Wednesday, June 2, 2010


I wrote early in May about my newfound joy of cooking. While I do enjoy cooking, and am enjoying it more the more I do it, I love baking. My mother baked, usually once every two weeks, while I was a child. I remember coming home from school to find the house redolent with the smells of yeast and butter and vanilla and cinnamon. There were breads and dinner rolls and breakfast rolls and cookies. Is it any wonder I've never been thin? I didn't stand a chance growing up in that house.

I've heard many people say that while cooking is an art, baking is a science. Exact measurements are essential and the tiniest variation from the recipe and you run the risk of ruin. Hooey, I say. Yes, there are more things to consider when baking - dealing with chemical reactions that create rise and gluten, for example, and ratios of liquids to solids. But baking is not nearly as unforgiving as many would have you believe.

The real problem with baking, if there is one, is the eating. Bread may be considered the staff of life and a necessity (and for the most part, relatively healthy), but cakes and pies and cookies and pastries clearly are not. And, over-indulgence? Well - that way lies ruin as we all know. So the secret is in the sharing.

Many people try get around this by trying to make baking more "healthy" by switching ingredients. Some of those substitutions are fine - for example, my favorite trick is substituting natural (no sugar added) applesauce for half of the oil in a recipe. This retains the moisture that the oil is intended for and lowers the fat content without compromising flavor or texture. Other substitutions are not so good. Many people will substitute Splenda for sugar or margarine for butter in an attempt to lower fat and calorie counts. Doing this creates more harm than good. For one thing, the chemicals in those products are all bad for you. Additionally, they affect taste and texture. Products baked with those items do not taste as good and are less satisfying. The result? You eat more - partly because you know they're lower in calories and partly because they simply don't satisfy the way they would had they been baked with real ingredients. The truth is that butter is NOT your enemy. Neither is sugar. And a little bit of each is not going to hurt you. Thus, the sharing.

My most recent baking forays have been focused around rhubarb. It is the season here in Minnesota and there is a bounty of it around this year. Rhubarb is a wonderful baking ingredient. It's a fruit so you can feel somewhat self-righteous in using it and it's tartness is a welcome contrast to the sweetness that is most baking. A recipe for rhubarb coffee cake yielded two 9-inch cakes. One was given whole to a friend who shared it with her family, and the other was split between three households and served eight people. The other was a recipe for rhubarb bars. The pan yielded 3 plates of bars that went to friends with plenty left over to share at a work meeting. Everyone had a small piece, or two at the most, and everyone left having enjoyed something seasonal and delicious with their sweet tooth satisfied and with no real harm to their diet. With baking you get to experience the truth of the axiom "everything in moderation."

One of the other lessons that baking teaches is the importance of the wait. The mixing of ingredients is generally a relatively quick enterprise depending on the complexity of your recipe choice. But once things are in the oven, the waiting begins. And there's no hurrying baking. If you are impatient and take something out too soon, you can't go back later and stick it back in to cook a little more. Neither can you just jack up the oven temp and get things done sooner. You must wait - time and temperature working in tandem to create the end result. And, if you're baking bread, you learn even more about the wait. Knead, rise, punch down, knead, rise. Time has no substitute.

Moderation and waiting. I think I'm beginning to get it.

Today's photo snagged from:

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