by Lalita Iyer
First of all, if you are a baking purist like several of my friends, stop reading right here. Some of the contents of this post might offend your sensibilities. Most of it will rankle the OCD of the baker in you.
This is for the rest of the folk who are on the journey to self-care...
I was one of those children who learnt to cook at age 10. No, I am not kidding. I did it out of boredom. I went to a convent school, we had Thursdays off, but Amma would be at work. I would have the house and the kitchen to myself (well, nearly). I took to cooking.
By the time I was 12, I could put a meal together. My mother didn’t have a problem. As long as I didn’t mess up her kitchen, she was okay.
Baking was another story. It was one of those things my mother learnt late in her life. She went to a baking class and often brought home goodies - coconut cookies, nankhatais, coconut castles, shortbread, gingerbread, pineapple upside-down cake, marble cake, sponge cake, coffee, and walnut cake and anything and everything cake.
Every Saturday, she would try something she had learnt in class. The siblings and I were her appointed menials for this project. One of us would chop the cherries or the candied peels, one would beat the eggs (whites me, yolks - my brother); my sister would be asked to sift the flour, and my brother would be asked to grease-proof the baking tin.
My mother was very fastidious about every step though and watched us through the corner of her eye as we went on about our assigned tasks. “Has every corner of the tin been buttered?”. Or, “You are adding the flour too quickly, Lalli”, “Don’t lift the egg beater out, you will introduce more air into it” or “Don’t change the direction of the creaming” or “The cookies are not the same size. I don’t want any fights later.”
In my mother’s world, baking was as precise as it got...
The dropping consistency of the batter, the peaking of the egg-whites, the width of each swirl in the marble cake, the pressure applied to the pressing of the cherry onto the coconut cookie –they were all closely monitored and graded. Amma’s secrets were documented in her blue diary, something she guarded stealthily like it were a family heirloom, something we were not allowed to touch, lest the pages came crumbling.
Whenever I expressed a desire to bake, my mother would say, “Well, first you work on your cookies, then we will see.” In my mother’s world, cookies had to be the same size and shape, rolled not into a disc, but more of a tetrahedron, and my mother’s watchful eye often made me nervous. I came close to swearing off baking completely. I couldn’t deal with a skill that required such a degree of perfection, it was almost anal. Cooking was another thing. If you did something wrong, it could always be fixed.
And then one day, my mother stopped baking...
Just like that. Ironically, the blue diary went missing after one of our house moves, and it was never found again.
Time passed. I turned into an innovative, often inspired cook, but always stayed away from baking.
And then I had a child. Strange things happen when you have a child. You learn to say yes when you mean no. You learn to become a ventriloquist. I could throw so many animal voices, I had trouble remembering I was human. You learn the fine art of patience (I am still getting there, but I have been told I am doing a fairly decent job).
And one day, I wanted to bake...
Divine intervention came in the form of Electra, a friend’s mother. She said something that helped me overcome my baking inhibitions. “What’s in baking? Nothing! Just butter, sugar, eggs, flour. Mix it all up. Add whatever you want in the end. Easy, men!”
And there it was. Simple. Rustic. Uncomplicated. Like me, I thought.
I bought myself an OTG and my affair with baking started all over again. I started with simple pound cakes and then got adventurous -- adding dates, walnuts, chocolate, coffee, icing, strawberries, carrots, orange rinds, lemon zest, anything I could find. I even made scones – the fantasy of my childhood, thanks to Enid Blyton. I mustered the courage to bake vegan, gluten-free, eggless, sugarless. I tried ragi, millet flour, almond meal and what have you. And it was not about earning brownie points with the child (pun unintended). Fact is, a loaf of banana bread or a batch of cookies or muffins can calm a restless child for three days. Or make you look good in the dabba department. Think of how much time you save thinking up an innovative snack every evening!
One day, my mother was over, and I baked her a date and walnut cake. She was aghast. “How did you do that so fast?”
It was my turn to act smug...
(Just remember these three things!)
1. The thing about baking is that even the most seasoned baker often waits with bated breath to see if the cake has risen.
Even if you have a manual, you are never sure you will get it right, much like parenting. But some days you totally wing it, like when I baked this carrot cake from a recipe that my friend Pinky gave me.
But unlike my mother’s world, my world of baking is full of imperfection...
It didn’t matter that my first batch of chocolate chip cookies were burnt at the bottom. It doesn’t matter how many chocolate chips are there in each muffin or each cookie. It didn’t matter that the vegan muffins had to be eaten along with some of the butter paper, as they stuck to the base. Re (my son) still found them ‘yummy’.
2. I have learnt that there is no such thing as a bad cookie.
That even the hard ones can be redeemed with ice cream or some such palliative. And even the really mushy ones have the power to put a smile on your face. I learnt how not to judge a cookie by its cover. Burnt cookies are my best friends.
3. I also learnt that if the cake doesn’t rise, we can always have a crumble.
So there! I finally mastered the art of imperfect baking...
And I was no longer intimidated by my mother and her blue diary. I am hoping that this post has pushed you ever so slightly to at least unearth that baking tin. What is the worst thing that could happen? Trust me, it will still be edible, as long as you can tell the difference between salt and sugar.
Recipe to make Chocolate Cake using Slurrp Farm Millet Pancake - Chocolate and Supergrains. Click here!
Lalita Iyer writes for little people and big people and is raised by two boys, one of who is feline.