Baking cupcakes. Illustration: whilerests
I’m definitely late to the party, but like so many others, the pandemic put me in a state of frenzied baking. Although the banana bread trend didn’t quite entice me, my family’s humble home oven was used to its capacity to dish out every other dessert. The oven gave way early this year, but all that time I spent with it taught me a thing or two about baking. And surprisingly, about life.
Sometimes, a set of clear instructions can be comforting
As a woman in her early 20’s, I often find myself realizing that the rules we unknowingly live by can be quite arbitrary and sometimes even self-damaging. In the past few years, I’ve found myself questioning the many rules I’ve been conditioned to accept. So, when I started baking, I read recipe instructions with an underlying suspicion. Do I really need to add baking powder and baking soda? Does it actually make a difference if the butter is not at room temperature? Turns out the answer is yes, it does make a difference. Your cake batter will look and feel different, depending on whether you use cold hard butter, softened room temperature butter or melted butter. Even when the outside world seems to slap on rules to box you in, in the world of baking, the rules work to your benefit.
It’s important (and completely okay) to do some things just for yourself
When I first started baking, I tried all the crowd favourites: chocolate cakes, brownies, cookies. But slowly, I began trying things I wanted to eat. When I was younger, I tasted a lemon tart for the first time at the iconic Merwans Cake Shop in Mumbai. It was tart, sweet and crumbly, with a distinct zingy aftertaste. To my little mind, it was nothing short of magic. So when I became a little more confident of my baking skills, I decided to make a lemon meringue pie. For me, the concept of a meringue existed only on Masterchef Australia and I had no idea how mine would turn out. I made the pie anyway. It turned out just a little too sour and the meringue was most definitely sub-par. My family tasted a slice each with kind compliments, but didn’t go back for more. But over the next few days, I ate a small slice of my bit-too-sour lemon meringue pie after every meal and polished off every last crumb of it. It gave me this amazing realization: sometimes, you need to just do things for yourself. If I really enjoy it, I can make my own lemon pie and eat it too.
Failing is part of the process
It is a great feeling to work very hard at something and achieve the goal you set out to achieve. There’s no doubt about that. But baking showed me that you can try very hard, fail completely and then laugh about it to yourself while chomping on some burnt cookies. My kitchen disasters—dense brownies and hardened caramels, among many others—taught me that measuring and laying things out beforehand is the best thing you can do when baking and that ovens are different and you might have to change the temperature in the recipe based on the oven you have. I learned that brownies need good quality chocolate melted in and that a caramel needs careful attention. When I try to bake now, I keep in mind that the odds may be 50-50, but that never has to mean I don’t try and enjoy the process anyway.
Taking the easy way out isn’t always a bad thing
We glorify struggle a lot. We love working very hard and telling people all about our long hours and sleepless nights. But choosing the path of a little less resistance is not necessarily a bad thing. If you’re craving a chocolate cake with nutella buttercream icing but don’t want to spend too much time in the kitchen, you can always make the cake from a box. If you’re trying to make a galette but are intimidated by the process of making pie dough, a digestive biscuit base works too. You can be a little forgiving towards yourself and still enjoy the rewards just as much.
Sometimes, you just need to ask the expert
When I started, I wanted this baking experience to be all mine. I didn’t want to follow a guidebook or start from the basics. I didn’t want to follow a structure or do anything that made it feel like a college course. That also meant I did not ever ask for help. But one day, when a cake batter turned out weird and goopy and my mother walked into the kitchen just when it was at its worst, I knew help was coming whether I wanted it or not. And thank god it did. She added some flour, adjusted it with milk and suddenly, it was as good as new! Another time, I made an amazing chocolate chunk cookie dough, only to keep messing up the baking time and temperature, resulting in 2 batches of burnt, rock-hard cookies. She swooped in and baked the third batch to perfection.
As infuriating as it can be sometimes, it’s important to accept that there are people who are better at the job than you are. And sometimes, you’re going to need their help. Instead of waiting for your cookies to turn into jawbreakers, just go ahead and ask how you should bake them. There’s never any shame in getting help, you might just end up with some great desserts.