I haven’t done a pastry post in a while. I haven’t really experimented with pastries in a while. I’ve just made the standards, really, Grandma Scott’s sugar cookies and my son’s favorite, chocolate chips.
Truth is, for me baking is meditation, baking and walks with my dog, Maynard. Unfortunately, between the first nasty cold I’ve had in years and the “polar vortex” conditions we’ve been experiencing lately, Maynard and I have been mostly unable to walk outside.
Winter is a fantastic time to bake. I can’t describe the smells in my kitchen because I lost that sense a long time ago. Still, there is something visceral about baking. Perhaps, it’s that it brings me back to all that was good about growing up. That is being in the kitchen with family and friends. The kitchen in our house was Grand Central Station. It was where I did homework, where we gathered for holidays, where we sat with friends and discussed the workings of the world over sweet breads and coffee. Sure, we had a dining room and a table in that dining room, but it was rarely ever used except as a work station for my dollhouse crafting. My mother just preferred the kitchen, preferred everyone be in the thick of wafting scents and sizzling sounds of sustenance being prepared. We preferred it too.
The kitchen was part enigma, part fascination for me. I couldn’t cook my way out of a paper bag. I burned pizza and rice. My lack of sense of smell was a definitely a handicap when it came to seasoning savory food. It just couldn’t get it the way my mom could. Still, I always loved food, loved just about anything my mother made–and now my husband makes. In fact, she and my chef husband have ruined me for your everyday restaurants. They pale in comparison to anything that came out of our simple, non-commercial, very homey kitchen. While trying to recreate some of that, for me, has been a challenge, the one thing I could do well was bake. I was always good at baking. Perhaps my pasta sauce needs a little work, but give me flour, sugar, butter, and pure vanilla extract and watch me go.
It started in the kitchen in our old house in Canton. It started there with my mother and her helping me bake chocolate chip cookies. It started with me watching and helping her make cannoli shells. It moved from my mother helping me to my best friend and I exploring our baking prowess on our own. Specifically, I remember the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook, a classic, and numerous batches of drop biscuits and a few pineapple upside down cakes. Later, in college, my roommate and let our final exam stress out by baking Christmas cookies.
Now, I have my own very small kitchen, smaller than perhaps it should be for as much as it gets used. Still, we make our galley work. Also, if there is one place I’ve ditched books and gone electronic it would be for recipes. My apologies to cookbook writers everywhere. With my iPhone I have so many options available at my fingertips and an endless number of new things I can try. What is particularly nice is that I can take the ingredients I find in my pantry, look them up, and usually find something that fits.
Last week, I took some canned pumpkin I had left over from Thanksgiving and found a cinnamon sugar pumpkin muffin recipe. You can find the recipe at Sally’s Baking Addiction. I made regular size muffins instead of minis, so I had to cook them a bit longer. They were not overly sweet. That’s fine by me. I hate when I get a muffin and am expecting a muffin, but it turns out sweeter than cake. Anyway, they were a hit with friends and family, and they made for nice morning side to my cup of ginger pear tea.
This week, I made a basic vanilla sheet cake from scratch for my son’s friend who is leaving soon for army basic training. I’d tried the Better
Homes and Gardens recipe many times, but the cakes always seemed a bit dry. This time I searched for another simple option. I landed on the best recipe at TheKitchn. The cake came out more moist than I had expected. I think a little tweaking with applesauce might make it just right. I consider myself a butter cream frosting connoisseur, so I can make it in my sleep. I need to beef up the cake decorating supplies and practice a bit with the tips. Still, it has been less than 24 hours and the cake has all but disappeared. And no, Maynard has not gotten hold of any.
In the end, what it does for me, besides making my family happy, is it gives me a little space from writing, directs my creative energy in another way that literally and figuratively feeds my writing and I think it’s important to take that time and do those things or we get burned out. I wasn’t feeling burned out, but it felt good all the same to fill the well in that way. How do you fill the well?