An Ode to Baking
I love baking. My Instagram is evidence of that, with its many pictures of scones, bagels, bread, and cakes. Judging by last year’s headlines about sourdough and the abundance of baking-themed social media hashtags and posts, baking is a pastime many people discovered (or re-discovered) during the pandemic. And why not? Baking has been a balm during these times of stress, anxiety, and uncertainty when we’ve all been stuck at home, looking for ways to keep busy.
Beyond providing a much needed distraction, why has baking struck a chord with so many? I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately and I’ve landed on many reasons, some pragmatic and some more rooted in feeling and emotion. These reasons are my own, but I think they will resonate with others who love to bake.
On the pragmatic side, there is the obvious: baking is a hobby that results in delicious food. Whether you spend an hour making oatmeal cookies or half a day making macarons or bagels, you will be rewarded with something tasty you can enjoy and share.
There’s also the chemistry of baking, which I find fascinating: the way acids react with other ingredients to add lift and lightness to cakes; how yeast blooms in the presence of sugar and water, ultimately creating the perfect crumb in a loaf of bread; the way cold butter steams inside scones or biscuits to help them rise; the Maillard reaction that gives bread and pies their golden crusts; the caramelization that browns cookies and enhances their aroma and taste.
All of those chemical reactions contribute to the sensory experience of baking, another factor in its appeal: the feel of kneading dough made elastic through the interplay of its ingredients; the sight of drizzling glaze or icing; the smell that indicates baking is done; and, of course, the taste of something fresh from the oven. It’s intense and very satisfying.
Baking is also gratifying, providing a sense of accomplishment in having made something yourself instead of buying it in a box at the grocery store. Not that there is anything wrong with store-bought. At all. Baking requires the luxury of time and an income that allows for sometimes pricey ingredients. And let’s be real: there are times when we all need shortcuts or recognize that we are not as capable of making a “showstopper” as a professional. But for those who do bake, there can be a payoff in that feeling of, “Hey, I did that.”
And then there are the emotional aspects of baking. For me, baking is a callback to my mother and grandmother. I never baked with my grandmother, but I remember her as both a wonderful cook and baker. (Her pies were legendary.) I recall the incredible birthday cakes my mom made and learning to bake cookies and other treats with her. The traditions established by my mom and grandmother did not result in an immediate impulse to take up baking when I left home. I hardly baked at all until I had kids, but the legacy was always with me, just waiting for the right moment to move from past to present.
That link to the past engenders another feeling that is hard to define. It’s not quite nostalgia, although there is some element of that. It’s more an appreciation of the “old-fashioned” way of doing things and the time and focus required. In our era of Instant Pots and air fryers, it feels good to spend time in the kitchen on a task that is anything but instant. All forms of cooking can elicit that sensation, but it is the slow and gentle pace of baking–from the tactile aspects of mixing, kneading, rolling, and shaping to the waiting and watching as dough rises then bakes–where I feel it most.
Baking soothes and nourishes in so many ways. I even find comfort in the tools I use: my perfectly seasoned wooden spoon, the mixing bowls that belonged to my husband’s grandfather, my mom’s old Tupperware measuring cups, and my trusty bench scraper.
Baking is the bomb (balm), truly.