I’ve come to know these things about love: You don’t know what it is until it grabs you by the throat and knocks you to the ground; and you don’t truly believe you’re getting it back until that certain someone loves you in all the ways you are: good, bad, weird, funny, fun, neither, acceptable, unacceptable (to everyone except the one who loves you), good at baking, or not.
Today I made some really sad muffins. They’re not high or fluffy or whatever good muffins are. They’re dense and kind of squatty, and I didn’t do the batter/berries thing right cuz the berries are sticking out of the tops like trees instead of mixed in in all equal proportions and bubbling out in berry goodness. I also attempted a “strudel” topping (I know, I know… Hi, Dawn, it’s me, baking: stop it right now.), which ended up being more just little blobs of goo that careened to their deaths when I pulled the muffins from their little cocoons in the muffin pan, which really strike me as more suitable for something like eggs and cheese, cuz what is better than eggs and cheese? NOTHING.
But I made the sad muffins because of love. Because I met a man who accepts me in all the ways I can’t accept myself, and we got married, and he loves baked goods. Yes, there are a bunch of details in there I left out, but none of your business! Just kidding. But, really, let’s just get to the baking, and better yet, to the things we don’t do because we haven’t been throttled in one way or another by love or any other ass-kicker.
Here’s the truth. I hate doing things I’m not good at. I’m an obsessive perfectionist, and if I can’t be the best or damned near close to it at whatever the thing is, I make up some weird or not weird excuse to not do it. Cuz come on. It’s easier to just hate something violently and pretend it’s stupid than to practice and get better at it, am I right?
Anyway, baking was one of those things. Basketball is another, but let’s face it, I’m no LeBron, so if it ever comes up, you just go, “Who do I look like, LeBron?” End of conversation. Pass those olives. Baking’s harder to escape. It’s real, it’s everywhere, and it keeps coming around. Dinner parties. Work things. Holidays. Delicious treats after meals. There’s only so much putting off you can do before you’re like, OK, get your shit together. Dust off the mixer, find a few staple recipes, and stop with the hand-wringing. So I did. I found some one-pan wonders. They were good. I bought an ice cream maker, and I obsessed over that for a while. And I’m not gonna lie, it’s an easy crack that can land you right outta the park. Ice cream is a goddamned artisan crowd pleaser. But a) making ice cream isn’t baking; it’s freezing; b) it’s super easy but time consuming (i.e., no forgetting about the dessert course til 4:00 when the guests are due at 6:00); and c) I live where it’s cold nine months of the year, so there’s only so much mocha crunch your guests are gonna put up with in mid-January.
But amidst the obstacles, I hung on. I was loud and proud with my hating. I only pulled off a baked good under extreme duress, desperation, or lack of options. I pawned off the dessert part of the menu for every dinner party I could to my friend the fabulous baker, and pulled out the almond cake or fennel ice cream only when I had to. I wore my “I’m a cook, not a baker” badge with excellence and ferocity.
But then it happened. Cupid nailed me right in the ticker, and delivered unto me a tool belt-wearing, baked-goods-loving, all around great guy who deserves everything I’ve got. And just cuz, well, the universe, also… gluten free. Dear Dawn: welcome to Hell. Sincerely yours, the rest of your trying-to-bake life.
At first, before I hated baking cuz I hadn’t really tried it, I was all like, yeah, I can bake. How hard is it to make some chocolate chip cookies? Not hard. Is a chocolate cake rocket science? No, bitches, it’s like flour, sugar, eggs, and water. As a matter of fact, baking is like the menu at the Mexican restaurant. Every single thing contains the same four ingredients in different formats. Plus, I can cook. I can cook the shit out of whatever you wanna eat, so how hard can it be to transfer those skills?! Yeah, I can bake. Let’s have a bake off right now. [/glimpse into my pathology]
Fast forward to trying to bake stuff, and hahahahaha! WRONG. Baking recipes are written in code. “Don’t over mix!” “Don’t over bake.” “Cook until done.” Huh? Baking has rules you don’t and can’t know and that aren’t part of the instructions because baking is science. Not the cool fun kind of science where you shake your head and go, Yeah, the multiverse. Crazy, right?! Or, Wow, if you pour this in there, and then put it over a flame, it erupts like a volcano. Cool! I’m gonna go eat a bag of Nacho Cheese Doritos now and watch a rerun of The Jeffersons.
No. This is the kind of science where if you use the same bowl to make the meringue that you used to make the lemon filling, and you don’t wash the bowl in between (cuz why would you when it’s all going into the same PIE), the meringue doesn’t work because there’s some sort of chemical in the lemon goo that makes the meringue not do that puffy thing that makes meringue meringue. That kind of science. Fucking stupid science that makes you hate your life and feel like a failure and costs twenty-four dollars for the bakery lemon meringue pie for the fourth of July BBQ party.
So, I’ve been plugging away at baking for about a year now. I’ve got a few solid, go-to recipe books, about sixty-seven thousand bookmarked pages, and I’d say more than a few staples that are pretty damn good. I’ve even mastered a few different loaves of gluten free bread that actually taste like bread. Exhibit a = win.
I’ve learned some of what I can and a lot of what I can’t do because I’ve tried and failed. Yes. Failed. I know when I can break the rules, and when I can’t, but I don’t yet move around the kitchen when I’m baking in the same way I do when I’m cooking. I’m not as flowy, my rhythm is choppy, and my heart pounds more than sings.
But I like it. I like the simultaneous letting go while clinging tightly. I like the learning and growing part, and I like how it’s nudging me ever so closer to learning to accept the failures part. I like all the yeasty bread and cinnamony sugar smells. This year I gave some of what I baked as holiday presents, and the gift of that giving was all mine and one of the most rewarding I’ve ever gotten.
I’m opening up my kitchen to this new world of baking in the same way I’m learning to open up my heart and accept this love that keeps holding on to me and reminding me that failing is OK. Perfection is not a requirement. Practicing is living. And hands down what I like the most is when the first thing my husband says in the morning is, “Oooooh, yay, there’s muffins!” Even when they’re sad.