Baking and Other Terrors

My pie’s crust was so overworked and dense that my 60-pound German Shepherd gave up trying to break off any part of it. She ended up licking off the remnants of the apple-cinnamon filling and leaving the cement casing to its own devices.

It’s not as if I’m a trembling flower. In all aspects of my life, I am for the most part pretty nonplussed in the face of a challenge. If anything, a fear is generally an excuse to exercise my curiosity. What’s it like to skydive? I don’t know—let’s try! How about righting a kayak while still in it, upside down, in the water? Why, what a novel idea! Who cares if I’m a poor swimmer? But baking? All of the usual symptoms of anxiety set in: the clammy hands, the stumbling, the cold, rank perspiration.

I blame my mother. She’s convenient. And a good baker. It’s no comfort with you’re surrounded by the fluffy meringues, sponge cakes, and loafs that would emerge in a steady flow, golden and delicious: one thinks that one’s own attempts should be as effortless.

My first serious attempt at baking was when I was 13. I made an apple pie. I proudly measured and checked all of the necessary ingredients, I proclaimed I needed no help in the kitchen at all, and proceeded to painstakingly peel, core, chop and knead. And knead. And knead. I didn’t know how much to knead pie dough, so I erred on the side of caution. “Better to knead too much than to knead too little,” went my teenage logic.

The apple pie smelled great as it emerged from the oven. Cinnamon, apple, butter, sugar: can there be a more complementary union? I’d taste-tested the apple stuffing, so I knew I was in for a treat. It was perfect. However, the crust was another story altogether. After I sweated at trying to cut into it with a sharp knife, I decided to eat the filling and donate the crust to my dog. My pie’s crust was so overworked and dense that my 60-pound German Shepherd gave up trying to break off any part of it. She ended up licking off the remnants of the apple-cinnamon filling and leaving the cement casing to its own devices. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

But my wrestling with the concepts of baking predate this tender foray. At the early age of 6, I asked my mum one lazy, hazy afternoon, “How do you make a cake?” “Well, you need flour, eggs, water and sugar, basically,” she replied.

She was harried, trying to fill a catering order. Cakes had been baking all afternoon, and her apron and the kitchen was dusted with flour. My mum had decided she didn’t want to be “just” a housewife, tied to her 3 daughters and her husband. She’d decided to open a restaurant. It was a modest operation that catered to an office crowd. She had set menus during the week and abbreviated operating hours during the weekends. There really was no reason for the restaurant to remain open during the evenings or on the weekends. Sometimes there would be a single diner for an entire evening. That was one of the good scenarios. The worst were when an office drunk would stay later and later, drinking pitchers of beer as the evening went on. Once we had a waitress call us at home, in tears, because a customer had gotten rowdy and broken one of the porcelain bathroom sinks in a drunken rage. My mum decided at that point to stop opening later than office hours during the week. Weekends weren’t really any better. A good Saturday would turn out something like 20 covers. And more often than not, weekends were when the cook or wait staff would decide to take off without warning, and my mum would be pressed into service.

I think the restaurant’s evening and weekend hours were manifestations of my mum’s hope that the restaurant would continue to attract more than just the office crowd, in and out on their hour lunch, staving off the grumpy rumbles of hunger before having to return to more paperwork. It was probably the same reason she decided to open a catering business on the side. For me and my sisters, the best part of the catering business were the freebies we got when people didn’t finish her deep-fried pork spring rolls, or when she decided to throw in an extra cake—or, my favorite, lemon meringue pie—just for us.

But the day I tried baking my first cake, my mum was rushing. I was bored.

“So you make a cake by using flour, eggs, water and sugar?”

“Yes,” she replied.

“What’s flour?” I asked innocently.

“It’s, uh, a powder,” my mum responded absentmindedly. “It comes from grinding wheat.”

I was intrigued. I wanted to find out more. What kind of wheat? Was the chaff included? What about stalks? How could I get some wheat? Did she have some flour to spare?

My mum’s gruff manner and staccato responses cued me to understand that no further questions would be entertained. Her back, firmly turned towards me, invited no further inquiry.

I took the hint and went off to the bathroom.

“Hmm...talcum powder?”

I hesitated. If flour was a powder, and talcum powder was a powder, surely they were the same? Was this what my mum used in those bags? But it didn’t really smell the same. Maybe it was just a different perfume? In any case, it was what I had on hand. So, how much talcum powder did I need to use? And how did I mix them all together? Was there a technique? How was I to get it to work? How much time would it take?

I ventured another question to my mum. Standing as casually as I could, I watched her dart between the floured kitchen countertop, the overhead cabinets, her recipe book, back to the countertop. I waited.

“So, I have the powder. What do I do next? Should I add water?” I asked tentatively.

My mum, surprised, decided to go indulge my questioning.

“Yes.”

“But how much water do I add?”

“Enough so it’s like a paste.” An edge had crept back into her voice.

I decided to figure it out on my own.

And off I went, with a little blue plastic container that we used to bathe with, for the purposes of making talcum powder dough.

I figured my mum wouldn’t let me add eggs, and I thought one ingredient missing probably wouldn’t hurt the mix.

My mum called out from the kitchen unexpectedly. “Don’t forget to knead the dough. You have to make sure you knead it well.”

I didn’t know what that meant, but I remember storing that advice for future access. For when I made my real pie.

Years later, after having scrutinized multiple cooking shows and cookbooks, I am only now reconciling myself to baked goods, my hands, and my oven. I know the secret to light, flaky pastry lies in handling the dough as little as possible, with ingredients as chilled as possible. Resting the dough is an important step in baking. I actually made choux pastry dough once as a challenge.

It wasn’t with any sense of curiosity though, but with a sense of terror, anxiety, and eventually, relief.

And while I became a kayak instructor and have managed to quell my overwhelming fear of drowning, and while I have skydived despite my vertigo and terror of heights, I still leave baking to those best equipped—and trained. Sure, I can make a cake or bake when required, but are there really that many instances in life where baking, unassisted, is required? Besides, living in one of the greatest cities in the world gives me another excuse: I can always say I’m just sampling the fine pastries about town. No one needs to know that I’m actually terrified about making my own.

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