Pillbox

On Baking

When I tell people I like to bake cakes, it makes me laugh how often they assume that passion extends to cooking.

Cooking is actually among my worst nightmares. I don't like to have any part in the creation of savory, mouth-watering delights — only the consumption. I'm far too impatient, too poor at multitasking, and even worse at time management. I'd rather lie in bed just up until dinner is ready, then sit down and massacre my plate.

All of the reasons I hate to cook make baking such a delight for me.

Cooking is a scary forest where you have to machete your way to safety. Baking is a three-lane highway.

Cooking requires multiple processes to co-occur. Baking only asks that you can follow the recipe a step at a time.

Cooking produces food I desperately want to eat, making the waiting unbearable. But I've never had a sweet tooth, so I can revel in the process without slobbering over the end result.

From butter and sugar to a polished, frosted, and occasionally even filled cake, each step is a delight. In fact, the butter and sugar step is the biggest delight of all. As much as those fun-sucking nutritionists try to vilify butter and sugar, they are the essence of flavor. No finished baked good will ever excite me as much as their union. And this is the basis for every cake (that isn't an angel food or sponge cake). Not only is there comfort in the smell that fills the whole room while my mixer works to smash the butter and sugar into a light yellow cream from heaven, there is also much comfort in this consistency. No matter what, if I want to make a cake, I start in this place. This wonderful, intoxicating place.

And while the measurements and individual ingredients can change from cake to cake, I know that right after this I will add eggs and vanilla extract. And to bring it all together, the mix of dry ingredients, like flour and baking soda and salt, go in alternating thirds with halves of the liquid, like milk, buttermilk, water, or even sour cream. (It also makes me laugh when people realize there can be sour cream in cakes. Sometimes they're surprised, like sour cream shouldn't be there, but it does wonders for a rich, moist cake.)

Then while the cake is in the oven, I have a perfectly carved out period of time to make the frosting. I've perfected a buttercream base that never fails. Cream the butter with the vanilla, add powdered sugar back and forth with milk until the frosting is shiny, but doesn't run off a spatula held straight up and down. The road map is so easy, like a route I've driven a hundred times — except I sing even louder in the kitchen than I do in the car, with room to actually dance!

Because I'm so comfortable, even enthralled by the process, I can be more comfortable pushing the boundaries. A basic vanilla cake with vanilla frosting is too boring; the fun is in the flavor, and there are so many ways to create it. In my arsenal, I have fruit, zest, juice, jam, powders, extracts, creams, liqueurs, and more. Then I get to find combinations of all of those flavors that taste delicious, but also don't screw up the texture. It's a balancing act, and I'm pulling the strings.

And in the end, I get to decorate it. It doesn't have to be perfect, but the time I spend with a piping bag, deciding on a round versus star tip, then getting the swirl just right, it's so satisfying. Little tricks I've picked up over the years that look so fancy but aren't that hard.

All of this leads up to the most exciting part of all — feeding people I care about. Getting to see my cake bring joy to others brings me more joy than any cake ever could.