Saturday, June 17, 2017

Why Do You Bake?

"Why do you bake"- This was the question posed to me by my high school friend's nine year old son. He was scarfing down brownies and lemon bars at my kitchen counter and had just informed me that I should open a bakery. Did I mention that he's a great kid? ;)

I bake because it is fun- like an experiment, and then you get to eat the results, is what I told him. Baking and cooking certainly is fun, but it is much more than that. It is a simple way to spread some cheer, contribute to the community, nourish relationships and share the love.

Recently, baking triggered a big wave of nostalgia. Over Memorial Day weekend, I hosted a mini reunion with two of my best high school buddies and their families. Some of our most vivid high school memories are of getting together in my parents' kitchen and baking a cake, specifically, a marble cake with swirls of vanilla and chocolate cake which was our family go-to cake recipe. It was a "true pound cake", as in, the recipe was similar to the original way pound cakes were made, using a pound each of flour, sugar, butter and eggs.

Baking certainly wasn't a traditional activity in Indian home kitchens at the time we were growing up. But my parents loved baking cakes now and then, using a big plug-in countertop oven which had been a wedding gift and an electric hand mixer which my grandparents brought back from a trip to Singapore.

I described the making of the cake in this blog post nearly a decade ago: "Equal weights of eggs, butter (usually home-churned), sugar (powdered in the mixie) and flour (sifted with baking powder) were set out. Ritually, butter and sugar were creamed together with some vanilla essence. Beaten eggs and flour were added in tandem, a little at a time, until a thick and creamy batter emerged. The batter would get divided into two parts. One part got tutti frutti and chopped walnuts stirred into it, and the other got a few spoonfuls of cocoa powder. The two batters were dropped in random clumps into a cake pan lined with newspaper, and after a hour of baking, a random marbled cake emerged, with swirls of pale yellow and dark brown. Occasionally, the birthday girl would request a more colorful cake, and then the batter would get divided into four, and two portions would get pink or green food coloring to result in a beautifully ribboned cake with swirls of pastel colors."


Well, this was the marble cake that we would make as teenagers. I use the term "we" loosely. The gal pals would sit around and yak steadily while I hustled to make the cake, then they gamely ate up half the batter in the name of tasting it even before it went into the oven. The resulting cake would be demolished in minutes in the way that only teenagers can devour food.

So when my girlfriends showed up, it made perfect sense to welcome them with a freshly baked marbled cake, for old times' sake. While I loved the "true pound cake" recipe back then, I no longer use those proportions to make cake- the equal weights of ingredients is way sweeter and greasier than it needs to be. Instead I used this recipe for marble cake from The Kitchn. A few notes on the recipe: I skipped the ganache frosting- it just isn't necessary. And I made the cake by hand- an electric mixer isn't needed. Instead of the buttermilk, it is fine to use a mixture of yogurt and milk.

The marbled cake turned out beautifully. The vanilla part was soft and vanilla-scented and the chocolate part was nice and chocolatey. In keeping with historic tradition, we polished off the entire cake in one evening; the last crumbs were eaten as we played poker late into the night...

That memorable Memorial day weekend marked the beginning of summer 2017, and the end of Lila's first year of public school; it was a busy and wonderful one and she seemed to thrive in her school. Some of her favorite times in school involved what they call the "specials"- Art, Music and Physical Education. Have you ever seen a bumper sticker that says, "It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the air force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber." Yes, well, until that great day arrives, parents in our school have to work very hard to raise funds for these specials, for field trips, enrichment activities and teacher appreciation events that aren't covered by the regular school budget.

I rarely attended PTA meetings this year, but I tried to be a good worker bee and signed up to do simple, tangible tasks- like serving salad at the spaghetti dinner and reading a book aloud in the classroom on Dr. Seuss day. My interest in cooking came in handy when we were asked to contribute items to a silent auction fundraiser. I offered a three hour Indian cooking class- and to my relief someone bought it. It was great fun and something I would certainly offer again.

For the end of school teacher luncheon, I signed up to bring dessert and made these lemon bars. The recipe is a keeper- really easy and really fun to make. It makes a large batch and the bars freeze beautifully. A couple of notes on the recipe: you can cut down the sugar if you wish. And by far the best way to cut butter into flour for the shortbread crust is to freeze the sticks of butter and grate them into the flour.


Lila felt bad that the teachers got lemon bars but the bus driver didn't get any, so she talked me into making treats for the bus driver. Together we made another batch of the lemon bars, and while we were at it, also made a double batch of brownies. My go-to brownie recipe is the one for Alice Medrich's cocoa brownies, featured here on Smitten Kitchen. A double recipe fits nicely in a 9 x 13 pan. Half the lemon bars and brownies were packaged up with a thank you note for our very nice bus driver, and the other half went into the freezer for the aforementioned Memorial weekend reunion.

So there you have it- three baked goodies- marble cake, lemon bars and brownies- that are all easy to make, made with simple pantry ingredients, all freezer-friendly and great to share as treats. Happy baking, friends!

Tell me- why do you bake? :)

28 comments:

  1. Hi Nupur,

    The marbled cake looks delicious! Thank you for these recipes.

    I started baking only after moving to America, couple of decades ago. I've baked things like brownies, muffins, breads, and simple cakes. I'm yet to try lemon bars. It is fun to bake and enjoy the results. It's good that in baking, one doesn't have to approximate the measurements, and so the results would mostly be edible. :)

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    1. Agreed, Leena, if you find a reliable recipe, chances are high that it will turn out as expected. Lemon bars are wonderful in Spring and Summer with that fresh tangy taste.

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  2. So sweet of Lila to think of the bus driver!

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    1. Yes! We all liked the bus driver very much, a kind gentleman who always took time to wave and smile at our baby who would greet the bus with whoops of joy.

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  3. Lovely post Nupur, I love to bake (eggless) as my kids enjoy it too, the aroma of fresh bread is unbeatable-:)

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    1. Yes, the aroma of bread is the best perfume in the world.

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  4. Such a sweet post. Growing up, I was one of the few kids whose moms made really good cakes at home, with the similar smallish oven you mentioned. And marble cake used to be a favorite. Though I used to beg my mom to have more of the chocolate part than vanilla in the cake :)
    I do love baking and bake because baking therapeutic. Now that I think of it, I have always baked something when I have been stressed out and it always calms me down. Maybe it is the combination of not using your own mind much (since you mostly follow a recipe), the mixing and beating and the fact that one gets to eat sugar in the end!lol. I am not much into cooking per se because I absolutely dislike standing near the stove, but the oven is something I love using.

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    1. Agreed, Neha, baking is very therapeutic. For me, a bit more therapeutic than cooking because cooking is generally for sustenance and baking is out of choice, to make treats.

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  5. I ask myself why I bake all the time. Because I do it VERY often and then end up with lots of treats. That used to never be a problem, but now everyone around me (my neighbors, workmates, friends and their kid) is on some kind of diet (I live in so cal) or has discovered an allergy to Dairy, gluten or sugar. It is just depressing ;-). Maybe I can borrow your nine year old friend from time to time LOL! In the meantime I just keep baking because it is therapeutic for me - measuring ingredients, mixing it up, trying new things, the warm oven, the wonderful smells....it's all good. And then when someone enjoys what I made......my heart feels like a molten lava cake 😋
    Prashanti

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    1. Prashanti- I too have dramatically reduced how much I bake- these occasions that I mentioned in the post are rare ones these days. Still, my workplace is a reliable place to get rid of any and all unwanted treats ;) They disappear once they are placed in the common kitchen.

      I went "aww" at the molten lava cake of your heart :) :)

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  6. Great post Nupur. Baking was non-existent in my mom's kitchen in a small town in India and my only exposure to cakes was birthday cakes that came from the bakery. I started baking after my advent to Canada 4 years ago and I am totally smitten by the whole experience - it is therapeutic. I too bake to share mostly and to see my 7 year old smile and jump whenever I bake. Even though i get deterred by the amount of sugar and butter that goes into baking, I am so glad my home baked stuff does not have tough to spell and pronounce ingredients and chemicals and the scariest of them all - high fructose corn syrup! - Mansi

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    1. There's something about kids and baking, isn't it, Mansi. Such a fun parent-child activity. My preferred way of dealing with the excessive sugar and butter is to cut the baked goodies into small bite size portions and distribute them far and wide.

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  7. On a side note, i find your idea of freezing half the brownies and lemon bars awesome. Can you please elaborate on how do you freeze them (using a ziploc bag/ container?) and how to do you thaw/ defrost them? Thanks a lot! Mansi

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    1. Mansi- I always use ziploc (or other brand) plastic containers- the ones which can be tightly closed and used again and again. I cool the baked goods, cut into pieces, then place a layer in the box, top with a piece of parchment paper, another layer of baked goods and so on. That's it. Store in freezer and serve directly from there- it will thaw in minutes on the counter. For some cakes and brownies, if you like them warm, put in microwave for a few seconds. They will taste absolutely freshly baked- promise.

      I will add that I store these things for days and weeks at most, not for more than a couple of months at the most.

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  8. What a lovely read Nupur. I rarely bake or make any recipes that require precise measurements and techniques. I enjoy stove top, open pot cooking where I can easily control the results.

    My mom was a non traditional cook for her times where every time her sambar, rasam or her curries would taste slightly different but awesome. I think I am like her too.

    Best,
    SS

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    1. SS- Your mom sounds awesome :) I too can't seem to keep from tinkering with recipes. I tinker with baking recipes too, but yes, on the whole they do require more precision than cooking.

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  9. Hi Nupur!
    It's been such a long time since I left a comment on your blog, but your question (and your answer) made me do it. I bake for the same reason as you do - it's fun and to me, it's like an experiment that I would do in lab, but with the difference that one can eat the results! What a fun experiment that is :) I like that measurements, temperatures, reaction volume etc are very precise unlike cooking (at least to me). I managed to overcome my fear of cooking through baking too. And finally, I have a sweet tooth, so I bake to feed myself (and family/friends) and my fantasies! I inherited my mum's stand mixer (my sister actually brought it all the way from Calcutta), so I'm enjoying that at the moment. Good times :)

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    1. Shoots- hello!! I need to write you a long e-mail one of these days. I love what you said about baking to feed your fantasies :) And truly it is a great way to bring friends together. How fun that you have a new stand mixer!!

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  10. Besides eating the baked goodie, the way the house smells during and after baking is mmmmm mmmmm good:) I also love to turn on the oven light from time to time and see the muffin/cake rise beautifully to golden perfection (also to check if it ain't burning;-) Growing up, we didn't have an oven, but my mom would make amazing cakes with the old-style stovetop cake mold where you bake real slowly with sand underneath. - Rashmi

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    1. Rashmi- So true, baking aromas make a house smell like home. And LOL at the fun of watching a cake rise. Oh my, I have heard of the sand-baking technique but have never seen it in action myself. Good for your mom!

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  11. Bless you and yours Nupur. Lovely post

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    1. Thank you dear Shubha- hugs to you!

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  12. Love your blog Nupur :)

    I started baking with my daughter when she was around 2. She has always been my little helper :) And the aroma that fills the house when we bake is amazing...not sure any candle can match it.

    Would love to try the lemon bars soon... thank you for sharing.

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  13. Love this post, Nupur. I find baking so much more enjoyable than cooking. The measurements are precise, the steps are structured and more often than not the results are delicious. In our family so many baked creations have become family favorites and part of our traditions. My daughter requests the same lemon tart every year for Thanksgiving (non-traditional but balances all the other heavy dishes), I bake either a tres leches or a cheesecake for my husband's birthday using the same recipes I've used now for years. Most close friends expect (demand) I bring sticky toffee pudding for our potlucks. My mother-in-law loves the lemon pound cake I bake so I make it a point to bake it whenever they visit and banana bread is a monthly staple. I baked a blueberry pie last year with blueberries we had just picked that day and I expect this to become an annual tradition too, it was that good. My daughter is now 8 and loves helping me when I bake. We recently conquered making macarons from scratch and she created a school project out of the experience. I especially love when family and friends ask me for tried and tested recipes and they get to make and enjoy the rewards of the baking experience too. I'm so glad living in the US has opened up this world of baking for me. My mom is a phenomenal cook but we never baked at home growing up.
    I am more than making up for lost time now. I bake because I love the process. I don't have a sweet tooth but, I enjoy the things we make at home. A cup of black coffee and a slice of something homemade, is there anything better?

    -Anu

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  14. I bake because I love fresh bread! I also love that baking connects me to people in so many ways...using time-tested recipes from friends and family, and sharing baked goods with other people. I especially love baking for people with dietary restrictions (gluten-free, vegan, etc.) because it is a creative challenge and a surprise when someone has made something just for them.

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  15. I loved this post, Nupur! Lila is such a sweet, sensitive girl. I didn't grow up in a family that baked at home but when I lived alone and later with my husband, we found that baking was one of the things that brought us closer together- my husband is a precise worker bee in the kitchen- he likes measuring things, having ingredients to the T etc, I'm the throw-everything-into-the-pressure-cooker kind of cook- I feel baking allows both of us to indulge our true selves. Though, my husband is a better baker than I' am. While we are not much of sweet tooth, the banana breads, ginger-carrot cake and vanilla muffins have become part of our regular repertoire and easy snacks to whip up for our toddler too. :)

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  16. Hmm.. why DO I bake?

    - Because I like cakes and cookies and want to believe that if I make them I will eat less because I see how much butter went in!
    - Because it made my kids appreciate cake more than frosting
    - Because I always have a popular potluck contribution on hand
    - Because I love the chemistry that turns a blob of butter, sugar, flour, eggs and bits and bobs into deliciousness

    But mainly I bake because when the kitchen smells of butter cookies, black forest cake, or cheese scones, I feel my mother in the kitchen with me. We grew up eating home made baked goods including pizza and bread made on a stovetop ring that sat on sand in the 80s and 90s when it was rare to bake in Indian kitchens.

    When I turn the pages of her recipe book, I feel her presence with me in the kitchen.

    My mother had two skills the legacy of which I wanted to carry on -making clothes and baking. The first I am yet to embark on - the second I love to do.

    So really, I bake to keep my mother’s memory alive.

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  17. Hi Nupur, I haven't checked in here in awhile, but I found myself thinking back on our swapping garden produce for cooked food -- wish we still lived in the same city!

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Thank you for taking the time to say hello!