Bake me a cake as fast as you can!
My father loved to bake. Cakes, pies and pastries and although much came from a mix, his passion for the art of baking was evident in each precise gesture, the intense focus and concentration with which he baked. He certainly transmitted the passion, the desire to bake to his daughter. Yes, yes, of course I have a sweet tooth and that does help but the act of baking, the rhythmic, sensual movements, the magical transformation of single, separate ingredients into something so delicious mesmerized me, captured my imagination and I wanted to be able to do the same.
And my father loved to bake because he was a generous soul. He carried cakes to meetings and events, he baked for bingo at the synagogue and Friday nights for after Shabbat services. He baked for his family, Thanksgiving pies and Sunday morning pancakes. He baked because it made others happy. This could not but fill me with the same desire, bake to please, bake to delight, bake to spread warmth and cheer. He taught me the lesson that a slice of cake made the world a better place.
Yet my first baking project was catastrophic. A simple recipe it was, for cranberry muffins. I was all of ten years old and had already seen these muffins baked somewhere, in Girl Scouts or Home Ec. I hurried home excitedly, anxious to bake these gems for my family and proud I was. My very first from-scratch, home-baked good. Yet. Three tablespoons of Crisco, that shimmering, slippery white goo, mysteriously transformed into three cups and although I wondered, I suspected that all was not quite right I forged ahead, putting my confusion down to inexperience. The recipe must be right and that is what I read. Three cups Crisco for a mere dozen muffins. But I wanted to bake.
And what came out of the oven? One dozen red-dotted muffin tops each floating on a sea of melted Crisco. I was shocked and traumatized. I never wanted to bake again. It took a bit of humor and gentle encouragement on behalf of an older brother to bring me back to the task, to want to bake again. Once we understood (and laughed about) my error, I did bake those muffins a second time. To untold success.
I now bake those cranberry muffins (albeit without Crisco) every single winter to the joy of my family and friends.
I bake, my husband cooks. The perfect marriage. He follows no recipe, I am utterly lost without directions jotted down. He ad-libs as he goes, cooking au pif, as the French call it, by the nose, by instinct, from selection of ingredients to spicing and seasoning. He markets with no forethought, no dish decided, just perusing the stalls, basket in hand, looking for whatever is freshest, seasonal, local, gathering them up and carrying them home. He dumps his harvest on the counter and only then decides what best to cook.
I, on the other hand, panic if I have no list in hand, no idea prepared as to what dish I will make. I must have well made plans even before heading to the market. When I bake, the precision and exactitude of the performance, the science of baking, comforts and infuses my soul with confidence, even if it is I who has developed the recipe. To bake is to concoct along a precise set of rules, to bake, to measure, to weigh, to stir or whisk or beat, to steep or simmer or scald or boil, to bake or poach or griddle or toast. To ferment and rise, to nurture and gently coddle, to pamper and fold just so, just to blend. I feel like a mad scientist, a doctor curing the woes of the world with my concoctions; I feel the satisfaction of working through one measurement, one step at a time and crossing it off of my list. My husband has no such patience, no such desire to follow the rules when in the kitchen. That exactitude of baking only holds his creativity, his spontaneity back. And he ruins every thing he touches. He couldn't bake a loaf of bread or a tray of cookies to save a sinking ship.
Lucky us for finding each other. Although this discord, the difference of styles may wreak a bit of havoc when we find ourselves side by side in the kitchen, it certainly makes for an interesting, a well-balanced marriage.
I bake and he cooks. His stews and tagines, sauces and soups accompanied by my breads or muffins, followed by my cakes and pies. I bake and he cooks, savory and sweet, a tasty matrimony, a complete meal.
He once called what I do baking therapy. At first, he saw it as an obsession, my passion to bake. Just a crazy woman who needed to knead, had a compulsion to bake. My hands in flour, sifting cocoa, scooping sugar, chopping chocolate were seen as an unnecessary occupation bordering on the neurotic. Nothing to do? Bake! Or worse. An insecure woman (force) feeding sweet confections to her family in exchange for love and consideration, attention craved and nourished with baked goods. Half-baked.
But then as he watched me bake, throughout the years, he realized that the urge was somehow deeper than that. When I bake…. the movements, the slow, peaceful, rhythmic movements, or the quick, vigorous motions, the scents of chocolate and yeast, cinnamon and apple enveloping me as I bask in the warmth of the oven, as the steam of something caramelizing or melting swirls around my head… fill me with peace and a quiet joy. An escape from the everyday. A zen-like happiness. Beating eggs or butter and sugar zealously, or gently, lovingly folding sugar and almond meal into clouds of meringue or whiskey and grated chocolate into froths of whipped cream, dumping scoops of dough or piping mounds of macaron batter or long, slim snakes of ladyfinger or choux paste onto baking trays, whacking bread dough against a block of wood, calms and centers me, eliminates stress and anger and I breathe more easily, my heart rate slows to tranquil. And then the very act of writing about it, sharing my stories about what I bake is better than hours on the sofa of some anonymous office sharing my innermost secrets to a therapist.
And when I am happy, he is happy. And, more importantly, when mama is happy, everybody is happy.
And he sings:
Mieux encore que dans la chambre j't'aime dans la cuisine
Rien n'est plus beau que les mains d'une femme dans la farine
(Better than in the bedroom, I love you in the kitchen
Nothing is more beautiful than a woman's hands in flour…)
We always have Madeleines in the house, whether store bought or homemade, maybe because the French eat them like Americans eat cookies. I bake Madeleines often, both savory and sweet, and try and change the flavorings each time; they are such a great little treat because the variations are endless once you have a base recipe and it always works the charm. Madeleines are perfect for breakfast, snack time or cocktail/wine hour. With all of the flavors I have tried, my husband really does prefer these simple vanilla Madeleines, although the addition of browned butter and honey makes them anything but ordinary.
JAMIE'S HONEY VANILLA MADELEINES
This recipe makes about 60 mini-Madeleines (1 ¾ - inch / 4 ½ cm at their longest point) or 24 regular Madeleines
9 ½ Tbs (135 g) unsalted butter
2 large eggs
½ cup less 1 tsp (85 g) granulated sugar
1 Tbs (30 g) liquid/runny honey
Scant ¼ cup (40 ml) milk
1 cup (135 g) flour *
1 ½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
1 vanilla pod or 1 tsp vanilla extract
* the flour, baking powder and salt can be replaced with 1 cup (135 g) self-rising cake flour
Prepare the Madeleine batter the night before baking:
Melt the butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Continue heating until the butter turns a dark hazelnut brown color and smells nutty. Remove from the heat and allow to come to room temperature.
Whisk together the eggs, sugar, honey and the milk n a large mixing bowl. Using a small, thin-bladed, sharp knife, split the vanilla pod down the center and scrape out all of the seeds. Add the seeds to the egg mixture, or add the vanilla. Sift the flour, baking powder and salt (or the self-rising flour) onto the batter and whisk to blend. Whisk in the melted brown butter: try not to add the dark dregs that have settled to the bottom of the pan. Cover the bowl and refrigerate overnight.
The following day Preheat the oven to 410°F (210°C). Lightly butter the shell-shaped cavities of a mini-Madeleine mold (the easiest way to do this is using a pastry brush and either softened or melted butter).
The chilled batter will be thick and easy to work with: simply place about half a teaspoon (if using bigger molds, simply fill each shell no more than three-quarters full) in each shell cavity. Place the Madeleine tin directly on the oven rack and bake for about 8 minutes. Do not overbake the Madeleines or they will be dry: take them out when puffed up and the center forms a large bump, the edges are golden but the center is still pale. Once out of the oven, very gently lift the Madeleines from the molds using a knife and place on a rack to cool.