Seasonal Baking

Baking, like cooking in general, is very much dependent on availability and quality of ingredients. And baking seasonally will not only guarantee the highest quality bakes, but also ensure that your creations are warmly received by their intended audience. There are a rare few that enjoy pumpkin pie at any other time than November. Gingerbread cut-outs just don’t make sense in May. And who eats strawberry shortcake in February? Well, I would. It’s one of my all-time favorites. Especially with a baking-powder biscuit and vanilla freshly-whipped cream. Only fresh strawberries, of course, but if you must use frozen, try adding a little mint or basil to the frozen berries as they thaw…sorry, I digress.

Autumn is the kick-off to a long season of great baking opportunities. The weather cools, so you can turn on the oven without sweating out the whole house. People like eating soups and stews, so you can get bread and rolls going into overtime. Fall is one of the few times of year I like raisins, especially when mixed into Barmbrack, an Irish tea loaf for Halloween that is positively filled with them. And the apples! And the pumpkins & squash! Thanksgiving pie! But really, Fall is just a warm-up to the high season of baking: Winter. Winter holidays are centered around baking, from Christmas gingerbread, bûche de noël, and fruitcake to Hanukkah’s sufganiyot donuts, challah, and even kugel. Flavors deepen and get spicier, textures become rich and heavy, and there never seems to be enough room in my stomach.

I love baking in the fall and winter, especially as families gather to share in the warmth of fireplaces and afghan blankets. Curling up with a freshly-baked cookie, a hot mug of tea, and my three-year-old to watch Room on the Broom is the height of bliss. Cinnamon toast made from freshly-baked bread after a long afternoon outside prepping the garden for winter tastes divine. And tucking into a flaky apple pie after dinner while family members set up euchre games, while drinking cups of tea or drams of smoky Scottish whisky, could be the culmination of the perfect evening. Imagine that slice of apple pie with a boozy bourbon caramel sauce. Don’t you just feel cozy now?

Break out the plaid scarves and puffy vests, the pie pans and cookie cutters. It’s time for Fall baking!

Baking Therapy

I am not a therapist. I have never been trained in psychology, psychiatry, social work, or counseling. I have never been on a meditation retreat, and have only done yoga once, when I used it for a physical education credit towards my college degree. I know very little about mindfulness. But I watch a lot of Sesame Street and Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, so I understand the value of taking a beat to calm down.

“When you feel so mad, that you want to roar, take a deep breath. And count to four…”

The news in the last two years has been disheartening, to say the least. No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, except if you’re on the extremes, the amount of tension, anger, and violent confrontation is saddening. Everyone talks to each other as if they are living in the comments section of Twitter at 3am. Listening is an activity for the weak; the strong shout over each other to compete for dominance. I find myself struggling to reconcile the progress we had made with the increased injustice currently occurring. Backlash is always inevitable; the intensity and length of the backlash varies. And I think this backlash is giving us all mental, emotional, and even physical whiplash.

One of the reasons I started baking more is that I needed a release. I tried coloring books, knitting, exercising, and crafting. I tried reading, binging tv, mindful moments of calm. Nothing got me out of my own head or could dull the stress of living in 2017 & 2018. Except for baking. The sensation of working with dough, and watching disparate ingredients come together to make something silky, smooth, warm, and nourishing, gave me hope and joy. Bringing finished treats to friends and family, seeing their smiles and giving them a moment of sweetness, that helped me cope with anxiety. Even now, when I feel low, I know that flour, butter, and sugar await. If I can just find my way to my apron and kitchen counter, I can relax for a bit.

Does my baking make the world a better place? Probably not. Should I be spending time elsewhere, fighting on the front lines for the causes I believe in? Sure, you could argue that. Baking manchets on a Thursday morning doesn’t change the fact that people seem to hate each other more openly and horrifyingly than ever in my lifetime. Oatmeal Banana Peanut Butter cookie bites won’t suddenly end discrimination or injustice. But if baking makes me feel warm and toasty inside, maybe I can bring that warmth to others. And maybe that warmth and genuine hospitality will spread to neighbors and friends, even if for a moment. And maybe breaking bread together can pause the animosity for a meal. We need to meet this historical moment with forgiveness, love, warmth, and compassion. Warm, slightly sweet yeast rolls will help, right?

The Oopsie

One of the biggest divisions between baking and cooking is improvisation. Many chefs & cooks complain that they don’t like to bake because the recipes are too rigid, and improvisation is limited to nonexistent. Cooking allows for constant adjustment – seasoning, temperature, ingredients – whereas baking does not. In some ways, this is true. Bread is only going to rise if you have a rising agent (or a chemical reaction engineered to create rise) and some kind of flour to hold the structure of the bread as the gas expands. Too much fat, and the bread will be too heavy. Too much raising agent and the bread will blow out and become a stringy mess. Too much kneading and the gluten tightens up too much, making the bread heavy and flat. Not enough kneading and the gluten doesn’t stretch to allow gas bubbles to raise the bread. Too much butter in your frosting will cause it to split and curdle; not enough will make the buttercream too liquid to spread and shape. And in most cases, once you commit to putting something in the oven, you cannot adjust for mistakes. Baking is careful, measured, and recipe dependent. Baking is literally chemistry. And chemistry is finicky.

I love baking because it is chemistry. I love the idea that the baking soda and acid you used to make your fourth grade science fair volcano is also what makes cookies puff up. I love that byproduct of wild microorganisms eating sugar is carbon dioxide, which gives bread its rise and delicious crumb full of holes. But sometimes that chemistry seems to ensure that mistakes can and will be made. And sometimes one wrong step can ruin an entire recipe. I hate wasting food, and ingredients, but sometimes it can’t be helped. There are issues of safety when working with eggs and raw dough. There are issues of edibility when flavors are wrong or the wrong ingredient was used (salt for sugar, anyone?). The more I bake, the more I learn to anticipate and prepare for problems to avoid incontrovertible mistakes. But sometimes, there is nothing to be done.

Right now, I’m waiting to see if some challah dough is going to work out, as I accidentally added a stick of butter to the already egged and oiled dough when my eyes skipped over from the challah instructions to a panettone recipe. Oopsie! So far, it seems to be rising, but we’ll see. I’ll only know if it works or fails once it begins to bake. You can have happy accidents in baking, just like in cooking. They’re just a lot more rare because you can’t change it once it has happened. There is no adding salt or acid, to sweetening or diluting flavor once something is cooked. You can’t just throw the cake back in the oven for a bit and hope it comes together. Once a mistake is made, you have a choice. Lean in and hope for the best, or throw it out and start again. Fingers crossed, after leaning into this challah-butter mistake, something at least edible emerges. So tonight, it’ll either be this amazing brioche/challah hybrid, or an oily hockey puck. Fingers crossed for deliciousness…