There are two common responses I get from career cooks when I start talking about baking. It’s either “Bakers are fucking useless and can’t doshit without a recipe book in front of them” or “Bakers are mad scientists and just the idea of baking terrifies me. It’s so precise that anything could fuck anything up.”
They are both right and both wrong because cooking and baking require different mindsets. Being able to do both is not just a matter of skill, it’s a matter of being able to switch between two different sets of priorities and relationships with time. As for “always needing a recipe book…” I humbly suggest that baking recipes can be done on the fly if you know which rules to follow and which to break. Once you know the right ratios, you can whip up a dough, bread, or filling from memory, but I’ll thank you not to disrespect our sacred grimoires, thank you.
Talk of wizardry and alchemy aside, though, what makes baking so scary?
Last week I brought up the ins and outs of “secret” recipes- why we have them, why we might not, and how to keep recipes safe behind the law.
In writing it, I said that I am generally happy to share my recipes for a number of reasons- but that I won’t share some recipes for sentimental reasons. When I said that, I was thinking of one of my recipes in particular.
It’s a recipe that very few people outside my family know, one that I have been tweaking and trying to perfect for several years, and this is the story of why I decided I was gonna hold it close to my chest from now on.
The other day, one of my bakers and I were chatting while putting together some savory pies. I’d been filling and crimping Spinach Feta Pasties, and she was filling up crusts with Lemon Chicken. In short, it was the exact type of repetitive work that lets your mind wander while your hands move. It can be dull, but also meditative.
My baker had graduated from culinary school two years before. She’d worked at a couple places, but the environments and cultures there had left a bad taste in her mouth. She loved baking though and was dedicated to figuring out a way forward in her career. We discussed why we loved this field, and- most importantly- our attitudes toward working in general.
“I go to pieces if I don’t have work or something to do. Not that I’ll ever be able to retire, but I have a feeling that even if I was I’d wind up only being semi-retired and working until the day I died. I just need to work.”
“People need passion in order to work in fields like this.” my baker continued. “If you don’t have passion for the work, you won’t be able to get out of bed to do it.”
“Yep- and what’s more, you need to have the right attitude toward that passion as well,” I said, crimping away at my pasties. “I don’t think of myself as an artist doing this, you know. I’m a craftsman, and this is my craft. There’s a craft of baking, and the craft of living as a baker.” She froze and looked at me a moment then said, “Wait, go back… what do you mean the craft of living?”
We’ve been short-handed for a few months now, and a COVID scare has the whole cafe on a staggered schedule until everyone on staff gets a negative test. In practical terms, that means that I need to bake fresh pies for the case and the entirety of the next days wholesale in under five hours.
I’m dashing around the empty kitchen, checking three ovens and answering texts from my boss and fielding questions about the schedule from staff… until it clicks. I stop trying to do the work and do the work, the Ancient Baking Wisdom flowing for heart, to muscle, to fingers. I clock out and leave the next shift instructions about what’s available and when the wholesale will be done. I was in The Zone, and doing what I loved paid off.
The walk up Mount Tabor has become a familiar old friend, and like an old friend it has it’s own moods. Normally, when I go walking through the park, it’s with an audiobook in my ears. The walk is for the fresh air and exercise, the book for entertainment and distraction- especially if I’m in a foul mood and need to clear my mind.
That was the case this afternoon as I decided I needed to get out of the house and write this blog, but not go to a bar or cafe. Money has been tight lately, so I need to find other spaces to be creative in. The weather is perfect, and the park is free. Walking up to the top of a little hill near the summit, I have an Earthsea book in my ears. The breeze was blowing, kindly cooling me under the heat of the sun.
In my meditation lately, I’ve been trying to build on focus and mindfulness- being in each moment, and appreciating where I am and what I’m doing. As I walked, I pulled the headphones from my ears.
A deep breath. A quiet moment between heartbeats. The smell of warm cedar, and someone practicing a bamboo flute nearby. Distant traffic. Bird song.
I kick aside a few fir cones, lay down my blanket, and start to feel everything.