When I was a teenager, my parents’ company office had grown out of our house to a location a few miles from home. Therefore, when I came home from school, my mom would call and tell me what to prepare or put into the oven to start dinner. It was my job to start dinner. She would complete it when she got home from work. I was pretty good at this task except for when I fell asleep watching TV, or when I would be on the phone with my friend, Frannie. Fortunately, Frannie’s parents were also business owners whose office was in their home. If my mom would get a busy signal trying to call me, she would call Frannie’s mom. They had two business lines, so she could always get through. She would ask if I was on the phone with Frannie, and if so, she would ask to have Frannie to tell me to call my mom. Answering machines, then call waiting, and texting has eliminated that issue!
I would get instructions on what to start for dinner. I became quite adept at cooking meals through my teen years, that served me well later in life. Cooking meals didn’t excite me. I am still good at it, but it doesn’t excite me. What excites me is baking.
There is such a difference between baking and cooking. When I stick a roast in the oven, no matter what ingredients I add to the roast, it comes out looking like a roast. Yes, it is delicious, but there is no magic. Chicken looks like chicken, green beans look like green beans, on and on and on.
Now baking — that’s a different story. There is magic in baking. I take a group of very different and strange ingredients, and the final results are something that looks nothing like the original ingredients. Most of those ingredients do not taste good alone. Don’t try to eat flour or shortening alone. Depending on the quantity and what ingredients are added, magic happens. Actually, this is probably chemistry that happens, but since I am not very scholarly when it comes to the sciences, I prefer to call it magic. The truth is, it is probably all chemistry or physics (too bad I never took those courses in school)! When I take these baking ingredients in different quantities, depending on the recipe, the final results look nothing like the ingredients from the start. Amazing cookies, cakes, pies, muffins, and desserts magically appear from these ingredients.
There are a few basic ingredients that go into most baking recipes:
Flour – Oh, that white stuff. I use King Arthur’s general purpose flour. I just feel better that it is not bleached with chemicals, like regular white flour. I won’t go into all of that except that Canada and Europe have banned the use of the chemicals that bleach flour, so it just seems safer to use unbleached flour. It looks the same and works the same as bleached flour. There are plenty of different types of flour, but for my purposes, my recipes I am discussing are using general purpose flour.
Salt – It is the key to waking up flavors, creating balance of sweet and salty in the recipe. In bread and rolls, it controls the fermentation rate of yeast. It has a strengthening effect on the gluten protein in the dough.
Leavening – There are three commonly used leavening agents: baking soda, baking powder, and yeast. Both baking soda and baking powder are considered dried leavening. Baking soda is a sodium bicarbonate and it reacts quickly when it encounters an acid, whereas, baking powder is sodium bicarbonate along with two acids, thus “double acting” that you see on the label of baking powder. This causes the leavening action to be slower over a period of time allowing rising, in such things as cakes and muffins. It will give a lighter texture than rising with just baking soda. Yeast is a single-cell organism, which needs food, warmth, and moisture to thrive. It converts its food (sugar and starch), through fermentation, into carbon dioxide and alcohol. It’s the carbon dioxide that makes baked goods rise.
Fats – Which is more evil, fats or sugars? It depends on who you read or whose documentary you are watching. I think both can be dangerous. We just have to keep all things in moderation. Fat in baking contributes tenderness, moistness, and a smooth mouthfeel to the finished products, and can serve as a flavor enhancer of blended ingredients while contributing its own distinct flavor. Fats include anything from butter, oils, shortening, or lard. (I have never baked with lard).
Sugar – This is the yummy stuff, that adds sweetness to the recipe. Granted there are several things that can be used for sweeteners, such as honey, agave, a number of tasty (but scary) artificial sweeteners, and then, of course, brown sugar. Granulated sugar is scary enough, but this isn’t about health, this is about the magic of baking.
Eggs – What eggs do in a recipe is pretty easy to explain. I’m not talking about egg yolks or whites only (they have some differing results). When you cook an egg it gets hard, fried, soft boiled, hard boiled all hardens the egg. So when an egg is added to a recipe, as the item is baking up such as a cake or muffin, the egg gives it firmness. It holds everything together.
Other ingredients – chips, nuts, fruit, cocoa, etc. – used for flavor and texture.
I learned how to bake in home economic classes in high school. Before that, I did what I would call minor baking at home. We used a box cake mix, a box muffin mix, and pie crust sticks (I have never touched one of those things since I have learned how to make a crust). I think I found the magic back in those days. I learned how to bake quantities, doubling cookie recipes for Christmas, making several pies at one time for Thanksgiving. I have become more adept at my baking skills and organization. If I have a lot of baking to do at one time, such as for Thanksgiving, I measure all my ingredients, put it in small zip-lock bags, and label the bags. The day I am doing all my baking, because pies must be fresh in my opinion, I have all these bags lined up with the ingredients and it becomes an assembly line of quickly putting together each pie. Rather than being overwhelmed baking all my Christmas cookies in a day, I make one kind of cookie a day. I hold out a few for tasting, and the rest get put in freezer bags and frozen immediately. I don’t see them for weeks, and they don’t call my name, tempting me to eat them before its time.
There is something therapeutic about mixing the ingredients. I put a musical playlist on the speakers in the house—Christmas music, or something that just makes me feel good. A year ago, we did a minor remodel of the kitchen. I had the cooktop removed from the island and moved to a counter on the perimeter. Then a new top was put on the island which gives me an 8 foot prep area. I have worked in kitchens with next to no counter space, so this is a joy to be able to have room for all the ingredients and work area, and it helps me stay organized and focused during preparation. I have found that if I am rushing, I will miss an ingredient or not make the recipe properly. That’s why the music plays, ingredients are in order, and I have the kitchen to myself to concentrate.
Flour, sugar, fat, and salt, seem to be the basis of baking recipes. Then take those added flavorful ingredients, be it fruit or chocolate, vanilla, other flavored extracts, add it, and bake. Magic happens! Nothing looks like the basic ingredients that I began with. I am always in awe seeing the recipe rise in the oven, brown, and its look is totally different that what it looked like when I slipped it into the oven. Magic!
Add apples, sugar, and cinnamon, and I have the ingredients for an apple pie. Yet, if I take the ingredients of flour, salt, fat, eggs, and baking powder, I may have muffins or a cake. All of these ingredients are basic with the exception of the flavoring and how it is put together. Put together the same basic ingredients in different quantities with blueberries, and make great muffins, or once again, those same ingredients, with added cocoa powder, and baking powder, and make a chocolate cake.
Oh, this is magic! I love to see the smiles, the ooh’s and ahh’s, from those to whom I serve these recipes. It is in the creation.
I have even taught the grandkids how to bake. We have had many baking sessions, and they have fun and especially enjoy the fruits of their labors. We try to make enough for them to take some of their creations home. They have experimented by making gooey butter cake with a devils food cake, they have made skeleton cookies for halloween, learned to makes cinnamon rolls, and black bottom cupcakes. A couple of them have loved baking (or maybe just the results) that they continue to do baking at home.
All this is so wonderful, and laden with enormous calories. I have struggled with weight all my life, so I have found ways to enjoy these magical delights, and not pack on the pounds. I bake now only for special occasions. That includes having guests, or attending a party, and of course, holidays. As I stated earlier, I freeze my Christmas cookies as soon as I remove them from the oven. If there are any leftover desserts when guests go home, I love to load them up with the goodies to enjoy in the following days. Who doesn’t love receiving a gift of baked goods? I try not to have any left over for me afterward.
I believe that we are created in God’s image, and when we create, be it photography, cooking and baking, painting, quilting, writing, singing, playing an instrument, and too many other creative things to mention, we are sharing God’s image. What a blessing. What a joy. What a privilege!
Stop by my home sometime. Give me a heads up. Maybe you will see and taste what new creation has come from my oven!
P.S. Did I make you a little hungry?