I’m (Not Quite As) Afraid of Baking (As I Used To Be)
I devoted an entire chapter in my first book, (“Does This Taste Funny?”), to my utter fear of all things baking. Not cooking mind you–I love to experiment in the kitchen, because cooking is forgiving. If you left a spice out, add it later. Undercooked? Put it back in the oven.
But not you, baking. No, you expect everything to be precise. Your temperature has to be exact…timing must be exact…every amount measured just so. . . Apparently in your world, you can’t substitute say, mayonnaise for eggs, even though mayonnaise is made from eggs. Apparently, you can’t just swap out cardamom for, say, nutmeg, even though nobody knows what cardamom actually is.
So I don’t do a lot of baking. After all, there are places where I can simply buy baked goods, without having to carefully measure this, and gently fold that. Once a year, I do an oatmeal pumpkin crumb thingy, and that’s enough baking for me. But…
Occasionally I look at my pantry and see something that makes me think, “Where did I get that?” or “What would I use that for?” or “That looks like it’s gone bad, but then again, I’m not sure what it’s supposed to look like.” This time, it was something called ‘coconut sugar.’
I also noticed that I had some Trader Joe’s Organic Cocoa Powder. This was clearly an impulse buy–do not shop at Trader Joe’s when you’re stoned. You might think you need ‘bacon jam,’ or ‘apple pie cheddar cheese, but in fact you do not.
Anyway, with exotic sugar in one hand and bougie cocoa in the other, I turned to Google for ideas (after I put down the sugar and the cocoa). There I found a recipe for “the most amazing” coconut sugar brownies! Not sure why these were any more ‘amazing’ than everyday, run-of-the-mill coconut brownies, but…they were brownies. How bad could they be?
SPOILER ALERT: They were not bad at all. One roommate loved them, the other one said they were ‘interesting’ (thanks?). The texture wasn’t exactly right (I may have accidentally made chocolate cake), but they looked, smelled, and tasted like…brownies! And really, any recipe that uses two sticks of butter and two cups of sugar is probably gonna taste good, even if you screw up a couple steps.
I had a few obstacles and near-fiascos on the way. First of all, I started with a mixing bowl that was too small, so I had to switch bowls mid-mix. After transferring about half of the batter into the bigger bowl, the smaller bowl slipped out of my hand into the bigger bowl.
Second, the recipe explicitly called for ‘baking powder,’ which I thought I had, but in fact I had ‘baking soda,’ which I guess is a totally different thing (seriously, why would they make the names so similar). Back to Google, and I find that you can substitute baking soda for baking powder. All you do is divide by three, or multiply by three, or maybe there’s a square root involved. Oh, and vinegar, which I guess magically turns the soda into powder, through some sort of Betty Crocker alchemy.
Of course, I didn’t have any vinegar . . . not regular, old-fashioned vinegar, At this point, four of the seven ingredients were in the bowl, my oven was ready, and I was fully prepared to just splash in some juice from a pickle jar and call it a day.
Thankfully, I saw that I had some red wine vinegar, and though I’m sure that’s not typically used in dessert recipes, it’s vinegar, right? I wondered if vinegar could go bad, because I couldn’t remember the last time I used it, but then I realized I only needed a half teaspoon. Or was it three teaspoons? There is far too much math in baking.
The biggest challenge I faced was the fact that I didn’t have an electric hand mixer, so I had to do my hand-mixing, well, by hand. Now I know there were baked goods before electricity (in what scientists call the ‘Pre-Pastry Age’), but this was not easy.
My neurological nonsense has left me with one mostly useless arm, two shaky hands, and several numb fingers, so I have all the agility and fine motor skills of a Dollar Store wooden marionette in the kitchen. After an hour of baking, I’m usually coated in flour and sugar, looking like I left the scene of a particularly ghastly patisserie bombing.
It felt like hours of mixing, with the goopy sludge in the bowl full of layers of ingredients that did not seem to be getting along at all. Then, suddenly, like a holiday miracle the sludge started to take on the appearance of . . .what’s this? It’s batter! Wonderful, decadent, brownie batter!
Half an hour at three-fifty, and I had brownies! Or weird chocolate cake. Doesn’t matter. What matters is that I baked the damned thing, and what’s even more important is that I think I might bake some more damned things.