I stopped baking almost twenty years ago, after I stopped eating gluten and dairy. Katie wasn’t big into most baked goods back then and I didn’t need the sugar, fat, and calories. After I got Lyme disease, these foods were inflammatory, something else I didn’t need. I got used to not eating any sweets and didn’t miss sugar much at all. I did miss baking. Baking and cooking are two entirely separate universes. Cooking has to be done, and isn’t always a pleasure. Baking is an extra, something done out of love.
Baking was the first thing I wanted to do in the kitchen. When I grew up, my mom baked every Saturday afternoon while she listened to the Metropolitan Opera live on the radio. She turned out many, many treats over the years: chocolate oatmeal cookies (my dad’s favorite), oatmeal raisin cookies, snickerdoodles, peanut butter cookies (I liked to dip the fork in flour and make the criss-cross lines on top), iced pumpkin spice cookies, applesauce cake, brownies, pies, spice cake, and my favorite, her cherry cheesecake. The list was deep and rotated throughout the seasons (strawberry shortcake was the shortest—a few brief weeks in late May to early June).
Whoever helped her in the kitchen got the privilege of licking the beaters. I loved to watch her bake. As a scientist, she was well-versed in following recipes exactly. She taught me to sift flour and level off the measuring cup with a knife. I learned to measure fats like Crisco using water (fyi: for 1/3 c fat, fill the cup to 2/3 water, add fat until submerged and water is at 1 cup). I learned how to cut in butter and cold water for an extra flaky pie crust. I learned to cream sugar and butter, add the eggs one at a time, then the flour, and last, stir in the chocolate chips, oatmeal and nuts. My interest until twelve or thirteen was strictly mercenary. I wanted to be the one to lick the beaters and I got to spend time alone with mom. At thirteen, I decided I was going to bake all the birthday cakes. Mark and Mike both loved German Chocolate cake, so that was the first cake I learned to make well. Soon I could make caramel cake, pineapple upside down cake, and all of the easy ones, like chocolate cake. Next, I tackled breads. By age fourteen, I was in charge of making the Parker House crescent rolls for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. I learned to make sourdough bread and mom’s yeasty cinnamon rolls.
Somehow, I didn’t get around to learning to actually cook meals. At college, I made do with scrambled eggs, baked potatoes, and ramen soup. I continued to bake, though. I’ve got a scar on my inside left forearm from a carrot cake incident. It wasn’t a total loss, because I saved the carrot cake. I started learning to cook real food my junior year of college: spaghetti and meatballs, pot roast, and casseroles
Oh, I had some disasters. Custard pies were particularly difficult. While learning to make lemon meringue pie, I made one where the lemon filling was loose and wobbly. Dad joked about it while we were at a Shell banquet celebrating his department’s discovery in Alaska. It was a big night at the Houston Marriott with at least sixty or seventy people there. I was so proud to sit with Mom and see dad called up to speak. He denies this, but he compared my pie filling to the texture of the oil they found in Alaska. I was not amused, although everyone else found his comparison funny. I did master the filling after that, if only to prove him wrong.
I baked fairly regularly for the next 25 years, until I developed intolerances to gluten and dairy after my eleventh surgery. After that I didn’t bake at all. Well, the pandemic and Bob’s Red Mill changed all of that. Katie and I found a bag of Bob’s Red Mill 1 to 1 flour substitute and decided to try a little baking during week three of the great isolation. Thanks to some help from one of our superb medical dispensaries, I baked a batch of cookies that tasted great. I haven’t stopped since. I’ve made shortcakes, carrot cake, and more cookies. Now I know why I quit baking. I have no willpower to resist. However, extraordinary times require extraordinary measures. I am comforted by baking, going back to a time when everything was made better by a fresh batch of cookies straight from the oven.
It’s no wonder we’re all rediscovering the joys of sewing, baking, gardening, and other homey pastimes. We don’t know what the future holds, other than hard times. If we have a shortage of supplies, like sugar, eggs, or butter, I have cookbooks with war time recipes, using substitutes for eggs, butter, and sugar. They were passed down from my great-grandmother, grandmother, and mother, and now to me. That in itself is comforting, a reminder that there are many things that can be done even in the worst of times to help cope with uncertainty and fear. Just the smell of cookies baking grounds me.
Of course, I shouldn’t eat most of these treats. Sugar and refined foods stir up my autoimmune issues with Lyme disease. But I have no where to go, nothing that has to be done. I spend my days writing, cleaning, gardening, learning Spanish, and cooking. Fortunately for me, I love doing all of them. Have I put on a few pounds? Maybe. Does it really matter right now? Not at all.