I don’t write much about food, which seems odd, because it’s a huge part of my life.
It’s probably because it feels weird saying “food is a huge part of my life”. Isn’t food a huge part of everyone’s life? We all need to eat, so most of us spend a decent chunk of time procuring and preparing food, whether it’s ordering Chinese takeout, or making your own Peking Duck. But it’s true we all get different levels of enjoyment out of this process.
I love food, and I love cooking. I read recipe books for fun and daydream about new ingredients. Many of my favourite memories revolve around food – sitting at the kitchen bench, watching my Dad make curry and trying spicy mouthfuls of unfamiliar flavours. Being taught by my older sister to make béchamel sauce because she was tired of me constantly getting underfoot while she was making lasagna. Having summer birthday picnics and potlucks with friends. Trying out extravagant dishes on new dates (I like to think it was mostly impressive).
Spending time in the kitchen after a frustrating day at work relaxes me. I show love for my favourite people by making them food that I love. This means that I sometimes get disproportionately upset about an unexpectedly bad salad dressing, but generally the kitchen is a happy place.
But I’ve never been too sure about baking. Soups, stir-fries, sauces and salads are all things improved by experimentation. I think of recipes as a suggestion or a starting place, and improvise as the mood takes me. This works poorly when it comes to custard, sponge cake and sourdough.
My kitchen disasters revolve around dessert. Sunken cakes, split creme brûlées and seized chocolate haunt my dreams. All because I didn’t bother with precise measurements, temperatures or ingredient lists. To me, baking seems fussy – too much rote memorisation and not enough creativity. Plus, I’m pretty sure my oven runs really hot. If you’ve ever been to my place for dinner, you’ll know I usually outsource sweets.
But recently, I’ve been watching a lot of The Great British Bakeoff. It’s a reality show that does away with false drama between contestants, and focuses on baking challenges. Because really, who cares who’s shagging who when there’s 15 minutes before the eclairs have to be finished and Iain’s creme patissiere won’t set? It contains a mix of challenges – from basic recipes that form the basis of signature creations, to technical contests set by the judges – usually involving obscure pastries from the Balkans that no-one’s ever heard of.
Gradually – I’ve found myself wanting to get better at baking. It can’t be that hard to make a madeira cake if some tattooed bass player from Surrey can do it, I find myself thinking. It started to feel less like a drag, and more like a new challenge. Plus, I like science – why couldn’t I like baking? I just had to set aside enough time, and go slow.
I’ve made about four desserts in the last three months, which is a record for me. And there’s plans to make more. So far, it’s a weekend thing – if I’m going to measure everything or use a sugar thermometer, then I need a whole lot of time. I’ve made carrot cake, lemon yoghurt blueberry cake, dulce de leche brownies and last weekend I made Swedish cinnamon buns. This was the first time I worked with a yeasted dough that wasn’t a pizza crust, and you know what? It was super fun. Seeing that first batch of golden brown little scrolls out of the oven made me more excited about food than I’ve been in ages. I think I might be onto something here. Baked goods for all!