How I learnt to bake without boundaries

 Strange things happen when you have a child. You learn to overcome stage fright. (Well, with all that singing and dancing in public, you better). You learn to become a ventriloquist. I can throw so many animal voices, I have forgotten who I really am. You learn to say yes when you mean no. You learn the fine art of patience (I am still getting there, but I have been told I am doing a fairly decent job). You learn to appreciate the poetry in repetition. And more such.

I also learnt to bake without boundaries.

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, my mother would be at work, I would have the house and the kitchen to myself (well, nearly), and I was one of those diligent girls who finished her homework in school, so there was nothing to do, really. So 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, and any help was welcome.

Baking was another story. It was one of those things my mother learnt late in her life (read after she had three kids, one of which was now a blooming adolescent). She went to a baking class on Saturday and brought home goodies that she learnt to bake there. Coconut cookies. Nankhatais. Coconut castles. Shortbread. Gingerbread. Pineapple upside-down cake. Marble cake. Sponge cake. Coffee and walnut cake. Anything and everything cake.

Saturday evening was when she would practise what she learnt. And the siblings and I were her appointed menials. One of us would chop the cherries or the candied peels, another would beat the eggs (whites me, yolks my brother), another would be asked to sift the flour, and another (again, me) would be asked to grease-proof the baking tin.

My mother was very fastidious about every step though, and watched us from the corner of our eye as we went on about our assigned tasks. “Has every corner of the tin been buttered?”. Or , “Too much flour, Lalli”, “Don’t lift the egg beater out, Shivi, 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.”

And more such.

Whenever I would express a desire to bake, my mother would say, “Well, first you work on getting all your cookies the same size, then we will see.”

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 so began my culinary journey.

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 shape of the cookies rolled, 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.

All her 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 like cookies.

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 passes. I turn into an innovative, often inspired cook, but always stay away from baking.

And then Re is born. And I so want to bake.

Divine intervention came in the form of a friend’s mother who walked into my life when I was pregnant. She said something that finally helped me overcome my baking inhibitions. “What’s in baking? Nothing! Just butter, sugar, eggs, flour. Add whatever you want in the end. Easy, men!”

And there it was. Simple. Rustic. Uncomplicated. Like me, I thought.

I started with simple pound cakes, then got adventurous, adding dates, walnuts, chocolate, coffee, icing, strawberries, carrots, orange rinds, lemon zest, anything I could find. I mustered the courage to bake vegan, gluten free, eggless, and various permutations and combinations.

One day, my mother was over, and just like that, 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.

Soon after Re’s second birthday, I developed a crush on Nigella Lawson, courtesy her shows that Re and I watched together. As pornographic as she is about her culinary skills, she did make baking look effortless. Just like I wanted it to be.

I bought myself a brand new oven and my affair with baking started all over again. I have been doing cookies, muffins, cupcakes, banana loaves, apple crumbles and whatnot. 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. Re still makes the right noises.“Mmm, nice mamma!” And that does it for me.

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 still found them ‘yummy’.

I can’t wait to try the fun stuff my friend Rushina does with her kids

And it’s not all about brownie points or doing it from the goodness of my heart. Fact is, a batch of cookies can quieten a restless child for three days. So can a batch of muffins. Or a really moist banana loaf or a carrot cake. Think of how much time you save thinking up an innovative snack every evening. There it is — practical, sensible me, who still wants to look good.

So there! I finally mastered the art of imperfect baking. And I am no longer intimidated by my mother and her blue diary. But ever so often, I wish I had it.

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16 thoughts on “How I learnt to bake without boundaries

  1. The First time i baked a cake it came out perfectly right and every other time it has only been a disaster… i am not sure if i will ever go back to baking 😦

  2. How perfect to cook this way! I burnt the first batch of cookies I baked (mine were heart shaped too) and I remember everyone fighting for the burnt ones! I learn dishes by trial and error and it makes the whole process very interesting. I loved reading your experience!

  3. Lovely! I had almost the same experience growing up – Ma wouldnt let me touch her beloved oven. Except, my grandfather let us sneak behind her back and bake all we wanted. however we wanted. Then at age 10, after he passed away, I got caught – without my strong-shouldered guardian angel around to heft the oven from it’s hiding place (yes, Ma had one of those too!), I dropped it and it cracked. Apart from a few boyfriend-impressing intermittent baking spells, it’s only now, after Em was born and the long maternity break drove me to sheer boredom, that I started baking again. Irreverently, without being finicky about proportions or over-sensitive about appliances. And Em gladly devours every single cup-cake, cookie, loaf, and whatever weird creation pops out of that oven. This is a beautiful piece, Lalita, the best! And since I’m bored again at 1am, it’s inspired me to go bake a batch of something. 🙂

  4. Awww, I’m scared of baking too. I always believe that there is a science to cooking and if you understand the ingredients well enough, it can never go wrong. I’m still to understand the science of baking though. Your post made it sound worth the effort:)

  5. You are so amazing. I bake a lot, and more often than not I day dream of baking with my kids once I have one (some). 🙂 (Dont say out aloud, but I dream of flour covered little ones and hands and mouth smeared with chocolate, pots and pans being banged and a whole lot of other ruckus.)

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