the Internet. My snobbery was attributed solely to the truth in my taste buds. Mom’s was better.
Her friends were privy to the fact. Our family friend, Laura, commissioned a Barbie Cake for her daughter’s birthday. Barbie Cakes were reserved especially for me. The actual cake part was formed out of a large bell shaped bowl and atop was a reusable Barbie torso and Barbie head – we had both blonde and brunette options. After the cake was done baking, my mom would pipe on frosting like George-Pierre Seurat. Voila. A masterpiece.
The birthday party was a successful demonstration in excess. There was a rented pony and polaroid camera to document the occasion. We played games. In all honesty, I do not remember much aside from the fit I threw when I found out that the Barbie Cake was to be saved for the family and I was to be served some bullshit from Sam’s Club. Where were we? North Korea? I had been looking forward all day to a piece of this cake. Mom’s cakes were things I was only treated to twice a year: one for me and one for Phil. This birthday party was an excuse to up the intake. And they had the audacity to deprive me of the chance!
Of course, I didn’t take this personal affront lightly. I had watched my mother work on this thing for hours, teasing me with the smell of batter and the whiff of frosting hovering in front of my nose for what seemed like eternity. I cried. I fussed. And by the time we left Laura’s there was one sad chunk of Barbie’s gown missing, now swimming in my stomach with Coca Cola and buttered popcorn. There were few instances in my life where I used my bratty kid card and this was one of them.
And so set the stage for my own culinary adventures. First to learn was how to make chocolate chip cookies, the recipe simply borrowed off of the Tollhouse bag. These seemed easy enough. Easier still was to forgo the baking process altogether, placing the raw dough in the refrigerator and scooping out spoonfuls for days on end until a 48 hour sugar high began it’s inevitable crash…or the bowl would be empty enough to warrant tossing the rest without feeling wasteful. My brother was more of the instant gratification variety. His specialty was boxed brownie mix. He would incorporate the requisite ingredients, beat on high until smooth and buttery, and then sit down on the sofa with a giant spatula and watch TV while encouraging type 2 diabetes. Needless to say, there was little real fear of salmonella poisoning in our house.
Sometime during 1995, I ventured into the world of peanut butter cookies. This was my most unsucessful bake ever. Somehow I misread TSP and TBSP, the result being 3 TBSP of baking soda overwhelming my batter instead of 3 TSP assisting in an ever so slight rise of dough in the oven. However, I didn’t realize what I had done and merely thought the recipe to blame for this terrible salty mess. I attempted to compensate by adding another cup of peanut butter. Then another. None of this worked. I was incredibly disappointed in myself.
It’s funny, now, to look back on a child interested in baking. The allure of it wasn’t just in the resulting tasty product. Baking appealed to me, even then, because of its precision. The fact that all you had to do was follow directions and you would end up with an intended replica of someone else’s culinary creativity. Measure, level, mix, sift, take a gander at your cookbook. It was all a matter of control. And even as a child I needed to be in control. It confuses me when people struggle with baking and excel in cooking. There are too many variables in cooking, too many “what ifs.” Adding random spices not called for by Martha Stewart or demanded by Emeril scare the hell out of me. What if I destroy a perfectly good fillet? What if I burn my potatoes? What if?
Whoever thought a damn batch of cookies would so accurately encapsulate the way in which I live most of my life.
* Photo courtesy of someone else